Case Study

Collaborating for Support

9 min read

50 organizations combine to house homeless vets and behaviorally challenged 

Journalists and social commentators often decry the shame of homelessness by ironically invoking the image of people living on the street in this land of plenty within sight of the Washington Monument, or the Empire State Building, the Space Needle or the TransAmerica Pyramid. In Washington, DC, however, just the opposite is taking place. At 1005 North Capitol Street, NE, a combination of federal, municipal, private philanthropic and nonprofit partners are providing supportive and beautifully-designed permanent housing for previously homeless veterans and others in need of social assistance, within sight of the Washington Monument and U.S. Capitol building.

The John and Jill Ker Conway Residence is a strikingly angular, 14-story glass, steel and masonry, LEED-certified high-rise situated a block from National Public Radio’s new headquarters, north of Union Station. The building, designed by Sorg Architects international design firm, has already won major prizes, including Gold and Honor Awards from the American Institute of Architects.

“When the project was brought to us, I thought the concept was absolutely superb,” says Richard Baron, cofounder and chairman of McCormack Baron Salazar, Inc. (MBS), the nationally prominent St. Louis affordable housing developer. “The opportunity to become involved was a most important thing. The integration of all services makes it a significant prototype that we want to replicate in other markets.”

Rosanne Haggerty, founder, president and CEO of Community Solutions, a New York-based social services organization that brought MBS into the project, echoes Baron’s enthusiasm. “Our desire was to create a model to replicate in other parts of the District. This is by no means a one-off. When you look at the completed building, what a happy result. With the attention to design and quality and the attentiveness to residents and what they need to succeed, this was a remarkable feat of collaboration. And it continues to be a privilege to work with MBS,” she adds.

Of the Residence’s 124 efficiency apartments, 60 are designated as permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless veterans, 47 are prioritized for individual households making no more than 60 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI), and 17 are for tenants making no more than 30 percent of AMI. Additionally, 17 of the units are for tenants referred by the District’s Department of Behavioral Health. The ground floor contains 3,300 feet of retail space.

The building’s permanent supportive housing will employ the proven “Housing First” model, in which people experiencing homelessness are connected immediately to permanent housing and supportive services. Professional case managers will work onsite to help tenants address health, employment and mental health needs in collaboration with the DC VA Medical Center.

“Focusing this building on veterans’ homelessness was part of a very strategic effort to end this problem once and for all,” says Haggerty. All referrals for the VASH program (Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing) come through the VA to the District of Columbia Housing Authority (DCHA).

The building is named for Jill Ker Conway and her late husband John, a decorated military veteran. A noted Australian-American author and memoirist, Ms. Conway was the first female president of Smith College. She was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2012.

Separately, both Haggerty and Baron invoke “blend” when describing their organization’s involvement with the project – she in terms of a “blend of tenancy;” he in terms of “blending a variety of funding sources.”

“We wanted low-income working people, as well as the homeless,” Haggerty notes.

That blending of funding sources was a years-long, seemingly Herculean task, involving no less than 50 separate entities, according to Haggerty. “It all began with the William S. Abell Foundation,” which supports tax-exempt organizations that assist the hungry, the homeless, abused women and children, at-risk pregnant women and persons with intellectual disabilities. “Abell is very committed to permanent solutions to homelessness and was frustrated there was no model in DC. Community Solutions had pioneered permanent supportive housing with mixed incomes. At Abell’s recommendation, we became involved as consultants, then put the development team together with MBS, and then organized the funding. Existing public funding programs are not designed to work with other government agencies, so it took a number of years to secure the site and put the funding together. Add to that, it was a small, difficult site to develop, with tight parameters and buildings close on either side.” The red brick building on the right is a former Baptist church that has been designated as a historic landmark and is slated to be redeveloped into high-end apartments.

Total development costs for the Conway Residence were $33 million. Financing included a mix of public and private sources, including Low Income Housing Tax Credit equity, tax-exempt bonds, Federal HOME funds provided through the DC Department of Housing and Community Development, support from the DC Housing Finance Agency and Department of General Services, Chase Community Development Banking, Royal Bank of Canada, Citi Community Development and Federal Home Loan Bank of Pittsburgh. Significant philanthropic support came from The Home Depot Foundation, The William S. Abell Foundation, The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation and others.

