Jon Fleming

Meet Carmen Romero, president and CEO of the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing (APAH), a longtime nonprofit based in Arlington, Virginia.

Prior to becoming head of the organization in 2021, Romero led APAH’s real estate development team in creating and preserving more than 1,800 new affordable housing units in Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, and Montgomery counties. APAH owns approximately 2,600 units.

What was your first job, and what did that job teach you?

My first professional job was with Nations Bank. I was part of the management associate training program and worked as a branch manager in Arlington. I had just graduated from college and learned how to be a local banker, how to provide customer service, and enjoyed working with small businesses. Nations Bank later became Bank of America, which is now one of APAH’s biggest financial partners, a full-circle moment for me.

What was a pivotal moment in your career?

Meeting Nina Janopaul, my predecessor at APAH, at an Urban Land Institute Washington conference was pivotal for me. At the time, I was working on mixed-income and public-private partnership developments at Clark Construction. After seeing Nina’s presentation about affordable housing development, I knew I wanted to learn more and explore nonprofit development. Three years later, I reached out to Nina. We talked about APAH’s work, and I felt an instant connection to APAH’s mission. I immediately began working at APAH doing new real estate acquisition work.

Tell us about a development that APAH is working on this year.

APAH’s largest project to date, The Exchange at Spring Hill Station, began construction in 2023. Breaking ground with our partners last year was a real achievement; the financing and deal structure was unique and quite complicated. The Exchange will create 516 new affordable homes and a 30,000-square-foot community center close to public transit options, amenities, and job opportunities. The public-private partnership between APAH, Fairfax County, and Amazon’s Housing Equity Fund makes this project really stand out and helped it get to closing. When the property opens in 2027, the community impact will be a game-changer for the region. Although there are about 100,000 workers living in the high-opportunity Tysons, Virginia, neighborhood, where The Exchange will be located, there are no affordable housing developments. This will be the first!

How is APAH changing?

APAH recently adopted a new strategic plan to guide our path for the next five years. We’re experiencing incredible growth—we’ve doubled our unit count in recent years and plan to triple our portfolio size within the next five. We have six projects under construction right now and are working hard to address the housing crisis in the D.C. metro region.

We are also growing our resident services program, renewing our commitment to diversity and racial equity, and intentionally becoming more resident-focused. It’s important that our board and staff reflect the population we serve, which is mostly BIPOC. We engaged in a third-party racial equity audit a few years ago to better understand ourselves and opportunities to make the work actionable. We’re centering ourselves internally and externally so that we can serve our residents to the best of our ability.

What’s a recent move that APAH made that might be helpful to other developers?

We took time to map out a thoughtful strategic planning process in 2022-2023 that incorporated feedback from staff, board members, and our residents for the first time. We invited residents for a focus group and infused them into our plan. We also established a standing Resident Council that meets with our board and senior leadership regularly. Other developers might benefit from listening to those they serve. We can’t solve a problem without engaging with those we are supporting, so we start by centering ourselves around listening. I’m proud of the new strategic plan that resulted.

Why affordable housing matters:

APAH’s vision is that everyone deserves a place to call home—a foundation to live their dreams. Housing is the foundation to everything, our economy, our health and well-being, our workforce, our children’s education. Housing matters to the region so that residents can gain education and find a place to live after entering the workforce. Our health care workers, teachers, and other frontline employees need to be able to afford a place to live. Residents who are rent burdened have to budget to afford essentials like food and medical care. APAH opened an on-site food pantry at year-end 2023 to address food insecurity and to supplement the weekly food distribution program that we have had in place for years. Stable housing for families is so important, and more than 20% of our residents are under age 25. Rising prices and evictions that cause families to move around and kids to change schools are harmful on many levels, so APAH is focused on providing a stable foundation and caring support.

Besides the usual work items, what’s in your office?

I have photos of my family, including our three kids and our dog, Rocky. I have a Daily Examen of consciousness, which is a Jesuit prayer that grounds me. Next to my computer, I have a rock that was painted green and bedazzled by APAH resident summer camp kids. I joined colleagues and campers on a kindness walk last year and gave decorated rocks to neighbors as random acts of kindness. The kids all signed their names on my green rock. I love keeping it on my desk.

What goal would you like to achieve over the next 10 years?

APAH established actionable goals to measure our growth and guide us into the future. The first is tripling our current portfolio to include 7,500 households. We also aim to provide resident services support to all our properties and partner with residents to help them reach their financial goals. We want to communicate the positive effects of affordable housing, incorporate residents’ perspectives, and promote the necessary funding and policies to help us reach our goals.

APAH will be rebranding itself to authentically reflect our growing footprint and update our external identity. We don’t yet know what it will be, but spoiler ... APAH’s name will change! 2024 marks APAH’s 35th anniversary as an organization, so in the next 10 years when we turn 45, we hope that the housing crisis will be alleviated and that our residents are achieving their dreams.

Last book you read?

“The Injustice of Place: Uncovering the Legacy of Poverty in America” by Kathryn J. Edin, H. Luke Shaefer, and Timothy J. Nelson.

Describe your perfect day.

Working out in the morning, enjoying a coffee, coming into the office to work with the team, hanging out with friends and family, and planning to visit one of my kids since my college-aged sons are located many states away from us here in Northern Virginia.