Built in 1914, the stately school is woven into the fabric of its Clendenin, W.Va., neighborhood—as familiar as the nearby Elk River.
But just as children grow up, towns change and buildings age. The once-proud school sat abandoned for years until recently, when it was resurrected as affordable housing for seniors. In its rebirth, Riverview at Clendenin School provides 18 units of housing and serves as home for an expanded health clinic, a combination that allows its elderly residents to age in place.
The project is one of several schools across the country to be adapted into affordable housing in the past year. About another dozen, probably many more, are in the works. As more schools are mothballed—1,822 public schools were closed in 2009–10—the potential for conversions remains strong.
For many communities, these aging buildings pose a huge dilemma. There’s intense community pressure to preserve the schools as well as strict rules against demolishing historic buildings. At the same time, it’s extremely difficult to find a new use—not to mention the financing—to restore these relics. In a growing number of cases, affordable housing has emerged as the solution.
“Schools lend themselves well to housing because they have large windows to create beautiful light-filled spaces with tall ceilings,” says Holly Wiedemann, president of Lexington, Ky.–based AU Associates, the developer behind Riverview at Clendenin School. “These are places that have a lot of meaning and value to people who live in the communities; they went to school there, their children went to school there, they taught there.”
In Clendenin, a small town of 1,200 people, the renovation “is probably the best thing that’s happened in the last 20 years,” says Mayor Robert Ore, whose father attended the school.
It’s more than housing, says the 83-year-old mayor. The development provides an economic spark to the community, with the building supplying new housing and the Cabin Creek Health Systems clinic offering good jobs and drawing people from as far as three counties away.
There’s an emotional attachment to old schools, where generations have gone to class, made friends, and attended Friday night football games. In reusing the buildings, developers keep that history alive.
In Paoli, Ind., the Hoosier Uplands Economic Development Corp. adapted a 1927 school into 24 affordable apartments. The building served as the local high school for decades and was eventually sold in the mid-1980s and used as a furniture factory. In recent years, it had become abandoned and run-down, with broken windows and pigeons nesting inside.
“During the open house, there were people walking around and crying because they had graduated from there and thought they would never be back in the building again,” says David Miller, CEO of Hoosier Uplands. The $6 million project saves a historic building that will remain part of the community forever, he says.
In Waynesboro, Ga., a long-vacant high school reopened last year with 39 apartments for seniors. Photos of the school’s Purple Hurricanes football team, which won a state championship in 1957, and other memorabilia decorate the halls.
To create Waynesborough Academy Senior Residences, which utilizes the old spelling of the community name, Bridgeland Development and RHA Housing renovated the two-story school and built two new buildings. The old classroom doors have been reconditioned and are where they’ve always been, this time serving as gateways to each apartment. Inside, the old chalkboards have been preserved, giving the walls a unique touch.
It took a few years to build support for the project because there were differing opinions about what should happen with the school, according to Gary Hammond Jr., president of Bridgeland Development in Atlanta. But after holding numerous town hall meetings, detractors eventually turned into supporters.
These relics from a bygone era are being adapted into housing for a number of reasons.
“One of the things we like most about the schools is the location,” says Richard Hayden, executive vice president at Stratford Capital Group in Peabody, Mass. “Typically, these buildings from the turn of the 20th century have been built near downtowns or central business districts.”
Stratford has done about a half dozen school conversions and has four more in various stages of predevelopment. It recently finished School Street Residences, a 50-unit development for seniors in Athol, Mass.
Old schools were built in prime locations in or near downtowns so children could easily walk to school. That concept still applies today, allowing seniors and other residents to walk to stores and services, says Dana Totman, president of Avesta Housing in Portland, Maine. The nonprofit is adapting two schools into affordable housing this year to add to the four it has completed.
Like AU’s Wiedemann, other developers cite the physical advantages of schools. The nonprofit Housing Trust of West Rutland, Vt., recently rehabbed the 88-year-old St. Stanislaus School into 17 affordable housing units. “Classrooms seem to self-define themselves,” says Elisabeth Kulas, the Trust’s executive director. “It’s still easy to walk through a school and envision a classroom. There’s something attractive to living in a place with character that wasn’t designed for living.”
Wide hallways, wood floors, tall ceilings, large windows, and other historic details are assets that can’t be re-created in new developments. However, school conversions can be extremely challenging. Often vacant for decades, the buildings can be in rough shape and can be very idiosyncratic. Developers have stories about walls being found behind other walls and other surprises.
That means the costs of rehabilitation can add up to more than expected. And if the buildings are officially designated as historic structures, developers also face tight restrictions on making any significant changes.
While the idea of repurposing an old building rings with nostalgia, sentiment only goes so far.
There’s a practical reason many of the conversions take place—developers are able to tap into key funding programs aimed at producing affordable housing, most notably low-income housing tax credits (LIHTCs).
This year, the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority and the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency have awarded tax credits to school-conversion projects in their states. “The financing is the critical component,” says Bridgeland Development’s Hammond. “You just never could have found alternative financing to convert them into office space.”
And if a school is designated a historic building, developers can turn to another funding source—historic rehabilitation tax credits, which, along with LIHTCs and conventional debt, have been a main ingredient in the financing recipe used to adapt schools into housing.
Developers have also creatively utilized other sources, but it’s rarely easy. Each funding piece has to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. AU Associates assembled a unique package for the $5.4 million Riverview at Clendenin School, including $2.7 million in federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds; $1.2 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development program; $400,000 from the Department of Health and Human Services; and $1 million from state and federal historic tax credits.
Each project’s financing package is unique. Together, the recent developments provide a lesson for the many school conversions that are in the works.
“Every one of these buildings is a wonderful story,” says Wiedemann. “We are breathing new life into structures that have so much meaning in their communities.”
Donna Kimura is deputy editor of Affordable Housing Finance, a sister publication of Multifamily Executive.