Seven Stages of Development for Veteran Serving Organizations Partnering with Affordable Housing
There are more than 45,000 military and veteran serving organizations (VSO) in the United States[i]. The American Legion (TAL) is one of the nation’s oldest and largest, with 2 million members and 13,000 posts nationwide. The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) is similar in age and scope, with 1.5 million members and 5,900 posts[ii].
Many TAL and VFW posts struggle with aging facilities along with declining membership and revenues. Their facilities may be unappealing or inaccessible to younger Veterans. Many were designed without accessible entrances, creating a barrier for the estimated 250,000 Veterans using wheelchairs today[iii].
18 million Americans, or 7% of the adult population were Veterans in 2018[iv]. The number of Veterans declined by one third between 2000 and 2018. The largest cohort of Veterans served in the Vietnam War, who have a median age of 75 in 2022.
A number of TAL and VFW posts could benefit from an infusion of new funding, updated facilities and a mission undertaking to attract younger Vets. A partnership with affordable housing could be an answer.
Blueprint for the Future of VSO Posts
A TAL Post and an affordable housing nonprofit developer in Arlington, Virginia have pioneered a new partnership that could be a blueprint for VSO’s across the nation. In 2022, American Legion Post 139 will open a new, fully accessible, modern, 6,000 square foot facility on the ground floor of a 160-unit affordable housing complex developed by the nonprofit Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing (APAH). Veterans will have a preference for leasing the units and APAH has helped to secure VASH vouchers to house and support Vets who have been homeless.
Post 139 selected APAH through a competitive process. APAH rezoned the 1.4-acre Post site to allow a seven-story, mixed use building. APAH assembled the complex financing to buy the Legion’s land and construct the new facility. APAH also conducted a fundraising campaign to fill a gap in the project budget. The project received a lead gift from Ron Terwilliger, a real estate developer, philanthropist and Veteran, plus a major gift from Amazon. The development leaves Post 139 with a new, debt-free facility (a condominium within the complex) and an endowment to fund programs and operations.
Post 139 was facing declining membership and major building needs. Post Commander Bob Romano estimated that the Post could not survive another five years. While they considered other options, the APAH proposal for affordable housing appealed due to the mission alignment. Post 139 selected APAH in 2016, for what ultimately became a six-year journey for rezoning, financing and construction of a new facility, delivered in 2022.
Veterans comprise an estimated 11% of the nation’s homeless population. About 40,000 vets are unsheltered on any given night. While this number has been decreasing with targeted programs, the dearth of affordable housing has contributed to this situation. [v]
With the new facility and endowment, the Post will be able to provide valued programs to Vets in the area. A high priority will be suicide prevention, as 20 Vets die every day from suicide. The Post has partnered with a nearby law school to provide free legal services for veterans and active-duty military serving in Arlington at the Pentagon or Fort Meyer/Henderson Hall. The new Post, designed by an interior designer who was herself a Veteran, is spacious, light-filled, and fully accessible.
A TAL or VFW post may possess underutilized real estate assets that could be repurposed to expand its mission, plus provide financial resources for updating and right-sizing meeting and support spaces. Done well, affordable housing development can allow a Post to grow mission, new energy and financial resources. While this is a new path for VSO’s, pioneered by Post 139, this option if familiar to other nonprofit property owners. Dozens of houses of worship have produced new affordable housing complexes around the country and hundreds more are considering this path. Below is a short list of the key steps to achieving a successful affordable housing partnership.
Seven Stages of Development
1. Discernment and Education—The first and most important step is for the Post to discern its calling. What does your community—both members and neighbors–most need? How could a new development supplement the Post’s mission?
During this period, the Post might create a Vision Committee to become educated about the community’s needs and challenges. Meet with local elected officials, nonprofit housing organizations and human services professionals. Read studies on veterans challenges and needs in the community. Invite inactive members and the community to visit the Post and help you discern where your land and buildings could be of service.
Prepare a Vision Statement through this discernment process—what is the ideal scenario in a redevelopment and what is the minimum necessary in order to proceed—as measured in money, mission outcomes and/or new facilities for the Post. You may regularly return to this Vision Statement as the project evolves.
2. Quick Feasibility and Appraisal—Contact an experienced, reliable, mission-minded affordable housing developer and ask them to conduct a no-cost, no-obligation Feasibility Study of your site’s zoning, massing options, market and financing capacity. If there aren’t any housing developers in your community, contact one of the national intermediary organizations, like Enterprise Community Partners or Local Initiatives Support Corporation for a referral. Can you fit a six-bedroom group house for formerly homeless veterans on your site? Or, if you replaced the aging Post, could a partner build a new first floor Post topped with 100 units of affordable housing? Where would funding come from? What steps are required for the proper zoning and permits?
