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Programs provide second lives for former schools

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Erica Boggess is acting executive director of the West Virginia Housing Development Fund.

Go to any community, in any city or town in West Virginia and it's very likely you'll encounter an old school house. Sturdy, strong and built to last, these structures are historic gems with plenty of character and history all their own. As a testament to their craftsmanship, some are still in use. Others, however, may have fallen on hard times. It takes a visionary to see the potential. 

Working with non-profit community development organizations and a network of enterprising private developers from across the nation, the West Virginia Housing Development Fund has programs that allow these grand old structures to achieve new life and serve a new generation of West Virginians — but maybe not in the way you might expect. 

While our state is experiencing growth and development in new and exciting ways, it's no secret we have an aging, older population. To meet their housing needs, yesterday's school buildings are becoming today's affordable rental units. While it may seem a little unorthodox at first, it makes good sense to turn a classroom into an apartment. These buildings were made to last. They have the kind of "good bones" that allow you to make improvements and bring them up to code but still maintain their abundant charm and personality. 

Over the last year, developers using our Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Program have transformed two old schools into gleaming rental units. In Elkins, we worked with a number of partners including AU Associates Inc., Community Affordable Housing Equity Corporation, Huntington Bank, C-HOPE and the West Virginia Division of Culture and History to rehab First Ward School Apartments on Davis Avenue. 

This is a great location for residents, and what the developers have done with the building is truly remarkable. The $3.7 million project involved the rehabilitation and adaptive reuse of an elementary school that was constructed in 1908. When it was a school, First Ward was used for nearly 70 years before closing in 1976. AU Associates renovated the building to create 16 affordable one and two-bedroom apartments and turned the property over to Highland Community Builders of Elkins.

During a recent open house at First Ward, a former student at the school told the crowd her biggest fear was being caught with chewing gum. My, how times have changed.

In Charleston, we worked with developers to rehabilitate the former Glenwood School on the city's West Side. In use until just a few years ago, school officials had suggested razing the building. An objective assessment might have supported that idea. Asbestos, roof problems and old windows were just a few of the building's issues, but developers, led by Charleston residents Chris and Mark Sadd, saw something else. They saw a sturdy, well-made structure that was ready to lead a new life. 

Sure enough, they were able to create 31 one and two-bedroom apartments. Instead of another blighted building or vacant lot, we have a great space for our elderly residents. 

On a practical level, redeveloping an old school makes sense. These buildings once served as a beacon in the community and, in many cases, they are in the heart of the neighborhood. They have access to shops, medical services, churches and other important amenities. 

There is also something to be said for preserving the past. These buildings tell a story. By breathing new life into an old place, it revives that narrative in new, exciting ways. West Virginia has an amazing history, and we must never forget our roots. 

We're honored to partner with both private and public entities to make certain our residents have a safe place to call home.