From Whack-a-Mole to Award Winning Affordable Housing Developer

Celebrating Fourteen Years of Growth

Surrounded by the partners that made it happen, Nina Janopaul and Carmen Romero, center, at the
Gilliam Place Grand Opening in 2019, one of the projects that contributed to APAH’s designation of a
Top 50 Affordable Housing Developer in 2020.

If Nina’s earliest days at APAH were a master class in crisis management, opportunities for growth and greater service to the community also began to emerge—and the key was planning.

“For me,” Nina recalled, “it was a big discovery that long range planning was such a powerful and flexible tool that could make it possible for APAH to do something really innovative.” Walking APAH’s Columbia Grove property in 2007 with an advisor, Nina speculated about how much additional affordable housing could be added to the sprawling garden apartment community. “I remember him saying, you know Nina, you can’t just do that, it’s only zoned for a few more units.” But the possibility stuck in Nina’s mind—there was land, and a high-rise next door, why couldn’t APAH find a way to build more to meet Arlington’s community need?

Though it had felt a little like ‘whack-a-mole’, APAH was working its way through some of the big financial challenges Nina faced when she arrived at APAH. “In those early years, it wasn’t at all about growth or adding to APAH’s portfolio. We were just focused on finding resources and solutions for five different properties in different kinds of distress.” But as the challenges began to ease, possibilities began to arise.

A few years later, it was Chris Zimmerman, then a member of the Arlington County Board, who urged Nina to connect with planning. He noted that Arlington was doing sector plans all the time and APAH should participate. Over one memorable conversation, Chris pointed out the proximity of APAH’s Carlin Springs property to the area where Harris Teeter and the Mercedes Benz repair shop were pursuing rezoning. “The process had been going on for three years,” Nina recalled, “but APAH jumped in the final year. I was so proud. Even though we came into the process late, we worked with the community and the others in the process—developing at least ten iterations of our plan until we reached agreement.” APAH’s project was the first to be built. The Springs Apartments were completed in 2016, bringing 104 beautiful, new, affordable apartments where there had been just 27, and a new first-floor office for the rapidly growing organization.

The success at The Springs was a watershed. “I began to realize that you can work with your community and together create a new, shared vision.” Over the years that followed, APAH repeated these complicated entitlement journeys over and over again. “When I reflect on APAH’s growth,” Nina commented, “I am really proud of that. It’s all about getting the right people on the team, presenting attractive building designs, displaying data about the dire need, sharing stories about neighbors being displaced, plus sitting in those little folding chairs with others in the community for hours and hours. I think our work was really groundbreaking. As we did it over and over again, we got really good at it. Our work with the long-range planning process has made affordable housing happen where there was no zoning path and no possibility before.”

Partnership has been as important to APAH’s growth as planning. Incoming CEO, Carmen Romero, points with pride to Gilliam Place, APAH’s collaboration with Arlington Presbyterian Church (APC). “There were so many times along the way that the answer was ‘no’, or ‘this is too hard’, or ‘too risky’,” Carmen recalled, “but we never gave up. APC was our partner and we really believed in what they wanted to do.”

The result is beautiful housing for 173 families. “But the multi-faceted project is also so much more,” Carmen noted. “It’s economic development and creating new businesses for entrepreneurs of color on the Pike through our partnership with La Cocina VA. It’s housing for young adults with autism and seeing a resident who cannot speak spell out on a video that living at Gilliam Place is like a dream. It’s having a place for APC’s congregation to worship and thrive. It’s beautiful, open, contemplative space for the neighborhood. It’s having Governor Northam come to the property and announce half a billion dollars in rent relief and then walk around the property and touch the stone on the building that we had preserved and brought back from the original church. I’m just so proud of what we achieved at Gilliam Place and how it inspires APAH and the community to imagine and realize truly amazing outcomes together.”

Over Gilliam Place’s seven-year journey, APAH’s tenacity was tested over and over again. “I look back and there were so many challenges,” Carmen recalled, “from surviving a $2 million flood near the end of construction, a fire at the church before demolition began, relocating and rebuilding a daycare center that could have been put out of business by the redevelopment, and getting a full-on ‘no’ from the National Capital Presbytery and coming back a year later to a standing ovation and a ‘yes’.

And we faced all of this without ever having an unkind word with our partner the entire time. “That’s what I am the most proud of—APAH’s resilience and commitment to honor their vision.”

That power of partnership continues to fuel APAH’s growth. “I love bringing people to Gilliam Place and see them get excited,” said Nina. “I remember bringing folks from American Legion Post 139, with whom APAH is now developing Terwilliger Place, and seeing them embrace that same spirit.” I think they saw what we did at Gilliam Place and said ’I want to work with a partner that is going to be here for me, a partner that is going to do the impossible to reach our vision’.”

“That same spirit of partnership is really with the community as well,” added Nina. “The community in Arlington said we’ve got this Affordable Housing Master Plan that says we need thousands more units, and APAH said, ‘OK, let’s step up and do that. And let’s not do it in a minor way. Let’s build 200-unit apartments. How can we work with our architects, and with financing tools to help our community meet its ambitious goals? When we opened Arlington Mill in 2015 we had a huge waiting list with 3,000 people on it. We knew that people needed affordable housing, and it didn’t make sense to do it halfway.”

It was that desire to serve, to really meet the growing need for affordable housing in Arlington and beyond, that fueled APAH’s decision in 2018 expand its work to other jurisdictions in the DMV. “As an organization, we have really honed our approach to planning and partnerships,” Nina noted, “and we want to bring those skills to other places. And we also want to keep learning and innovating. Now that APAH has projects in five jurisdictions, it has really widened our horizons. We can see that the world is not all one cookie cutter. Some places have a lot of public land, others have funding, but no land to spare; some places are focused on preservation, others want new construction. I think the expansion is helping APAH step into an even better version of itself—to be more nimble and innovative.”

As she prepares to step up as APAH’s new CEO, Carmen is in full agreement. “For me and for APAH’s Board, geographic expansion has always been ‘both/and’, and I think that’s wonderful. I think we are a better partner to Arlington by being regional as well. It opens up how we approach things, we see how other communities address problems, and are learning new tools and strategies.”