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Fight for Affordability

Dee Cotton helped a community preserve its affordable housing.

Fifth in a series of profiles of those honored as The Best of Reston.

In the days of high property assessments, and effectively high property taxes, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find affordable housing in Fairfax County. Activists are needed to preserve the affordable housing that does exist today, as developers eye the land in the area as a profitable venture.

Dee Cotton of Reston is one such activist. Through her efforts, Island Walk Cooperative, an affordable housing community in Reston, managed to retain its affordable housing status, and is currently being renovated to improve the lifestyles of its tenants. For her efforts, Dee Cotton was awarded the Best of Reston Award for "advocating the needs of others."

"You don’t usually find low income housing in this nice of an area," said Cotton. Island Walk lies on seven acres of land, off of North Shore Drive in Reston, is engulfed by green space, and borders a golf course. An average of four people live in each of the 102 units at Island Walk. Of the 102 units in the community, 58 are two-bedroom, 30 are three-bedroom, and 14 are four-bedroom town homes.

"Island Walk has accessibility to great schools, and recreational resources," said Supervisor Catherine Hudgins, (D-Hunter Mill), "everyone would like to live in a community like that."

Hudgins also said that to walk three blocks from Island Walk would mean to walk across three boundaries of income level. The 102 units of affordable housing were not only preserved, but also preserved in a town environment and neighborhood.

A PRIMARY REASON why Island Walk was able to preserve the affordable housing, said Cotton, is its property manager, Les Duvall. Duvall came to Island Walk five years ago with over 15 years of experience in housing. Before coming to Reston, Duvall worked at several sights in Arlington. He liked the idea behind Island Walk, as the people living in the community had the ability to voice their concerns through advisory boards, and partially own their property. He said he saw great potential in Island Walk because of its community surroundings, and everything else Reston has to offer. "I believed in what [Island Walk] was doing," said Duvall, "and was willing to take pay cuts and benefit cuts," to work there.

Duvall said he has wonderful relationships with tenants, and since the reconstruction on some of the units had begun, Island Walk is becoming more of a community.

As part of the increasing community feel, and as part of the revitalization process, construction crews have renovated the community center. The new community center will host a computer lab to guve tenants access to modern technology. Duvall encouraged the Reston community to support initial funding for Island Walk to get wired.

THE REVITALIZATION IS DONE in five phases. The roofs and the sidings of the buildings are being replaced with more durable material. All windows will also be replaced, and balconies will be expanded to have more usable space. New heat pumps, and water and waste piping will also be installed. The tenants are asked to relocate for the amount of time it takes to renovate their homes. They are relocated to nearby apartment complexes, and are not asked to pay higher rents than they pay at Island Walk. The relocation lasts approximately two months. So far three buildings at Island Walk have seen families move back into them. Some buildings will also be built with a larger first floor, for additional kitchen space, and a more attractive entrance. The completion of the project is set for August 2005.

As the president of the Island Walk Cooperative Board of Directors, Cotton helped facilitate a Purchase and Sale Agreement between Island Walk and Community Preservation Development Corporation (CPDC), a developer. Island Walk Partnership was thus formed, and the sides have the ability to take advantage of federal low-income housing tax credits. Members of Island Walk were then allowed to stay as tenants, and become part owners of their units. Their alternative was to lose the housing to a developer that would have reimbursed them with a flat cash donation, and then charged market rates.

Cotton, who has lived at Island Walk since 1984, said she became involved in preservation of affordable housing because she lived in one. She said the timing of Island Walk’s bid to retain its status as an affordable housing community was good, because Reston has built out and the affordable housing situation in the community is not getting any better. "There is no more affordable housing being built," she said.

Duvall said Cotton’s involvement in the revitalization process was important to Island Walk. "Dee epitomizes to me what it is to grow older, remain active, and keep committed to the causes that help people. She is my idol," said Duvall.

Hudgins said Cotton was an influential player in the whole process.

"In a quiet manner," said Hudgins, "she motivates others to do things."