Also, identify a commercial real estate broker and request a Broker Opinion of Value (BOV) for the market value of your property, both “as is” and as rezoned/redeveloped for the highest and best use for the site. If you don’t find a reliable or willing broker, you may need to pay for an appraisal. Seek an MAI certified appraiser referred by a major bank. At the end of the process, you may not obtain full market value of the property in a mission-minded redevelopment, but the Post should know upfront what its contribution will be in terms of discounted land value.
3. Build your Team: Internal and External—If the Post has identified its vision, and the initial feasibility study indicates a path to achieving that vision, then it is time to recruit a committed and experienced internal team to guide the multi-year real estate process. Ideally, the Development Committee includes persons skilled in real estate, finance, design, legal and construction. If you do not have those skills within the Post, think about recruiting pro bono, third party volunteers to join your committee–folks who are willing to volunteer their time for no compensation. If necessary, consider hiring professionals on a deferred compensation basis, with fees to be paid at closing of the project. However, be cautious about obligations that are open-ended and seek a Not To Exceed budget wherever possible.
With the help of your Committee, and possibly a consultant, conduct a Request for Proposals for an experienced Developer/Partner, including the organization that conducted the initial Feasibility Study. Ask bidders to outline the proposed structure, financing terms, timeline, payments expected to/from the Post and their development team, e.g. zoning attorney, architect, civil engineer, etc. Expect the process of interviewing, vetting and contracting with your proposed partner to take several months. Hire an experienced attorney to represent the Post in negotiating the terms of the development/partnership/sale agreement.
4. Secure approvals—The Developer/Partner should lead the effort to secure zoning/entitlement and financing approvals, with the Post prepared to support the process. The initial stages of securing approvals should ideally require no cash or collateral from the Post, although the Post should be prepared to sign a binding agreement—Joint Venture or Purchase and Sale Agreement—that commits the Post if the Developer secures the anticipated land use approvals. Most housing projects are funded with the Housing Tax Credit, which may require a competitive award, and sometimes takes a year or more to secure.
This entire approvals stage is highly risky—the zoning approvals could result in less density than anticipated, the financing awards could be smaller than projected, interest rates and construction costs could rise. Your Developer/Partner should carry the bulk (or preferably all) of the risk at this stage—aligning the risk with the terms of their proposal, their execution ability and their anticipated fee at closing. As owner of the underlying real estate, the Post should both be prepared to adapt as circumstances change, but also have the opportunity to terminate the agreement if the project no longer meets your minimum expectations as identified in your Vision Statement. Good legal counsel can help the Post navigate this process and risk.
5. Design and Construction—Make sure your Development Committee stays involved throughout the design process, if the project involves the delivery of new facilities for the Post. Consider hiring your own architect and/or Interior Designer to design the new facilities in a way that best meets your current and future Post needs. The construction process can take up to three years. Be prepared for displacement and inconvenience for the Post. Identify a relocation plan and alternative facilities for the duration of construction.
6. Operations—The housing finance tools require sophisticated, long term compliance and oversight. Affordable housing financing typically requires strict compliance for at least thirty years. Your Developer/Partner should provide a property management team that is skilled in compliance, customer service and property maintenance. Identify who is responsible for maintaining the Post’s facilities and where responsibilities are shared with the housing provider.
Think ahead about services for residents: can the property serve veterans exclusively or have a veterans preference? Can it secure funding for veterans experiencing homelessness? Does the Post want to design and operate programs that serve veterans, both residents and in the community? Could the Veterans Administration operate an office or clinic at the Post? This could be an opportunity to grow the Post, both with new volunteers and with deepened mission commitment.
7. Celebrations: This is a very long journey, requiring four years or more. Plan to celebrate accomplishments at every stage. Don’t forget to thank everyone—neighbors, public officials, team members, and, ultimately, residents. Celebrate what you have built, who you are serving, how it nourishes the mission you serve and the men and women who served in our armed forces.
- Leadership patience—this is a long journey, not for the faint of heart. Recruit your key leaders, for a 5-year+ term. Persistence will be important in achieving your vision and protecting the Post’s assets.
- Set priorities—be clear about what makes the project viable for your Post. Differentiate “Must Have” from “Nice to Have”. The project will change over time, so be prepared for re-assessing these priorities.
- Limit your risk exposure—this is an expensive and complex process. Be sure you ask lots of questions, get good advisers, and align the risks with the development experts. Your agreements should ensure that your partner and team members are compensated based on successful outcomes.
- Enthusiasm—Keep pressing for your vision. Don’t lose hope amidst the tactical pressures. Keep prayer and faith a part of your development process.
This case study has been prepared by the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing (APAH), a non-profit, award-winning affordable housing organization based in Arlington, Virginia. In addition to Terwilliger Place, APAH has experience with numerous partners, including several faith organizations who have redeveloped their sites into affordable housing.
Carmen Romero, President and CEO, APAH, at email@example.com
Deb Burkart, National Vice President of Supportive Housing, LISC/NEF, firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Romano, Post 139 Commander, email@example.com