Last Saturday would have been a quiet day in Southwood, the mobile home park off Fifth Street Extended just south of Charlottesville, if not for the leaf blowers.
About a dozen residents of the neighborhood—home to 1,500 people, the majority of them Latino—gathered in the morning to clear a heavy carpet of oak leaves from Southwood’s two small green spaces before tackling the backyards of a couple of seniors.
Since Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville bought the 100-acre community in 2007, the group has been gearing up for a massive overhaul, an unprecedented ground-up redevelopment that will see Southwood’s 350 deteriorating trailers replaced with permanent housing beginning in 2016. Saturday’s beautification effort might seem like window dressing, but Habitat’s leaders see it as proof their grassroots community-building approach is working.
Eventually, the cleanup crew took a few minutes to rest on their rakes and consider the changes they’ve seen come to their neighborhood. Jose, Marvin, and Ismael—the three men, who spoke through a translator and asked to be identified by only their first names—said the arrival of the Boys & Girls Club and city bus stops have been a big help.
But the residents said they’re worried about still being able to afford Southwood once the big changes begin.
So is Dan Rosensweig, Habitat’s executive director.
“We know what we can do, because we did it at Sunrise,” said Rosensweig. Habitat turned the Belmont trailer park into a permanent mixed-income neighborhood of brightly painted townhomes and a small apartment building last year. Nine of that neighborhood’s 16 families elected to stay, a ratio Habitat saw as a success. But Southwood is 20 times the size of Sunrise, and a large portion of its 1,500 residents are believed to be undocumented immigrants, which would complicate their path to homeownership—Habitat’s central goal for its partner families.
“The question is, can we do it at the scale of Southwood?” Rosensweig said. “That’s what keeps me up at night.”
To get there, Habitat is moving slowly and deliberately, trying to build trust and get Southwood residents to buy in. When the organization bought the trailer park in 2007, conditions bordered on unlivable. Fires regularly broke out in homes hot-wired to the electrical grid. Trying to map how the units were hooked up to the existing sanitary infrastructure was almost impossible. “Some are on septic, some are on sewer, some are on both,” he said. Gloria Rockhold, director of Creciendo Juntos, an outreach group serving the local Latino community, said failures and overflows were common. Sometimes you’d find yourself walking through sewage. “It would be oozing up out of the ground,” she said. “It was unbearable.”
Rockhold, who has helped coordinate social services in the neighborhood for a decade, said Southwood was seen as dangerous and crime-ridden. “The police would say, ‘Don’t drive there by yourself. We’ll be happy to drive you,’” she said.
A lot has changed in six years. The streets and sewer lines are in better shape. The seemingly simple act of compiling a list of residents and getting neighborhood registration stickers for their cars has brought a sense of order and oversight. “With time, it became so much better,” said Rockhold.
But as Habitat has moved toward redevelopment, it’s avoided creating an image of itself as Southwood’s savior—or its private police. From the start, Rosensweig said, the group has tried to identify what’s working in the community and build from there, something sociologists call an asset-based approach.
At times, it can make Rosensweig sound relentlessly optimistic: Instead of calling Southwood the region’s poorest neighborhood, he refers to it as Albemarle County’s biggest opportunity to improve and expand its affordable housing stock. But he says the philosophy has helped Habitat build trust with residents over the last year and a half, during which staff has conducted two long survey interviews with at least one member of each family unit in Southwood—700 heart-to-hearts about what people want their community to be and what they can afford. Consider that a lot of residents are understandably wary of a nebulous plan to scrap their homes, 90 percent of which are resident-owned, and that most of the interviews require a translator, and you start to realize why Habitat puts such a heavy emphasis on relationship building.
“Forget about the squishy stuff, about it being the right thing to do,” Rosensweig said. “Until you have that trust, you can’t then take the next step toward communal planning. And unless you have that communal effort, you’re not going to do anything. You can shoehorn it. You can stuff it into a box. But you’re not going to create a mixed-income development that works.”
Richard Beverly, a Southwood resident for more than a decade, sees the potential benefits as bigger than houses on solid foundations. It’s about pride of place.
“People think of Southwood, they think of people who are no good,” he said over the roar of a neighbor’s leaf blower. “But you’ve got very good people here. For whatever reason, this is where they are. Everybody’s story’s different.”
He’s willing to stretch his pennies a little further and work with his neighbors, he said, if it means he can buy a home he’ll be able to pass down to his daughter.
“If we’re going to do this, we’re all going to have to do it together,” he said.