Extreme Makeover: Habitat for Humanity turns trailer parks into town centers

Executive Director Dan Rosensweig has been guiding Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville through Sunrise’s transformation. Photo by John Robinson.

Marion Dudley thought she was going to lose her home in 2004.

Local developer HT Ferron met with Dudley and her neighbors in Sunrise Trailer Court that year to tell them they would have to vacate the Belmont neighborhood in a matter of months. Dudley, who spent most of her life as an introvert avoiding confrontation, stood up and raised hell at the meeting.

“I think I scared the living bloomers off that poor architect,” she said with an air of amusement.

Though she would have had the option of moving in with her sister in Palmyra, Dudley knew most of her elderly neighbors had nowhere else to go.

“We’re a family here,” she said.

Eight years later, Dudley is settled with her husband and three birds in a comfortable new apartment 500′ from her old trailer. The road to get there began after the meeting, when she established her role as unofficial mayor of Sunrise. She let no questions go unanswered as she represented residents in a long redevelopment project with Habitat for Humanity—the organization that Dudley said saved her and her neighbors from displacement.

Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville began broadening its approach to creating affordable housing in the early 2000s, and is tackling the issue by buying trailer parks and eventually replacing them with permanent high-density, mixed-income neighborhoods with services to give stability to vulnerable residents.

Traditionally, Habitat for Humanity builds houses for families who were previously unable to afford homeownership. Most Sunrise residents are seniors unwilling to enter mortgages so late in life, so Habitat offered other options. Those eligible could apply to be a partner family and own a home, or residents could choose to rent an apartment in the new complex, the “promise keeper.” If a family chose to leave Sunrise, Habitat offered assistance in the cost of moving a trailer and finding a new home.

Trailer parks were uncharted territory for Habitat, but the organization saw that purchasing the Belmont property could not only prevent a developer from forcing residents out, but also create a new, permanent neighborhood of affordable housing.

So with $1 million, a rough plan in mind, and a promise to residents that they could stay, Habitat purchased Sunrise Trailer Court. According to the Charlottesville affiliate’s executive director, Dan Rosensweig, Sunrise represented the first trailer park redevelopment in the country without resident displacement. The organization had to make it up along the way, but is measuring its success and scaling up to adopt the model in Southwood, an Albemarle County trailer park over 20 times the size of Sunrise.

New day in Sunrise 

Where 16 trailers—many of which were old and rotting—used to stand, Habitat has built a four-story complex of rental apartments and affordable condos, and eight duplexes for partner families. The organization will build four more duplexes by next year, and sell the remaining plots to developers at market rate.

As the owner of a trailer that had been her home for over 30 years, Dudley said she felt she was losing the one thing that was really hers. After the developer scare, she was the first to admit that she was skeptical of Habitat’s plan.

“It was the unknown,” she said. “Were we going to have a place to live? Were we going to be able to afford it?”

Dudley said the prospect of such a drastic change was terrifying and daunting to her neighbors who had long-time attachment to their trailers. But Habitat welcomed questions and encouraged involvement from the beginning, holding meetings and explaining everything step by step.

“There’s nothing we go to them with that they won’t take care of,” Dudley said.
Nine families settled into their new homes on July 7, a day long awaited by the original Sunrise residents who have watched the project progress for eight years.

Of the 16 original families, two passed away and five chose to move elsewhere, which raised concern for some city officials.

City Councilor Dede Smith said she was skeptical of Habitat’s trailer park conversion from the beginning. It put her in the minority on Council, but she said her antennae went up when she learned that not every family stayed in Sunrise.

“At council meetings, I have voiced my concern as to whether Habitat’s city projects benefit the many current city residents in need of affordable housing,” Smith said. “I will be interested to see how many low-income residents are able to own their own home at Sunrise, compared to how many lost theirs.”

Councilor Dave Norris said the city has enthusiastically supported Habitat for Humanity, financially and otherwise, for years, and he is excited to see a new opportunity for working class families to own homes in Sunrise.

“We had some citizens that were going to lose their homes, and Habitat gave them the opportunity to stay in their neighborhood, in higher quality housing that they could afford,” Norris said. “That’s pretty rare.”

But Dudley said the families who left Sunrise did so of their own accord.

“I think they were afraid they would lose everything, so I understand why they were scared,” she said. “But Habitat opened the door for all of us, and the others chose to leave.”
Habitat and Sunrise residents were not the only stakeholders in the long-term project. Other non-profits and prominent local donors also bought into the innovative idea, including the late philanthropist John W. Kluge and his wife Tussi.

