By Marilyn Pribus –
Habitat for Humanity® of Greater Charlottesville is all about having a home. In more than 25 years of local action, this remarkable effort has constructed more than 200 dwellings, living up to Habitat’s vision of eliminating homelessness and substandard housing by making adequate, affordable shelter a matter of conscience and action.
“Now we are taking a different turn,” declares Habitat’s President and CEO Dan Rosensweig. “We have always focused on affordable home ownership and neighborhood building and now we’re thinking beyond the house and beyond the neighborhood and bringing holistic benefit to residents and the community as a whole.”
Rosensweig explains that Habitat originally got into neighborhood redevelopment about 15 years ago when an investor was talking about turning Sunrise Trailer Court into a condo project. “Habitat just couldn’t accept that ethically,” Rosensweig said. Instead, Habitat bought the property in February of 2005 and built affordable homes.
These days, however, the “different turn” Rosensweig talks about is looking to rescue existing neighborhoods. “In our urban ring,” he says, “neighborhoods are moving quickly from homeowners to outside investors, and there’s a point when there’s not enough ‘skin’ in the neighborhood.” This shortage of homeowners with “skin” in the neighborhood—personal investment in the neighborhood—often leads to rapid turnover of residents and a general decline.
Enter Habitat. “We purchase, rehab and resell homes as well as build,” says Rosensweig. “We seed a neighborhood with rehabbed homes with owners who are strong. We’d rather bolster those neighborhoods now instead of having to fix them in 30 years.”
A shining example is Southwood Mobile Home Park where plans are well under way to develop the existing property which is home to nearly 350 trailers and 1,500 residents. Habitat purchased this property off Old Lynchburg Road in 2007, paying $7 million for nearly 90 acres and also purchasing about 32 nearby acres.
Habitat has already invested millions more in road improvements, sewer upgrades and other infrastructure as they prepare to redevelop the site into a mixed-income, mixed-use community. Current residents won’t be displaced during the construction phase.
There will be three types of housing. First will be subsidized rental housing for people at the low end of the income spectrum. Next, there will be market-rate units. Finally, there will be traditional Habitat partner families who must meet specific financial thresholds, go through training in economic and home maintenance matters and finally contribute “sweat equity.”
This means a minimum of 300 hours spent in working on the actual construction of Habitat homes or other Habitat-related tasks such as volunteering in the Habitat store on Harris Street. “The sweat equity was 300 hours required,” recalls Sheron Sinclair who now lives in her own Habitat home. “I worked on ten houses and then mine. When it’s your own, there’s really no words for that.”
Albemarle County recently approved contributing $675,000 toward the Southwood project in the next several years with a performance agreement between the county and Habitat. Part of those funds will go for planning and project management support with those staff members also doing other work in the county.
“We often work in partnership with folks like Southern Development Homes,” Rosensweig notes. Take, for example, Burnet Commons, a development off Elliott Avenue near Ridge Street. Of the 50 houses, Habitat built 18 from the ground up using their usual plan involving the potential residents. “We don’t build homes for people,” Rosensweig says. “We build homes with people.”
Another partnership is Lochlyn Hill Green where Habitat is currently building eight affordable homes. The neighborhood includes a central park area, playground, park shelter, sidewalks, community gardens, frontage on Pen Park and Meadowcreek Golf Course and connections to Charlottesville’s greenway system leading to Charlottesville High School, the Meadowcreek Parkway trail and the Rivanna Trails System.
Rosensweig explains that Charlottesville and Albemarle County are both involved and 15 percent or more of the homes will be affordable. The neighborhood is the fruition of partnerships between public, private, and nonprofit institutions.
Habitat has received significant support from the CFA Institute, Charlottesville’s Affordable Housing Fund, and several local foundations. The homes are being developed in partnership with the nonprofit Piedmont Housing Alliance and with land acquired through a longstanding relationship with the Charlottesville Abundant Life Ministries.
Groups and Individuals Also Involved
Another group contributing to Habitat’s efforts is CAAR—the Charlottesville Area Association of Realtors. “We do anything we can to help with affordable housing, even if it doesn’t mean a paycheck for us,” says Anthony McGhee of Assist2Sell First Rate Realty, CAAR’s Immediate Past President. “Our overarching wish is that everyone have a home.” He explains that because increasing affordable housing (and enabling ownership) benefits our entire area, local real estate agencies support Habitat with donations and many members grab a hammer or paint brush to help with home construction.
And then there are individuals from high schoolers to college students and area residents of all ages. They mount fundraisers, they work at the Habitat store and they also help build.
“We all want a cozy nest to call home,” points out long-time Habitat volunteer Judy Johnson of Charlottesville. “We put on a hard hat to work with others helping to put a roof over a house, which becomes a home for someone and their family.”
Workers may learn how to hammer, work with sheetrock, and perform other tasks with staff support. Beyond that, says Johnson, it’s a wonderful experience. “When you share a day of working, you feel empowered and so are the family and all the other volunteers.”
Marilyn Pribus and her husband live in Albemarle Country near Charlottesville.