Case Study

Fletcher-Johnson School in Washington, DC

6 min read

Turning a Former School Into Affordable and Market-Rate Housing…and More 

Extensive consultation with the residents of Washington, DC’s Ward 7 gave city officials and developers a clear sense of how local folk would like to see a vacant old school in the Marshall Heights section redeveloped. The residents wanted housing. Lots of it, rentals and homeownership units, housing for seniors, affordable, workforce, market rate. They wanted commercial properties, retail. Perhaps most of all, they wanted a grocery store for a neighborhood that currently doesn’t have one.

And the amazing thing is, they may get it all, as the city has awarded a contract to develop the old Fletcher-Johnson Middle School to the Fletcher-Johnson Community Partners that plans to do all those things, including more than 800 units of housing. And the grocery store.

Oussama Souadi, partner at project lead developer Gragg Cardona Partners, says the group’s original proposal called for more than 800 units of many kinds of housing, and while the final count could vary from the city-announced 816, it won’t vary by much. Other partners include Foundation Housing, Carding Group, H2 Design Build and the Marshall Heights Community Development Organization, Inc.

The mix on the Planned Unit Development (PUD) isn’t final yet either, but Souadi says the vision includes “for-sale single-family townhomes, as well as condominiums and some senior housing, both independent and potentially some assisted living. Then the lion’s share would be multifamily housing meeting the spectrum of different incomes and different thresholds for workforce housing, market-rate housing, as well as affordable housing mixed in.”

Souadi notes the final mix would be “a delicate balance” but says, “Our target is to try to bring together a diverse mix of housing options.” There will be multiple buildings on the site, but the original building, the school, likely will be taken down.

The financing structure has yet to be finalized, but Souadi says it would include Low Income Housing Tax Credits, perhaps both four percent and nine percent credits. Gragg Cardona is an experienced LIHTC developer. Other sources of financing will be dictated by the phasing, he says. The company has done LIHTC deals that have had up to seven financing sources.

“We’ll explore institutional agency debt options and there is definitely a case to be made here for traditional debt and equity deals, private equity and private debt for some of the workforce components,” Souadi says.

Construction will begin in 2023 after the planning process is completed and will be in phases. “That’s fluid, but the community has been working on this for a long time, as well as the city. Everybody’s anxious to see progress.”

Championing the Community
He says, “We’re very much of the community. We champion the community engagement at the grass roots level. We have a task force that’s been organized over the past few years. We’ve been attending and holding meetings with the community to listen and gather feedback even before we got into the planning phase. Now that we’re into the planning phase, we expect fully to be working with the community as we get the master plan completed and work out the details of the project.”

Besides Gragg Cardona, there are two other major partners in the deal. “Foundation Housing is a nonprofit, a developer in their own right,” Souadi says. “They have a portfolio in the affordable housing space, so they bring a ton of expertise and bandwidth. The Carding Group specializes in structuring the capital stack. We will work with H2 Builders of Ward 7 and we also have the Marshall Heights Community Development Corp. for workforce development and training.”

Gragg Cardona got its start in the 1990s, working first on the District’s U Street and Columbia Heights Corridors, delivering about 1,100 units of multifamily housing there through joint ventures and partnerships.

“These were some of the earliest projects there.

These were underused communities at that point, and now U Street, 14th Street and Columbia Heights are some of the most premier corners of the city,” says Souadi.

Projects like that fit right in with Gragg Cardona’s outlook. “We like to identify edge communities and bring the catalyst effect and push projects forward. Fletcher-Johnson fits squarely with the mission,” he says.

Other housing ventures the developer has done include a deal in Maryland’s Prince George’s County, a 68-unit acquisition/rehabilitation. It is also involved with an 157-unit affordable assisted living community in the District’s Ward 7, and it has plans for a few more developments across the District. The assisted living project is under construction now, and plans are for it to be delivered next summer.

On the non-residential side, Gragg Cardona is involved in the redevelopment of the St. Elizabeth’s campus in Ward 8. That project is redeveloping an old hospital.

A Hill Looks Over It
The Fletcher-Johnson site is currently occupied by the old school, which has been closed since 2008. The District’s Department of Education used the 300,000-square-foot location for some temporary relocations of schools that were being worked on, but it has sat unused since 2011. Topographically, it contains a 50-foot-high hill, which will provide the setting for housing and open space for recreational use, as well as community activities.

As far as commercial space at the mixed-use projects goes, “We know the community is very focused on providing retail options, including grocery,” says Souadi. “We think there is a lot of opportunity for retail. Grocery is definitely at the top of the list as far as retail goes,” he says, characterizing DC’s Ward 7 and 8 as food deserts.

Fletcher-Johnson is part of a plan by the District to add 36,000 units of housing by 2025, with at least 12,000 of them being affordable. To date, more than 14,000 units have been added, with more than 2,000 of those affordable.

“The units will include studios, as well as one-, two- and three-bedroom options. The campus size and proximity to the Benning Road Metro Station makes it a prime destination within the Marshall Heights neighborhood. The proposal also includes green space for outside recreational and community activities, retail-commercial space for neighborhood serving retail, and a wide range of community programming space along the campus,” according to the office of the DC deputy mayor for planning and economic development, John Falciccio.

Fletcher-Johnson also used the District’s “OuRFP” program, designed to add as much community involvement to the development as possible.

Story Contact:
Oussama Souadi, partner, Gragg Cardona Partners
Washington, DC,

Mark Fogarty has covered housing and mortgages for more than 30 years. A former editor at National Mortgage News, he has written extensively about tax credits.