“Nothing about affordable housing is simple,” says President and CEO Carmen Romero of Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing (APAH). Central United Methodist Church in Ballston Station was no exception. By the time the church turned to APAH in 2022, they were frustrated. For 20 years, they had been trying—on their own—to build affordable homes above their house of worship as part of their ministry to help community members facing housing insecurity. After spending $4 million in predevelopment costs, they were missing the tax credits and construction financing necessary to make their vision a reality.
Carmen knew APAH had to find a way to help, so she turned to her partners at Truist. Thanks to teamwork, creativity, and coordination, the deal moved forward. As a result, 144 families will call Ballston Station home in 2024. This and other shared successes have built trust, and Truist has helped APAH expand into four new jurisdictions outside of Arlington County, Virginia, including Fairfax County and Loudoun County in Virginia, Montgomery County in Maryland, and Washington, D.C.
Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing (APAH)
Arlington, Virginia—founded in 1989
Nonprofit affordable housing developer
$550 million in affordable real estate
Building groundbreaking partnerships: A client’s blueprint for growth
There’s a five-year waiting period for affordable housing in Arlington, Virginia. That’s a timeframe that APAH wants to shorten as much as possible—by doubling the number of affordable homes in the area over the next 25 years.
Since its founding in 1989, APAH has helped residents by preserving and creating stable, secure, and affordable rental housing for more than 2,000 households (that’s 4,800 individuals and families). But for APAH, it’s not just a numbers game. They also want to provide resident-inspired programming that helps residents build better lives.
To achieve this, APAH provides on-site resident services such as career counseling, supplemental grocery distribution, child care, wellness programming, and more. Also, APAH builds affordable housing in transit- and amenity-rich neighborhoods in the D.C. metro area, where residents can easily access everything they need to pursue their personal and professional goals.
“We are known for developing housing in high opportunity areas where you have fantastic schools, no food deserts, jobs,” says Carmen. “Because that’s how you break cycles of poverty. And that’s part of what I feel is our mission at APAH.”
What’s at the heart of their success? Trusted partnerships.
“At APAH, partnership is part of our name and our ethos,” says Carmen. “A partnership isn’t a one and done. You need to work on a partnership over a course of years so you grow in experience and build trust—together.”
The partnership between Carmen Romero and Steve Smith, a commercial real estate advisor at Truist, is a perfect example of the power of partnership—especially when innovative solutions are needed, like with Ballston Station, which is just minutes from APAH’s headquarters.
The Ballston Station challenge
The Central United Methodist Church in Ballston Station has served the Arlington community for more than a century. For the last 20 years, the congregation has been working toward transforming its property to better serve neighbors in need. They had made plans to tear down the original church and rebuild it with affordable housing on the upper floors, along with other amenities at street level. But building above a church (cemetery included) and an underground Metro line provides unique challenges. Amenities—including a day care, a career center, a community kitchen, and a 9-by-6-foot Tiffany stained-glass window in the lobby—also add up to extra costs.
“By the time the church came to APAH, four developers had failed to help this project move forward,” says Carmen. “We couldn’t let them fail a fifth time. So we called on Truist because we know they care about us and our community, and they understand what it means to be a real partner.”
Solution: Bring in trusted partners early.
Typically, Carmen brings in her trusted partners during the planning stage of a new community (not just when looking for financing). Truist is upfront about each deal, she says—and their team will tell her which ones look good and which are “a bridge too far.”
“When you hear your trusted partner saying something may not be a good idea, and you get that feedback early, you can make better decisions,” says Carmen. After she had a commitment from Truist to help bring Ballston Station to completion, she was confident the deal would close and it would be built.
Solution: Build partnerships at all levels.
“The leadership of Truist knows us. Their credit team. Their risk team. Their investment team. Steve has introduced them personally to me, so when he is bringing forward a project from APAH, they can ask me questions directly,” says Carmen.
The wider Truist team has also gotten to know the wider APAH team, which means Carmen can be less involved in day-to-day problem solving. “My team members solve so many problems on the ground with Steve, they don’t even have to come to me!” she says.
“Steve and his team also care about my team as people,” she adds. “He sent me a note about what a fantastic job a member of my team did on her first closing. She really appreciated hearing that from someone who closes a lot of deals.”
Solution: Expand your view of partners.
When facing a unique challenge, consider all the partners who could help you—and help them understand the big picture.
For Ballston Station, Carmen and her team at APAH met with local and state officials about the unique zoning challenges they were facing. That inspired the state’s housing agency, Virginia Housing, to step up in many ways, she says—including by doing a special study (on needs and costs) to help move the deal forward.
APAH also enlisted representatives from George Mason University, whose Arlington campus is just blocks away from Ballston Station, to talk to potential funders about the benefits of affordable housing. Specifically, APAH noted that their residents are part of the workforce and are key to the region’s economy. (Several investors agreed and signed on.)
Truist has also become a regular sponsor of APAH’s annual “Celebrate Home!” event, and Truist Foundation has provided grant funding to support APAH programs. These philanthropic measures help APAH provide robust resident services that aren’t covered by traditional funding sources for affordable homes.
Solution: Build trust over time.
“Our first deal with APAH was eight little historical buildings with different owners,” says Steve. “It had some real hiccups, some cost overruns, and we helped them out. We were flexible where we could be. I think that built a lot of trust, and they were like, ‘Hey, we want to do more with you.’”
Steve says Truist cares about each project, but the big picture matters too. “It’s not just about this one project,” he adds. “Ballston Station has bigger implications. What happens here could inspire other churches all over the region.”
Talking regularly with your partners can reveal emerging challenges so they may be solved before they snowball. It can also help ensure you’re taking the right steps to work toward your blue-sky goals.
At Truist, that’s called Truist Business Lifecycle Advisory, and it begins with candid conversations with clients about where their business has been, what it needs right now, and where they envision it going next. That groundwork enables Truist relationship managers to proactively bring clients solutions and opportunities for every stage of their business’s lifecycle.
Solution: Seek feedback from those you serve.
A common misstep in trying to help others is making assumptions about what they want or need. That’s why APAH surveys its residents to discover what’s working and where there are gaps in services. “We’re going to the picnics at the communities and talking to the people,” says Carmen. “We’re trying to figure out how we can be more resident led or resident centered.”
“A lot of the feedback we’re hearing from the community and from our board of advisors is to continue the push that we’ve been doing,” says Carmen. “Our goal is to ‘make regional real.’ We need to do more than one project in Maryland. We have pipeline projects from 100 units to 250 units to 500 units. We’re on day one of those conversations, and Truist is very much at the table. We’re just looking for the right win-win.”
How your business can get there
Carmen’s advice: Bringing in partners early, especially those that are clearly committed to you for the long haul, allows you to be more proactive. Working with specialized experts means you can receive personalized advice—economic, financial, and industry-related—so you can recognize challenges early and address them with tried-and-true strategies or innovative new ones. Drawing on history while looking to the future is the perfect recipe for growth.