A "Win" in Winchester

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

If at first you don't succeed, you can try, try and try again, hoping you succeed. Or, you can just try an altogether different approach.

[Photo 1: House before upgrade]
[Photo 2: House after upgrade]

That's the lesson that's been learned in Winchester, a city of 25,000 at the northern tip of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.

Faced with a homeownership rate well below the national average, concentrations of dilapidate buildings, a shortage of affordable rental housing and rapidly rising housing prices due to the westward expansion of Washington's suburbs, in 2005 a City-appointed housing task force recommended and the City Council approved a referendum asking voters to support creation of a housing and redevelopment authority to address Winchester's housing issues.

The voters said "NO."

Instead of beating their heads against the wall and trying referendum after referendum, Winchester's management team came up with an entirely different approach - realigning city services to create an Office of Housing and Neighborhood Development.

Established to lead the City's efforts to address the housing challenges it already faces and to prepare for those the relentless westward movement of Washington's suburbs will bring, the Office is charged with managing the CDBG program, its Housing Choice Homeownership Voucher Program, , its Spot Blight Program, its Housing and Community Resource Center and, most recently, a newly-formed private-public partnership that will continue to meet the housing and community development needs of the community.

For all the work on their desks, the Office's staff is not afraid to "take to the streets." Two Tuesdays a month, the staff takes a walk with representatives from the City's police, fire, zoning, utilities and environmental maintenance offices through one or another of Winchester's neighborhoods, not just to identify the problems in that neighborhood, but also who is responsible for fixing them.

After less than two years, Winchester's approach is already seen as a model for others. "Smaller localities in Virginia," observed the Virginia Municipal League this fall in conferring a 2006 Achievement Award on Winchester's efforts, "often lack the administrative capacity to address housing and community needs comprehensively. Most often, these small localities operate successful programs, but seldom integrate them in a way that achieves maximum results." But Winchester's new office, it says, has become "the point of contact on issues related to housing, neighborhood and community outreach."

"Winchester is one of HUD's newest entitlement communities," said HUD Richmond Field Office Director Bill Miles. "But it already has become a leader, showing other communities how to efficiently and effectively address the challenges they face."


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