Blue Ribbon at the Greens

Monday, May 01, 2006

Nine years ago the 220-unit Park Lee apartments off Jefferson Davis Highway in Chesterfield County, Virginia probably would have been better named the "Pack and Leave" apartments. Because that's what most of its residents wanted to do � as fast as they could.

[Photo: Left to right: Susan Polan, Lissy Bryan and T.K. Somanath]
Left to right: Susan Polan of the American Public Health Association; Lissy Bryan, Board Chair of the Better Housing Coalition and T.K. Somanath, Executive Director of the Better Housing Coalition.

The property was mostly vacant and badly dilapidated. Crime was rampant. The HUD-insured mortgage was in default. And everyone who lived there was looking for a way out.

What a difference nine years makes. After no bidders came forward at the foreclosure auction, HUD sold the complex at a nominal fee to the Better Housing Coalition, one of central Virginia's premier affordable housing organizations. HUD also provided the Coalition a $13.5 million up-front grant and the Better Housing Coalition obtained $6.3 million in bond financing from the Chesterfield Industrial Development Authority, essentially to tear-down and start anew in the area.

The results � beginning with the 240-unit , mixed-income Winchester Greens rental community � have been spectacular. As a result of the investment by HUD and other financial partners and following the opening of Winchester Greens in 1999, the 80-acre area has seen development of a 175 affordable apartments for seniors in three buildings, a neighborhood center and a child care center. Lane B. Ramsey, the Administrator for Chesterfield County, one of Virginia's hottest real estate markets, told The Richmond Times Dispatch that the Greens and what has followed are a "model for revitalization."

Ramsey is not alone in that view. In 2002, for example, the Fannie Mae Foundation conferred a Maxwell Award for Excellence on the community for "outstanding work" in "developing and maintaining affordable housing."

"Ditto!," said the American Public Health Association. Concerned that "healthy communities for kids are on the verge of being engineered out of existence," Association executive director Dr. Georges Benjamin announced in April 2006 that Winchester Greens is one of just five "blue ribbon communities" nationwide � the others are in Riverside County, California, Denver, Colorado, Atlanta, Georgia and Delaware County, Ohio � that are "leading the nation in efforts to build healthy environments for kids."

"Kid-friendly, family-friendly. Whether at Winchester Greens or any of our other communities," said Coalition executive director T.K. Somanath, "there is no better way to describe, no higher compliment that can be paid to our Coalition's purpose, our programs or the projects with which we and our partners are involved. Transforming neighborhoods by helping residents achieve their hopes and dreams is hard work. But the smiles on the faces of kids leading happy lives in a healthy community is the best reward of all."

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