At the end of 2021, John Milliken will complete 10 years on the APAH Board of Directors. Appropriately, the long road to the redevelopment of Queens Court Apartments, where his involvement with APAH began, will finally and joyfully end with the property’s Grand Opening this summer. As we get ready to celebrate this new property, we also celebrate John.
The Power of Community
Perhaps it was his small-town childhood in 1950s Leesburg that began John Milliken’s lifelong appreciation for the power of community. “I walked home each day from kindergarten and if my mother wasn’t home, I had standing instructions to pick up the phone and say, ‘Mrs. Hough, do you know where my Mom is?’,” recalls John. Mrs. Hough was the town operator and she always knew exactly where his mother was and when she would be home. “It was the kind of town where a kid could wander freely. To this day, I can go down those Leesburg streets in my mind and tell you the names of the proprietors of each of the stores. Even as a child, I knew all of them and they knew me.”
Fortunately for Arlington, John’s Dad, Jack finally got tired of the commute from Leesburg to Washington—even though at the time it took just 45 minutes door to door and he didn’t hit a stop light until he arrived at Constitution Avenue!—and the family moved to the Buckingham neighborhood. After just a year at Washington-Lee, today Washington-Liberty High School, John’s father was transferred to the Netherlands, where John finished high school, but the family headed right back to Arlington when his tour was over and began to get involved in the community.
With John off to Haverford College, his mother, Herselle Milliken, dove into the passion of her youth, local politics. She became a legendary Democratic precinct captain in her Ashton Heights neighborhood. “Mother never had a driver’s license,” noted John, “so somebody, usually me, drove her to the grocery store. To shop with her was at least a two to three hour undertaking. She knew everybody in the Giant and if she didn’t know you, she would walk up to you and say, ‘Hi, I’m Herselle Milliken, I’m the local Democratic precinct representative, are you new to the neighborhood?’”
Setting a pattern of life-long service her son would emulate, Herselle went to Richmond as Delegate Jim Almand’s Chief Legislative Assistant, starting that job in her late 60s and serving for a decade. Former Governors Chuck Robb and Gerald Baliles, both revered her as the “collective mother of the General Assembly.” “Politics was her passion,” remembers John, “and she immersed herself in every single campaign from her first in 1969 to the day she died.”
A Political Career Begins
After graduating from Haverford where he studied history and government and imaging a future in politics,
John came home to attend law school at the University of Virginia. Back in Arlington in 1972, and starting his legal career, John quickly found himself chairing the local Democratic Party, which had “fallen into armed camps in the wake of the McGovern defeat. They were looking for somebody to run for chairman and I didn’t know enough to say ‘no’,” John remembers.
From the start, John shared Herselle’s talent for politics, service, and relationships. “He has an absolute gift for inspiring friendship and loyalty,” noted Congressman Don Beyer (D-VA), paying tribute to John as the recipient of Arlington’s 2017 Spirit of Community Award.
Ask John about his long list of leadership roles and achievements, and you will likely hear a daisy-chain of relationships each building on and connecting to the next.
As Arlington County party Chairman, John got to know Joe Fisher, who was on the Arlington County Board and was elected to Congress in 1974. “The night Joe was elected was extraordinary,” John remembers. “It was just after the debacle of Watergate. It was a great night nationally for Democrats, but for Joe to have knocked off the 22-year incumbent Republican was amazing. There was a level of exuberance that shut down Route 7.”
John became Joe’s Chief of Staff. Young and single, John soon became the honorary eighth of Joe and Peggy Fisher’s seven children. “I ate most of my meals, for four years, at the Fisher house. Joe and I made a commitment that both of us would be out in the district, attending community gatherings, together or separately, five nights out of seven.”
After four years on the Hill, John knew it was time to run for office himself and was elected to the Arlington County Board in 1980. “At the time, tenant issues were dominant and divided Arlingtonians as renters fought for the right for some role in the conversion of hundreds maybe thousands of rental apartments into condos.” Cecilia Cassidy, who led the tenant group in Arlington Village and later served with John on APAH’s Board, worked closely with John, “he was both empathetic and incredibly skilled,” she remembers. “When Arlington Village became the first limited equity tenant-owned co-op in Virginia, it was incredibly complex and equally contentious. John was instrumental.”
Beyond tenant issues, the thing that drove John’s interests during his ten years on the Board was shaping the development patterns in Arlington. “The previous era of the County Board (which included the service of APAH co-founder, Joe Wholey), set up the framework for Arlington development—shaping denser development around transportation hubs while maintaining residential neighborhoods. The challenge during my ten years on the Board was taking the framework and turning it into something real.”
During the pandemic, John has spent a lot of time walking his dog throughout Arlington, from the highly developed corridors to single family home neighborhoods. “What I’m proudest of,” he reflects, “is that it is a very livable, attractive, interesting and varied community. It is a very nice place to be. To the extent that I had something to do with shaping that, it’s a source of great satisfaction.”
APAH and the Challenge Ahead
It was the daisy-chain of friendship and community-minded problem solving that first brought John to APAH. His long-time friend Carolyn Settles, whom he’d known since Joe Fisher’s campaign, was the chair of APAH’s Board of Directors and she had a problem—the organization wanted to redevelop their small Queens Court property, but needed help getting the County Board’s approval to rezone. As always, John agreed to help. “The process moved in fits and starts. At many times it was a tortuous path.” It took 12 years, but today the redeveloped Queens Court is almost complete and will bring 249 new affordable apartments to Rosslyn.
John’s offer to help turned out to be just the first step. Through Carolyn, he met APAH CEO Nina Janopaul and now EVP Carmen Romero, and joined the Board—it was a natural fit. “I got interested right away in the technical side of affordable housing which I knew nothing about,” said John. “The old tax lawyer in me got interested in the tax issues, and I had been involved with tenant and landlord issues for so many years.”
As an APAH Board member and eventual Board chair, John has helped guide APAH to extraordinary growth and the adoption of a new strategic plan. That plan deepens APAH’s commitment to Arlington and expands the organization’s work to new jurisdictions.
Supportive as he is of that growth, John’s heart will always be in Arlington. Imaging the County’s future, John notes that there is “no need to reimagine the plan. Let’s live into our vision and build it out. The challenge for all of us is to make sure that Arlington remains a place that is attractive, livable and welcoming to the diverse range of people we want and need to be a part of our community. I’m proud that the work of APAH helps make that possible.”