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Rural Spotlight: Giving the Old High School a Second Life as Affordable Housing in Carroll County

May 18, 2023
Rural Spotlight Woodlawn Aireal

Carroll County, Virginia, saw an opportunity to give their old high school, Woodlawn School, a second life as affordable rental housing. Through adaptive reuse — a process that repurposes existing buildings for new, productive uses — the county prevented the building from falling into disrepair, avoided demolition costs, preserved a cultural asset, and created new affordable housing opportunities for Carroll County residents.

Community and History

Four communities make up Carroll County: Hillsville (the county seat), Fancy Gap, Woodlawn, and Cana.

Carroll County is a rural county located in Southwest Virginia at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains. Located south of Interstate 81, the county is bisected by Interstate 77 and shares its southernmost border with North Carolina. The New River and New River Trail also run through the county and attract tourists during the summertime. Carroll County is famous for hosting an annual Labor Day Flea Market in Hillsville, which has historically attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors.

Woodlawn School was first founded as a private school in 1878. It became the first public high school in Carroll County in 1907 and was one of the first public high schools in Virginia. Notably, Woodlawn School was the first public secondary school to offer vocational agricultural education classes under the Smith-Hughes Act in 1917.

The Opportunity

Woodlawn School closed in 2013 after it was consolidated with the Carroll County High School. According to Carroll County Supervisor Rex Hill, “In Southwest Virginia, when they close a school it usually just deteriorates.” But Carroll County was not ready to let that happen.

At that time, there were some rental housing developments in other parts of Carroll County. But in the Woodlawn community, scattered-site, single-family homes were the only rental housing opportunities available. After the school closed, the former county administrator connected with Virginia Housing, Virginia’s housing finance agency, which has a number of grant and financing programs to help local governments and developers better plan for and build new housing and preserve existing housing. While discussing housing solutions, the county administrator mentioned the Woodlawn School building.

The Strategy

Both Carroll County and Virginia Housing agreed that the Woodlawn School building had potential, but they needed to determine whether it could realistically be repurposed as housing. To answer this question, Carroll County applied to Virginia Housing for a feasibility study on the school. The feasibility study helped the county understand the value of the property and confirmed that the property had adaptive reuse potential.

Carroll County decided they wanted to move forward, but they had to overcome another hurdle: There are not many developers working in Southwest Virginia. Virginia Housing helped identify a qualified developer and connected Carroll County with Landmark Asset Services, Inc. (“Landmark”) in 2017. Landmark was a good fit because they specialize in adaptive reuse, are committed to serving rural parts of Virginia, and have a good track record from past projects.

Part of that track record was Landmark’s ability to secure layered financing from multiple sources to fully cover the cost of development. Sources of financing for this project included:

  • Donation of the school property, eliminating the cost of acquisition. “Carroll County’s willingness to donate the school was critical to the success of the development,” says Sam Sari, vice president at Landmark. “Changing the use of a structure is cost prohibitive, and it would not have been feasible without their support.”
  • Federal and state historic tax credits, resulting from Carroll County’s efforts to get the building added to the National Register of Historic Places.
  • Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC), which were awarded to Landmark by Virginia Housing. Carroll County’s donation of the school counted as local support and helped Landmark’s application score higher.
  • Virginia Housing’s REACH financing vehicle, which provided permanent financing at below market rate.
  • Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta’s Affordable Housing Program, which provided gap financing.

Landmark closed funding and started construction in September 2020 and finished construction at the end of 2021.

open hallway and restroom
Key Outcomes

The end result is a high-quality, affordable housing resource for the community with 51 new units. The Woodlawn School apartments were inclusively and sustainably built with the following design features:

  • Universal design, allowing the property to be modified as needed to accommodate persons with disabilities.
  • EarthCraft Gold energy certification, exceeding baseline energy efficiency required by LIHTC, “with the end goal of saving the residents money,” according to Sari.
  • Indoor amenities, including repurposed school library space outfitted with free high-speed internet and computers and an indoor playground.
  • Outdoor amenities, including a picnic area, grills, and an outdoor exercise park.

The project has further benefitted Carroll County in several ways:

  • Through ongoing partnership, the county may continue to use the school gym and neighboring athletic fields. The gym is used both as a polling place and a recreational facility for county residents.
  • The county avoided risks and costs associated with the building falling into disrepair.
  • Following a short tax abatement period, the county will gain property taxes from the building.
  • By using local vendors for ongoing operations, Landmark has created new economic opportunities in support of the property. 
Lessons Learned
  • Seek outside expertise to develop strategies for capturing local opportunities.
  • Leverage partnerships to overcome barriers throughout the development process.
  • Integrate the property into the fabric of the local community by engaging the community throughout the development process and in continued shared use of the property.
  • Empower residents to build community. For instance, since moving into the Woodlawn School Apartments, the residents have formed a resident council that organizes social events and supportive activities.

Sam Sari, VP at Landmark, and John Stiltner, Director of Development and Construction at Landmark


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“I think what makes Carroll County so special is that they’re willing to work with you. We are technically outsiders. We’re not from Carroll County. We live a few hours away. But they took us in immediately, understood the need, agreed there was a huge need, and did what they could with the resources they had.” – Sam Sari, vice president at Landmark