Revitalization Efforts Cut Short

December 9, 2013

By Ireti Adesanya

A home is for sale on Catherine St. Photo by Ireti Adesanya

A home is for sale on Catherine St.
Photo by Ireti Adesanya

Julia Dean was in the market for a new home when she was lured to the Carver neighborhood eight years ago.

Dean, a retiree, had been living in Randolph, a neighborhood in Richmond just north of the Downtown Expressway, when she heard about a government program that was giving first-time homebuyers the chance to own new and affordable homes.

“Well I had started looking for somewhere to move and the past president of Carver said, ‘Come on to Carver we’re looking for good people; we’re building up the neighborhood,’” said Dean.

“I said, oh I don’t know and she kept on pressuring me. She was like, ‘We’ve got this program going on, Neighborhoods in Bloom.’”

Neighborhoods in Bloom, is an award-winning neighborhood revitalization program, in the City of Richmond. It was created to decrease blight, and increase homeownership in order to generate private investment interest.

Fourteen years after its inception, the program is still running but on a trimmed budget. In neighborhoods like Carver where revitalization brought over 60 new homes the program’s initiatives have also been hampered by an overabundance of private investors.

Carver is a historic neighborhood in Richmond just north of Broad St. To the east of Carver is Jackson Ward and downtown Richmond. Most importantly, Carver is situated all along the north boundary of Virginia Commonwealth University.

Because Carver is located so close to VCU, private developers have been buying homes and land to build student apartments. This has caused tension between residents and students. It has also undermined the efforts of Neighborhoods in Bloom to stabilize the community.

“There is so much private investment in Carver now its scary,” says Juanita Buster, a Richmond City planner.

This is a map delineating the Carver neighborhood


View Carver in a larger map

Neighborhoods in Bloom, was implemented in 1999, with the intention of selling single-family homes to first-time homebuyers with low-to-moderate incomes. Recipients had to make 80 percent of the median income.

“The city was really trying to stabilize these neighborhoods that’s why we took on the homeownership focus,” said Buster. “What we try to do is increase the value in the neighborhood so that the private sector can then come in and work. The private sector will not work where it cannot make a profit.”

Between 2000 and 2004, the program used about two-thirds, or an equivalent of $16.6 million of its Community Block Grant and Home Investment Partnership funds, which came from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to fund the program.

The money went to six historic neighborhoods that were located next to or around central business districts (universities, major companies, hospitals etc.). Each neighborhood had high rates of crime, poverty, and vacant houses. In addition to, low property values and low homeownership rates. The six neighborhoods targeted were:

  • Carver/Newtowne West
  • Highland Park
  • Swansboro
  • Bellemeade
  • Highland Park

In partnership with the Virginia Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a community development support corporation, the city created lines of credit for nonprofit housing corporations to access in order to build, rehab and sell homes.

Through the help of community development corporations like Better Housing Coalition, project:HOMES, and the Southside Community Development & Housing Corporation nearly 130 vacant homes were renovated. Furthermore, close to 400 new and renovated houses were sold between 2000 and 2005, according to HUD.

According to Lynn McAteer, the vice president of planning and special projects, at Better Housing Coalition—the organization was actively involved with the planning and implementation of Neighborhoods in Bloom houses in Carver.

“In 2003, the housing authority owned almost the two blocks in Carver on Catherine St. So we agreed to partner with the city and the housing authority to develop those blocks into single family homes for first-time homebuyers.  So over the course of about two years we completed 15 houses,” said McAteer.

Julia Dean and Lynn McAteer discuss their involvement with Neighborhoods in Bloom and its impact on Carver.

Because the city has not tracked the progression of the program there is no public data available to determine the number of new homeowners and new homes built since 2005. Or the number of vacant homes bought, renovated or sold.

“As the program became more institutionalized we stopped tracking the data as much,” said Buster. Who estimates that anywhere between 70 to 80 homes have been renovated and built in Carver. With over 600 homes built or renovated in all six neighborhoods.

The lack of focus on the program reflects the lack of funding the program has received, which Buster estimates costs about $600,000 a year to fund.

According to a study conducted by John Accordino and Fabrizio Fasulo, of the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, between 2002 and 2012 funding for Neighborhoods in Bloom declined by 68 percent.

The Great Recession in 2007 also caused community development corporations to lose access to their lines of credit.

“Many of them relied on small banks that could no longer give loans or they relied on family and when people lost jobs investments went south. They did not have access to credit so you saw the small investors step out of the Neighborhoods in Bloom areas,” said Buster.

The lack of funding has left Carver vulnerable to private investors who are buying properties to use as housing for students.

“I do wish we could get some more actual homeowner residents rather than people buying to rent to students. The downside to being so close to VCU is that we’re about 80 percent rental and I’d rather see some more homeownership within the neighborhood,” said Margaret Rush, the president of the Carver Association.

According to the 2010 Census, which consists of data gathered over a 10-year period, 72 percent of the 820 occupied housing units in Carver are rented; compared to the 21 percent of which were owned. In addition, 72 percent of renters are between the ages of 15 and 24.

Dean says she too would like to see more single-family houses, but that ultimately Neighborhoods in Bloom brought a much-needed change to the community.

“The look of Neighborhoods in Bloom with the new houses just made it beautiful and made people want to pay attention …and people filtered in,” said Dean.

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Lynn McAteer, vice president of planning and special projects, at Better Housing Coalition, discusses the importance of the homebuyer classes Neighborhoods in Bloom recipients have to take. In order to qualify for a home built by the nonprofit housing organization, recipients must attend classes to learn the responsibilities needed to manage a home. Better Housing Coalition does not actually administer the classes, but refers potential homeowners to classes provided by Housing Opportunities Made Equal and the Virginia Housing Development Authority. The classes are free and can be taken in a classroom or online.