After years of work and planning, 49 households preparing to move into their new homes celebrated the opening of the Southwood redevelopment project outside Charlottesville.
With tears, smiles, and laughter, a crowd that included Theresa Brock, Tatiana Cerrato and Maria Torres shared their stories with friends, family, and local and state leaders at a dedication Saturday morning.
They are now the residents of the first of 11 new villages of affordable houses funded by Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville that will be built over the next decade on the 120-plus-acre property that was once a trailer park.
“This community and what we believe in, we can all see happening. All the beautiful new ownership and this new community really makes me so grateful. To be a homeowner, it’s a dream I never expected,” Brock told The Daily Progress, eyes welling up. “I can’t wait to move in.”
Brock has lived in Southwood for the past 45 years. She said her late husband never believed that their homeownership dreams would ever come to fruition.
“I’ve been living here for 45 years, and it took a lot of patience but it’s an absolute dream come true,” Brock said. “My husband didn’t believe this would happen. He only saw trees being torn down when he died. He never thought it would happen in our time. But it is finally a reality, and I wish he could see it.”
Torres and Cerrato echoed Brock.
“It’s an unexplainable indescribable feeling. It has been a long time in the making, and I am grateful to God and Habitat for giving me this opportunity to get those keys,” Torres told The Daily Progress. “If I could say in one word, it’s incredible. I don’t know how to fully express my thanks.”
“With my twins 6 months old and with no way to heat the house, the urgency to have a safe and secure home of our own became undeniable,” Cerrato said. “Throughout this journey, we have experienced the true meaning of privilege … from landing a new job to meeting influential leaders like Senator Kaine, this program has gifted us with knowledge, contacts and possibilities beyond our wildest dreams.
“In times of anxiety and uncertainty, each nail hammered in was a symbol of hope, resilience and unwavering support within this community. Our homes are more than just structures. They are the foundation of dreams aspirations and a future of possibilities.”
Leaders from across the commonwealth turned out to congratulate the new homeowners, including Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, state Sen. Creigh Deeds and Del. Sally Hudson.
University of Virginia men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett was also there — in video.
The park where the ceremony took place at Southwood is named after Bennett’s coaching philosophy: “Five Pillars.” Those pillars are humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness.
“On this day, the fact that I can even give you guys congratulations and welcome home, I hope it’s wonderful. I pray and hope you all enjoy your new homes and what you’ve done has set an example for many others moving forward,” Bennett said. “What you guys have envisioned and brought to fruition is really special.”
Habitat’s involvement started in 2007.
Since purchasing the trailer park 15 years ago, the group has made it a priority not to evict any resident. It poured more than $25 million into the project to stabilize operations and secure the future of its residents.
When it came time to design and build new neighborhoods, Habitat helped residents learn about architecture, engineering, urban planning, finance and design. Then, residents were handed the reins to design their new neighborhoods.
“Over the last few years, we have had so many meetings with community and architecture and come up with ideas designing how our neighborhood will look,” Torres said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s not often you get to design your own neighborhood and put stuff where you want. I feel so grateful.
To keep costs low, Habitat used a “sweat equity” policy. Families put in the time to help build their own homes or help out Habitat.
“To make the home more affordable, Habitat requires families to physically do the work in their homes. It can be anything like framing, painting, cleaning and landscaping,” Torres said. “Everything you do, all those hours accumulate up to complete that sweat equity.”
“I completed my 200 sweat equity hours, and now I’m just waiting to move in,” Brock said.
More than 1,000 new homes are slated for construction at Southwood, with about half designed to be affordable and the other half to be sold at market-rate prices.
Dan Rosensweig, CEO and president of the local Habitat arm, said he believes the mixed-income aspect of housing at Southwood will make it unique.
“It’s like a new city but really it’s different than anything else. Most cities these days are pretty segregated, or it’s almost impossible to live in if you don’t have much money. If you do live in the city, a neighborhood is segregated by race or income or class or nationality,” Rosensweig said. “This is going to be maybe the most diverse neighborhood in the country with low-income people and the people who can afford market-rate homes and everyone in between.”
By the end of the year, all families planning to move into the first village at Southwood will be sitting in their new homes, Habitat officials said. In the meantime, some homes need a few more inspections and city approvals before families get the keys to their new homes.