Partnership Yields Housing for Disabled

Partnership Yields Housing for Disabled

An eight-townhouse complex for the disabled is slated for Oak Leather Drive in Burke.

A partnership between a developer and a non-profit housing group will mean eight new townhouses in Burke Centre custom-built for those with physical disabilities.

Arlington-based Landmark Communities and Lutheran Housing Services are working together on the project, which has cleared county rezoning hurdles and hopes to break ground this summer.

"There are so few houses for physically disabled people in Fairfax County. I think it's fair to say we have not done as well as we could in our area to provide housing in the affordable class as well as disabilities," said Rev. Ronald Christian, president of Lutheran Housing and a member of the Fairfax County Redevelopment Housing Authority.

Landmark purchased the 1-acre parcel of land, located at the north end of Oak Leather Drive, in 2002, when the land only contained one single-family home which had suffered previous fire damage. John Thillmann, vice president of Land Development and Planning for Landmark, said his company's goal was to build close to a dozen townhouses on the property, which was zoned R-4.

When word of the purchase reached Supervisor Sharon Bulova's (D-Braddock) office in 2002, she realized the potential that existed to build townhouses for the disabled on the property, which is not part of the Burke Centre Conservancy.

"[Thillmann] let me know he had purchased this property in Burke Centre, and Ron Christian … was looking for an opportunity to have built housing for people with disabilities," said Bulova. "A light bulb went on and I thought 'Hmm, maybe there's an opportunity here.' So I got the two individuals together."

AFTER THE rezoning process, Fairfax County staff only approved a zoning of R-8 on the land, meaning only eight townhouses could be built on the land.

Thillmann, who had first been approached by Bulova during the rezoning process for the Cloisters of Fairfax townhouse community in 2002, said the rezoning process in Burke Centre made him realize the difficulties developers face in building this type of housing.

"Even though we were willing to try to develop handicapped housing, there were no county policies for handicapped housing," he said. "In the process, I realized that one of the big problems we have … is that there isn't any incentive for it."

Currently, Lutheran Housing and Landmark have an agreement, whereby Landmark will maintain ownership of the land and will work to develop it, while Lutheran will take on marketing responsibilities. In the end, a portion of the proceeds of housing sales will be returned to Lutheran Housing. Other than a pair of houses built with Habitat for Humanity, this is the organization's first major project, and it is currently seeking potential homeowners.

"We're hoping to provide help for some people, to … make living better and easier for people in our community," said Christian. "It's going to be a good thing for Fairfax County and a better thing for people who need housing."

According to Bulova, under the terms of one of the proffers, the developer must market the townhouses to those with disabilities. No townhouses will be built until potential buyers can be found. This, said Thillmann, will allow the townhouses to be built with features specific to the homeowners.

"You can build a 'typical' handicapped unit. But if somebody doesn't need all those things, then they're paying extra for something they don't need. They're going to be different needs for different people," he said.

In other words, said Florence Naeve, chief of staff for Bulova, not only will the townhouses be built according to Universal Design Standards, they will have features specific to each homeowners' physical disability.

"This is a house that will be built from the very onset to meet those needs," she said, adding they will not be categorized as "affordable housing," but will be sold at general market rate.

According to Christian, his organization is working with the Keller Institute at George Mason University on "smart house" technology, so features like voice recognition door-openers can be employed, if needed. The Universal Design Standards specify a "3-4-5" method of building, with 3-foot-wide doorways, 4-foot-wide hallways and 5-foot turnarounds in bathrooms. Each townhouse will have a general floorplan, but extra features will be added on according to the homeowners' needs.

"I have heard, and I believe, that there is a need for this kind of housing, so I would like to see more of this sort of thing in other parts of the county," said Bulova. "It's a bit of a gamble, because if we're hearing there's this need, but people don't take advantage of it, maybe we're not hearing things correctly."