Baron gives special recognition to the Weinberg Foundation of Baltimore. “They were just wonderful in their support,” he says.

“The DC Housing Authority was awesome,” adds Haggerty, echoing widespread praise for this agency with one of the toughest challenges in the entire municipal structure.

“We have a lot of dedicated people here and don’t have to do much to inspire the staff,” says Tyrone Garrett, DCHA’s executive director. “We get gratification simply by seeing success. The only time we get discouraged is when we can’t house enough people. But we’re always pushing along.”

As Garrett explains, “DCHA provides more than 21,000 units of affordable housing—8,000 permanent and 13,000 vouchers-—with a strong commitment to resident services.” Like many others in the field, his watchword is “stability.” “All support services, including healthcare, are more difficult when a person is nomadic and we can’t reach him. Housing provides stability. Everything else really flows through that.”

“As a model, the Conway Residence has been particularly successful for chronically homeless veterans,” says Ronald McCoy, director of DCHA’s Housing Choice Voucher Program. “Washington has been fastest in the country in housing veterans and providing supportive and collaborative services. We partner with landlords [who often must be persuaded to accept tenants who do not have adequate job, rental or credit histories] and do outreach to connect with veterans. Our feedback from our veterans in Conway is that they love it. It’s a prime location and they can get their services right there.”

Garrett says that in some ways, veterans are easier to treat because they can be identified as a distinct group. On the other hand, they often have more special needs, such as service-related disabilities and PTSD. “A project like this needs a lot of support from local stakeholders,” says Garrett. “That’s something I’d say to other housing authorities who want to model projects after what we’ve got here.”

“We go beyond the voucher program to understand what veterans need,” McCoy comments. “Every year we bring resources and support groups together in one place for Veterans Appreciation Day. It’s something we’re very proud of and really something to see.”

Good design was a priority to all parties involved with the Conway development. “The kind of bland, postwar housing that has been put up all over is just unacceptable to us,” says Baron. “When we go into underserved neighborhoods, we’re always trying to build market-rate quality for low-income residents. There is no recognition that it’s affordable housing, per se, and no stereotyping of residents.”

Apartments are well-furnished with carpeting, lighted ceiling fans, air conditioning with electronic thermostats and energy-efficient appliances. Building amenities include a community room and computer center, concierge, fitness center, Wi-Fi, laundry facilities, patio, 24-hour emergency maintenance and bike room, as well as live-on-site management and night security. Public transportation is nearby and a restaurant within the building is designed to bring neighbors and community members in and counteract the frequent fear of affordable housing tenants, the previously homeless and those suffering from some degree of mental illness or social stress. The Conway Residence would not be out of place in any upscale urban environment.

“It’s an iconic structure and everybody knows it’s a very welcoming place,” Baron notes.

“It has a beautiful common room that a lot of organizations use,” says Haggerty. “It’s very inviting to the community.”

At the ribbon cutting in January 2017, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser reflected, “The John and Jill Ker Conway Residence is the perfect example of the great things that can happen when the public and private sectors unite toward one goal. We are certainly grateful to our federal and private partners who helped make this event a reality. I’m proud to announce to you today that since beginning the push to end veteran homelessness in the District four years ago, nearly 1,800 veterans have been housed, with 764 veterans housed in 2015 and 463 placed into permanent housing in 2016.”

Part of the impetus for the project was the Obama administration’s focus on helping veterans and keep them from having to live on the street. Alluding to the changeover at the top of government, she voiced hope that the new Trump administration would support the continuing effort. “The timing of this, a week before the transition of power, serves to highlight the role that our federal government has in ending veteran homelessness.”

MBS has continued its involvement as property manager, with Community Connections, largest nonprofit behavioral health provider in the Nation’s Capital, providing on-site services. Community Solutions is responsible for integration and oversight of the two organizations. Two case workers from the VA Medical Center work out of the building. “It’s really a team sport on every level,” says Haggerty.

And Garrett adds, “With projects, like Conway, when you do the ribbon cuttings and get ‘Thank You’s’ from residents, it reminds us why we do what we do.”

Story Contacts:
Richard Baron

Tyrone Garrett

Rosanne Haggerty

Ronald McCoy