In honor of Veterans Day this year, we are highlighting Perry Point Veterans Village, an extraordinary supportive housing community for homeless vets created by HELP USA in tandem with U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, NEF and many other dedicated partners. The development was 10 years in the making and involved a veritable high-wire act of aligning bureaucracies and funding sources and overcoming political opposition. The result is worth the struggle: 75 safe, affordable homes for veterans who'd been surviving on the streets and now have a bona fide new lease on life.
When Scott Tull was a Marine Corps infantry rifleman in Afghanistan, he never imagined that life after service could become its own kind of warzone. “I thought it would be a fairly simple transition: I’d come home, get a job, and life would be good,” he recalls. “That’s not the way it went.”
Before his honorable discharge, Tull suffered a back injury and was prescribed painkillers by military doctors. In short order, he became addicted to opioids, and he brought the addiction home with him. “That led me down a bad path. The only thing that consumed my thoughts and my actions was finding the means to get high.” After two overdoses, Tull lost a leg to infection. Between his inability to work and his habit, he found himself living on the street.
Last year, following overdose number three, Tull checked into the VA Medical Center at Perry Point, Maryland for inpatient rehab. It was a turning point. He overcame his opioid dependency and in the amputee clinic, learned to walk with a state-of-the-art prosthetic leg. And, in the bargain, he found a home.
While Tull was in rehab, HELP USA (a seasoned service provider and developer of supportive housing, as well as a longtime LISC partner) and the U.S, Department of Veterans Affairs were putting the finishing touches on Perry Point Veterans Village. In September of 2018, Tull moved into one of the 75 renovated and newly built affordable apartments and homes, all earmarked for homeless veterans. The development sits on a tree-studded 400-acre V.A. Maryland Health Care System property, at the confluence of the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay. It is also adjacent to the Perry Point VA Medical Center, as well as to public transportation. Onsite V.A. services for residents include everything from case management and psychotherapy to medical care and life skills training.
The peaceful rows of freshly painted, energy-efficient houses, the residents lounging on their front porches, and the glittering water in the distance all belie the fact that getting Perry Village to completion took nearly a decade, and was a challenge from start to finish. Dozens of players and funding sources (including the V.A., HUD, the State of Maryland, private donors), a pitched and drawn-out battle with local opposition to the project, and a bramble of rules and regulations pertaining to each partner all had to be marshalled and aligned in order to make Perry Point a reality.
LISC’s National Equity Fund (NEF) provided more than $6.3 million in tax credit equity, with Morgan Stanley as the investor, for the $23 million project. Vouchers from the Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program, meanwhile, subsidize the rent, so Tull and many of the other vets at Perry Point pay only what they can afford. Moreover, the Village is part of an innovative new arrangement called an Enhanced-Use Lease (EUL), whereby the V.A. leases underutilized real estate for up to 75 years, for the purpose of developing supportive housing for homeless and at-risk veterans and their families.
“We were basically inventing the wheel,” says Deborah Burkart, national VP of supportive housing for NEF and founder of the “Bring them HOMES” homeless veterans housing initiative. The EUL program had just been launched and VASH had never before been used to leverage tax credits. Burkart, with decades of experience in both affordable housing financing as well as a seat on the board of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, acted as a bridge between the various players. “We had to mesh the V.A. program rules with the those of the tax credit agencies, the county, the state and the affordable housing finance people. Everyone was in a box that needed to be explained to the others.”
To make matters even more complicated, the project dragged right into the Great Recession, which spooked investors, and faced an onslaught of NIMBYism, too. “We ran into a buzz saw of opposition from local elected officials,” recalls Tom Hameline, president and CEO of HELP USA. “They were not onboard with bringing high-needs, at-risk vets into their communities.” The opposition was so fierce, says David Cleghorn, HELP’s director of housing, that at one meeting the former head of a local housing authority acknowledged using VASH funds to pay for bus tickets to transport homeless vets out of town.
Fortunately, resolution arrived “via the ballot box,” says Hameline. “We were fortunate that the people staunchly opposed to homeless vets housing retired or were voted out of office. Maryland’s new governor, Larry Hogan, was extremely supportive.”
Perry Point had other strong forces propelling it forward, too: “There are three things you need to do these projects, and Perry Point had them,” says Burkart. “First, free or low-cost land adjacent to services, which the V.A. Medical Campus provided. Second, rent subsidies, which are critical—people who’ve been homeless don’t have the resources to pay the rent or keep the lights on. And third, tax credit financing and other soft capital funds.” Predevelopment grants from Citi Community Development and Northrop Grumman helped get Perry Point off the ground, too.
Most important of all, though, were the people committed to creating homes for vets and their families. “Not a lot of developers would have hung in there the way HELP USA did,” says Burkart. “These deals demand an organization that has the right mission alignment, a strong balance sheet and the organizational and board support to stay the course for many years. They’re not for the faint of heart.”
Hameline and Cleghorn, for their part, credit Burkart as “the one pulling the wagon all the way to the finish line.”
“We could not have gotten there without Debbie and NEF,” says Hameline. “Maybe we could have gotten slightly better pricing on the equity, but the customer service—having a grown-up on the other end of the phone to work through the problem solving—is worth every penny. I can’t tell you how many investors walked away from the project with no explanation. NEF wasn’t one of them.”
Today, the Village is home to a diversity of vets with varying service experiences and ranging in age from 26 to 89. Serena Miller, vice president of property management for HELP USA, oversees Perry Point and points out that every resident struggles with PTSD and other challenges, stemming from their service, living on the street, or a combination of hardships. “Everyone’s story is unique,” says Miller. “The first person I moved in was a Vietnam vet, an engineer. He got involved in drugs and was working at Best Buy, living in his car in the woods.” Another, Rudy Dahl, lost his home when medical bills for his partner’s terminal ovarian cancer treatment bankrupted them both. “Perry Village is a place where they can heal,” says Miller. The V.A. support services are a big part of that, she notes, but so are opportunities to build community, through activities like residents’ association meetings, barbeques, gardening and service projects.
“We really built a neighborhood in a rural area on the banks of a big river, for people who have had significant challenges,” says HELP’s Cleghorn, adding that his favorite part of visiting Perry Point is seeing eagles diving for fish off the Perry Point fishing pier, and the enthusiasm with which residents decorate their porches every holiday. That neighborhood has also become energy self-sufficient, thanks to a four-acre solar panel field on the property. “It feels good to see how important the project is for the folks who work at the V.A. and live in the community,” says Cleghorn. “It’s one of the largest projects of its type in the nation and it is effectively ending veterans’ homelessness in Maryland.”
In all these ways, Perry Point is at the vanguard for a new type of supportive housing for vets. In fact, Affordable Housing Finance Magazine just named the development their Special Needs Project of the Year. “The good news is that now there’s a real partnership between affordable housing players and the V.A.,” says Burkart. “We’ve all come to understand each other better.” And HELP USA and NEF have already collaborated on another major development, on the site of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C., which opened in October and will house 77 homeless vets.