It's a scenario that's not difficult to picture. A Washington police officer – a single mother who is responsible for keeping the nation's capital safe in this era of heightened security – cannot afford to live anywhere close to her precinct. Because many two-bedroom apartments in the close-in areas cost more than $2,000 per month, she has to take the train into the city from Fredericksburg, Va., almost 60 miles away, where a two-bedroom apartment rents for $700 per month. While these costs savings are essential, it does not make up for some things money can't buy – time with her children and those two hours per day she loses commuting on the train.

And unfortunately, she is not alone. As rents continue to escalate, more and more working Americans are finding it difficult to find affordable housing close to their workplaces.

In May, the National Housing Conference released "Paycheck to Paycheck: Wages and the Cost of Housing in America." This survey reports that despite having jobs, many Americans in major cities still cannot afford a place to live. Janitors and retail salespeople relying on the median income, as an example, pay more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing for two bedroom apartments in the top 60 American markets. Even, licensed practical nurses earning the median income are priced out of almost one-third of those markets.

Furthermore, police officers earning the median income can't afford a two-bedroom apartment in Boston, San Francisco, and San Jose, Calif., and elementary school teachers earning the median income can't find affordable housing in San Jose and San Francisco.

This is forcing many people, who make too much to qualify for traditional affordable housing, to move farther from their workplaces. However, a number of multifamily firms are finding solutions to this problem. While financing workforce housing and finding inexpensive land can be difficult, three projects – in Washington, Madison, Wis., and San Francisco – prove that it is possible to produce quality for-sale and for-rent multifamily housing at affordable prices.

From Despair to Hope in the Nation's Capitol Wardman Court, Washington, D.C. Clifton Terrace was a notorious apartment complex in Washington. Originally built in 1918 as market-rate property, the property's three buildings suffered from years of decay and poor maintenance. With shootings in the laundry rooms, crack dealers in its hallways, and prostitutes in the stairwells, resident security and safety was nothing more than an afterthought. By 1996, when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) foreclosed on the property, it had more than 1,000 housing code violations and was plagued by clogged sewer pipes and flooded basements – damages that would cost at least $13.7 million to repair.

A New Beginning Seven years later, about the only thing the development, now called Wardman Court, has in common with the old Clifton Terrace is that it still consists of three buildings. Two buildings have been renovated and turned into apartments and condos. The third building, which will be rental, is expected to open by the end of this year.

Community Development Preservation Corp. and Michaels Development Co. spent $16 million to renovate the troubled Clifton Terrace complex in Washington. The three buildings, now known as Wardman Court, are expected to be completed by the end of 2003.Jennifer Johnston
Community Development Preservation Corp. and Michaels Development Co. spent $16 million to renovate the troubled Clifton Terrace complex in Washington. The three buildings, now known as Wardman Court, are expected to be completed by the end of 2003.Jennifer Johnston

The story of how this project went from the poster child of the failure of Section 8 to a desirable development with a waiting list of more than 200 people involved a number of key players – HUD, Michaels Development Co., Community Preservation and Development Corp. (CPDC), and Bank of America. Their goal was to create a community geared to working residents, such as members of the military and government workers.

The turnaround began in 1996, when HUD gained control of the project from the previous owner. In 1999, the agency sold the property to CPDC, a nonprofit organization in Bethesda, Md., and Michaels Development, a developer in Marlton, N.J., for $1. HUD also provided grants to fund renovations, redevelopment, and resident services with the requirement that CPDC and Michaels Development would make an estimated $16 million in repairs and renovations to the apartments, maintain them as housing for low- and moderate-income families for at least 20 years, reduce density from 289 units to 232 units, and provide resident services, like child care and job training. Both organizations had experience refurbishing troubled properties in the Mid-Atlantic region.