Kluge said she and her husband preferred to put their money into people and get personally involved with charity rather than simply naming a building after themselves. She currently resides in Germany, but devoted hours to hammering, painting, and sweating on the Habitat homes in Sunrise, and plans to spend several months of the year in her own house in the newly redeveloped neighborhood.

“I have lived in a certain privileged way for many years, and now I am at an age when I truly want to live more simply,” she said in an e-mail. “Since Sunrise is so important to me, and I believe so much in the idea behind it, why not live there myself?”

Before he died, her husband wanted to contribute to a place where Sunrise residents can gather as a family. So the John W. Kluge Foundation, in collaboration with the American Association of Retired Persons, is funding a new community center on the apartment’s basement floor. It will be a place where residents can gather to socialize and learn from one another, something they feared they might lose in the redevelopment process.

Sunrise Community Coordinator Caitlin Riopel said the center will be “whatever the residents want it to be,” and will include cooking classes, gardening lessons, acupuncture, and yoga. She said she hopes residents will use the center to share the neighborhood’s unique culture and resources, especially among immigrant neighbors from as far away as Afghanistan and Ghana.

Rosensweig said Habitat immediately recognized the original residents’ desire to maintain its tight-knit, family-like atmosphere, so developing the community center was an essential part of building the neighborhood. Upon funding and opening of the center, Habitat will host a block party in Sunrise Park to celebrate the completion of Phase One on September 15.
Meanwhile, the organization is setting its sights on a similar project, but with a much larger footprint.

Scaling up 

In 2007, Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville purchased Southwood, a 100-acre trailer park off Fifth Street in Albemarle. About 1,500 people live in 348 trailers, and many residents are immigrants of varying legal status with incomes that put them below the poverty line. Habitat sees it as the greatest remaining opportunity in the region to combat the affordable housing crisis.

The organization plans to redevelop the neighborhood using a model similar to Sunrise. Rosensweig said he hopes to break ground in Southwood by 2016, and gradually eliminate the need for deteriorating old trailers by building permanent affordable housing, though specifics—the number and type of buildings, the ratio of affordable to market rate units—are still being worked out.

Rosensweig said his organization made a promise to complete the project without displacement—as they define it, forcing a family, for financial reasons, to leave against their will—and is currently surveying Southwood residents to better understand the challenges they’ll face in doing so. Some turnover is expected, but they’ve pledged to assist any family who decides to move on during the redevelopment, just as they did when they covered the moving cost of a Sunrise resident who wanted to relocate his trailer. How exactly they’ll prevent displacement on a larger scale in Southwood is still unclear, but Rosensweig said Habitat is morally obligated to find a way.

Due to sheer magnitude of the project, Rosensweig said, construction in Southwood will not begin for at least another four years. But in the meantime, Habitat has begun making changes to improve quality of life in the trailer park.

Five years ago, Habitat partnered with the Boys & Girls Club to restore a dingy convenience store and transform it into a vibrant community center.

Southwood’s Community Coordinator Anne Ternes said now that Southwood has a physical site for activities, groups often contact her wanting to bring new programs to the trailer park.
Thursday afternoons, mothers push their strollers into the conference room at the community center to learn about nutrition for women and young children. And with the new community garden, families have access to fresh produce and can apply at home what they learn about healthy eating.

Pre-K children play simple games and learn basic math skills through face-to-face time with Cale Elementary teachers, which Ternes said benefits both kids and their parents when preparing for kindergarten.

Twice a month, a tight-knit group of elderly residents gather at the community center for Bingo. Ternes said members of the group began calling themselves the “Golden Sassy Seniors,” and she would love to see the group share its camaraderie with the seniors at Sunrise for a combined Bingo night.

Nallely Gomez has been sharing a Southwood trailer with her family for 13 years, and while she said she never felt unsafe or unwelcome, the new programs and activities available at the center have made life easier for her and her two children.

“It changed for good,” she said. “I’m a single mom, and it really helps me.”

Gomez’s elementary-aged daughters stay at the club during the summer, allowing her to work full-time without worrying about a babysitter. Her girls have developed an affinity for soccer during their time at the club and will soon be joining a small soccer league. Gomez said the sport not only keeps them active, but also out of trouble.

