Working Together to Address Loudoun’s Affordable Housing Crisis

If you’re a longtime resident of Purcellville, you “get” our little headline pun. But if not, the next time you’re driving from Round Hill to Purcellville on the East Loudoun Street bypass, cast a glance northward. You can’t miss the iconic sign announcing the Weona Villa motel. The 7-acre erstwhile motel property has been vacant for a dozen years and now sports a home with a giant blue tarp covering a hole in the roof and eight abandoned motel rooms.

Clearly, beauty is in the eye of the beholder—or should we say, of the “visionary.”

As has been widely reported, Purcellville-based Tree of Life Ministries Executive Director Paul Smith looked at the site and saw in it a means for addressing the shortfall of affordable housing for the disabled and elderly struggling to stay in Loudoun County as home prices rise. Tree of Life serves this population already in a number of ways, reaching out to the needy with food, life-skills training, shelter, healthcare and other relief as a Christian ministry.

“Because we work with up to 20,000 annually, some of whom are seniors on a fixed income and the disabled, we know the heartache that they face in trying to find housing. We’re passionate about trying to help meet that need,” Paul says.

It takes 28 separate ministries, 33 affiliated Christian churches and more than 500 active volunteers to collectively meet these needs, which is why “community” is one of the ministry’s core values.

“We want to be collaborative,” in devising a solution to the problem, he explains.

Which is how Matthew Bowe (MatthewBoweDesignBuild.com), a builder whose business typically consists of designing and building dream homes for wealthy residents of Loudoun County, finds himself standing out in a field of dreams with Paul under a rusty old sign in Round Hill. Paul says he reached out to Matt to assemble a team to help coordinate design, permitting and construction of the housing the ministry hopes to build on the acreage, which it has optioned to buy.

Why Matt?

“He has a stellar reputation for building homes in Loudoun, and he has compassion for people in need,” Paul says. “What we hope to build together is something that is sympathetic to the Loudoun landscape. The only difference is that ours will be smaller than his typical client can afford.”

By smaller, the team means 900- to 1,000-square-foot cottage homes built in clusters of six around courtyards. Each would have a front porch facing its own smaller community of homes, and everyone would be able to meet together at the renovated main house for community gatherings. With characteristic enthusiasm, Paul is already talking about organizing teams of schoolchildren or scout troops to craft a community garden to supply fresh produce to the residents and of using the community center for for the elderly and disabled adults to meet together. 

“I jumped at the chance to create a small community and meet a housing need that isn’t being met,” Matt says.

Such initiative is “trademark Matt,” says Therese Cashen, executive director of Loudoun Habitat for Humanity.

“He brings to our board an understanding of home construction, even though he builds totally different houses than we do. He knows the zoning and permitting process and brings all that expertise to our team as well.”

And, she adds, “He’s a man of very deep faith. I think some of Matt’s connection to wanting to give back is because of his faith.”

Matt’s willingness to “roll up his sleeves and do something,” has helped Habitat expand the Home Repair program to support disabled veterans and the elderly stay in homes that are sometimes as costly to maintain as to own. Therese says this broader approach has helped the organization widen its impact.

For example, the county recently asked Habitat for assistance to provide a home for a resident of Howardsville who has no water or indoor plumbing. Habitat is partnering with Loudoun County to build a home for this individual and connect another existing home to water and plumbing.

“Water and indoor plumbing are critical to safe and healthy living, and no one in Loudoun County should be without these,” she says. 

Matt accompanied Therese to help evaluate the situation and immediately launched an effort to explore how Habitat could help.

“The scope of this project isn’t typical,” Therese says, “but the organization’s goal is to grow from helping to provide just one or two homes per year to 20 per year by 2025. That will take millions of dollars and a lot of creativity!” 

Inevitably, a search for solutions always comes back to the question of who exactly benefits from more affordable housing.

“Some of the people who could be occupying such housing could be our young adult children that are just fresh out of school or people with careers that serve the community but can’t afford to live in it,” Matt says. “Our teachers, law enforcement and fire personnel—they all live out in West Virginia. That seems a shame to me.”

The opportunity to live and work in the same place you send your kids to school—“that’s real community,” Matt says.

Belief in a secure and stable home life as a foundation for a healthy society is an idea integral to Matt’s own upbringing. A first-generation Irish American, he watched his parents work hard, buy a home, then add onto it as their family grew.

“Our house was full of family; it was full of love. I know I benefited greatly from that stability, and I like doing that for others.”

Naturally, he bristles at the notion that he is doing anything special.

“I am a soldier on the ground contributing what I can. My involvement is a spiritual response that flows from a recognition of the immense blessings in my life,” Matt says. “Really, I am doubly blessed in that I get to build awesome high-end projects for affluent clients who ask us to deliver their dream home, and I also get to be involved in and experience these life-changing projects that serve those in need.”

What’s next? On Oct. 1, Round Hill will hold a public hearing to help the council decide whether to amend its own comprehensive plan to extend its utility service area for assisted living facilities or other identified housing gaps, such as senior and workforce housing.

“Our particular desires are attracting an assisted living facility or creative options for senior or workforce housing,” says Scott Ramsey, Round Hill’s mayor. “We do not want more townhomes or additional traditional single-family residential. Those options already are well-supplied locally.”

Amending its plan wouldn’t mean automatically extending utilities to the Weona Villa parcel but would let the town approve extensions on a case-by-case basis.

If the Weona Villa project were approved, it would then submit plans for approval by the county board of supervisors, a year-long process. Construction could begin in the spring of 2021 in phases, starting with renovation on the existing structures.

So, as we said, it takes a “Villa.” Opportunities to serve abound. New volunteers for Tree of Life should attend the group’s next Volunteer Introduction Program training on Nov. 14 at the Tree of Life Center, 210 N. 21st St., Unit D, in Purcellville, perhaps to experience the ministry’s Thanksgiving meal for 200 at St. Paul’s Church in Purcellville. And, finally, you can sign up to receive weekly updates on Habitat’s local construction projects at LoudounHabitat.org/News.