New Day at Sunrise

Monday, March 26, 2007

Located just a few miles east of the Blue Ridge and home to Jefferson's Monticello and the University of Virginia, there are plenty of reasons why Charlottesville consistently ranks among America's best places to live. No wonder, too, that so many people want to move there, retire there,

That's the good news.

The not-so-good news is that all those people and the thousands more who come every year mean ever higher prices for the existing housing stock and ever less space for new housing. It may be the best place for those of means to live, but not-so-best, not-so-affordable for those on fixed or modest incomes.

[Photo 1: Sunrise at sunset]
Sunrise at sunset.

Like, for example, the 17 households that call the 2.2 acre Sunrise Trailer Court home. Every year, "thousands of low-income people get displaced by development because trailer courts are often in prime locations," Overton McGehee of Habitat of Greater Charlottesville, told The Richmond Times Dispatch. "We wanted to change that here."

Change it Habitat is. In late 2004, it bought the 2.2 acre trailer park for $1.2 million hoping to use, the Times Dispatch reported, HUD and other funds " to redevelop it as a high-density complex of 60 energy-efficient town houses and condominiums," based on ideas submitted both by residents and through an international design competition. Current residents - some of whom have lived there for more than 25 years - aren't going anywhere. In fact, Habitat's plans to build the project in phases, with trailers shifted to empty pads until their new apartments are ready for occupancy. Nine are elderly and are planning to rent while the rest expect to buy town houses in the new complex.

Reflecting Habitat's traditional commitment to "sweat equity," when ground is broken later this spring the bulk of the transformation will be done by volunteers, with some of the more complex work done by subcontractors. But the project also reflects an important departure from Habitat's usual approach to expanding the supply of affordable housing.

[Photo 2: Sunrise Trailer Park]
Sunrise Trailer Park - Charlottesville.

"I think building single-family homes is a dream of the past," explained Habitat chairwoman Lynne Conboy, "especially because of high land costs here. You don't make a large impact on affordable housing until you take risks."

And Habitat's "risk," its firs-of-a-kind approach is garnering plenty of attention. "We're following this enthusiastically," commented Ed Carr of Habitat International in Americus, Georgia. "We see what is happening in Charlottesville as a model for a solution not just for Habitat but for other like-minded organizations and even for for-profit builders." Indeed, Habitat Charlottesville also has just closed on the purchase of a 100-acre mobile home park in adjacent Albemarle County.

The once at-risk residents of Sunrise also are enthusiastic. If we had been forced to leave, it would have been a disaster," said resident Marion Dudley. "I didn't know what was going to happen. I didn't know where I was going," adds resident Dorothy Williams. "This saved my life."


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