While Ternes continues to implement programs and facilitate community involvement, other Habitat officials will focus on identifying other needs through the detailed survey. Newly hired interns will go door to door and conduct personal, one-on-one conversations with every Southwood family, which will be vital in determining what the residents want the new neighborhood to be.

“We have four years to be engaged with the residents and keep them informed,” Ternes said. “We need to make it clear to people that we need their active participation.”

Rosensweig said getting neighborhood involvement is essential before drawing up any building plans. He learned in Sunrise that people quickly develop emotional attachment to plans, so this time around, Habitat will start from the ground up and allow time for extensive research and input before drawing up a design.

“Until we know what they want or need, we really can’t begin to start thinking about anything else,” Rosensweig said. “I get asked all the time what Southwood’s going to look like, and my only response is ‘We don’t know.’”

Same mission, new method 

Charlottesville is the first Habitat affiliate to tackle trailer parks, and officials say the projects complement the area and will have a positive impact on the city in a number of ways.

Piedmont Housing Alliance Executive Director Stuart Armstrong said he was happy to see Habitat taking a creative approach to the ongoing challenge of providing affordable housing in and around Charlottesville. In comparison to the area’s other affordable housing options, Armstrong said Habitat’s model is not necessarily better or worse than others—just different.

“It’s creating another opportunity for folks to buy a house who might not have normally been able to,” he said.

Armstrong also sees Habitat’s new model as an economic boon for the area. Mobile homes are taxed as personal property at $0.95 per hundred dollars of assessed value, so replacing the trailers with permanent homes will create more tax revenue for the city and county.
The ambitious project has also received national attention, and the organization says it could be setting a new standard for affordable housing in the U.S.

“Before the real estate market collapse, there were a lot of trailer parks going to developers nationwide. Residents were really at risk of having to move,” said Sue Henderson, Habitat for Humanity International Vice President of U.S. Operations.

Henderson recently visited Charlottesville to see the changes in Sunrise and Southwood. She said the model could certainly be replicated in other states, but mixed-income neighborhoods require a for-profit developer to be at the table, which can be a challenge in tough economic times. Adaptations of the plan would depend on local conditions and an affiliate’s ability to secure the land, she said, but she hopes to see more trailer park transformations throughout the country.

Overton McGehee, who currently works at Habitat’s state organization, agreed that the strategy will not work everywhere. But he said growing communities like Charlottesville, where rezoning for higher density is possible, will likely be able to adopt the model successfully.

McGehee was executive director of Habitat’s Charlottesville affiliate for 11 years and watched the original idea come to life, and though he now works in Richmond, he has returned several times.

Charlottesville’s new model is showing affiliates across the country that setting large goals for neighborhood revitalization pays off, McGehee said. He quoted Habitat founder Millard Fuller: “Big donors don’t get excited by small goals.”

The trailer park redevelopment is an exciting step for Charlottesville, but officials and volunteers have not abandoned Habitat’s traditional goal, working with partner families to build homes.

While conducting the extensive surveys in Southwood, Habitat will continue working with partner families to build homes, with a goal of constructing at least 20 houses per fiscal year.
The new paradigm has not affected Habitat’s dedication to home ownership, Rosensweig said, nor has it drastically impacted the organization’s budget. According to Rosensweig, the affiliate operates three separate budgets, so Southwood and Sunrise have minimal impact on the overall core finances.

Southwood’s rent has brought in about $1.2 million in annual revenue, and Rosensweig said the Southwood budget began to break even two years ago. Any surplus at the end of the year goes into an account reserved for future redevelopment.

Sunrise is currently lumped in with Habitat’s core budget, but Rosensweig said when the pending grants from the AARP and John W. Kluge Foundation come through, Sunrise will be separated into a fourth budget. He estimated putting about $100,000 into Sunrise next fiscal year, and expects significant revenue from selling market-price plots of land.

Though she is grateful for her new apartment, Marion Dudley said the transition has not been an easy one. After over 30 years in Sunrise she developed an attachment to her trailer, and now she can stand on her porch and watch as Habitat volunteers deconstruct her old home to save parts for reuse in Southwood.

But despite the emotions surrounding her trailer, Dudley loves her new home and said the only complaint so far has been low water pressure in her shower, which Habitat fixed immediately. Now every morning she enjoys her coffee while sitting on the porch, overlooking miles of mountains and endless Virginia sky.

Leaning against the railing and gazing out over the neighborhood, Dudley smiled.

“The view’s better from up here,” she said.