City officials, public housing residents, donors and planners on Sunday turned dirt on what they hope will be not just 62 new affordable residential units but homes that provide security, safety and love to residents.
The Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority is constructing three new apartment buildings on a former ballfield on South First Street that will include one-, two- and three-bedroom homes and a community center.
The homes will feature amenities such as dishwashers and washers and dryers and will be built using durable, high-quality materials. The buildings also will feature solar panels.
Using authority land, the project is funded through Low Income Housing Tax Credits and private donations, including money from the Dave Matthews Band’s BAMA Fund. Charlottesville and the state are also providing fund.
The apartments are expected to be ready for residents by April 2022.
The project is a unique combination of government, private donors, nonprofit agencies and public housing residents, who were essential in designing the redevelopment of the property.
“For more than 25 years, redevelopment and public housing in the city of Charlottesville have been conversations and promises to residents,” said Audrey Oliver, one of the leaders of the Public Housing Association of Residents who worked to get the project under way. “The promises became broken and the residents became discouraged because the promises were never delivered.”
Oliver said Sunday’s groundbreaking represents the first of three phases to rebuild public housing in the city and that residents will be involved in all three phases.
“Our mission, and our goal, is to build 370 new units that will allow all of our families new units,” she said. “It will not happen overnight, but with everyone’s support, we can make it happen.”
Charlottesville’s first public housing units were built in 1964 after the city tore down the Vinegar Hill neighborhood, where many African Americans lived and owned businesses.
The original public housing units, which are still in use, were built of concrete block and had an industrial design that made them feel less like a residence and more like an institutional building.
Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker told those gathered for the groundbreaking that the new residences will feel like true homes.
“We understand that there was no intention behind the building of [original] spaces to honor the people and their families. And we know today what should have been known then — that that is absolutely unacceptable,” she said.
“All people deserve to have homes that they can feel and see the love in. And that’s what we’ve been attempting to do with these homes,” Walker said. “The places you cook your Sunday dinners in, the places that you send your kids off to school in and where you welcome them home that afternoon should be spaces that are not only filled with love from your heart, but you can look around and everything in that built space shows love.”
The groundbreaking is the result of years of advocacy and planning. In 2016, PHAR released a vision statement in which public housing residents set down principles and potential steps forward.
That led to the resident-based planning of the new facilities in partnership with the CRHA. Riverbend Development, Red Light Management, Virginia Community Development Corporation, architect Arnold Design Studio, BRW Architects, Collins Engineering, Breeden Construction, Legal Aid Justice Center, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and others were credited by officials and residents for making the project possible.
Speakers also credited the late Holly Edwards, a former city councilor who died in 2017. They cited her work with public housing residents while on the council and also in her role as a nurse working with the Jefferson Area Board for Aging at the Crescent Hall and Westhaven public housing sites.
Before the groundbreaking, Walker called for a moment of silence to remember Edwards, who would have turned 62 Sunday.
Shelby Edwards, Holly Edwards’s daughter and PHAR executive director, said her mother’s effort on behalf of residents is now showing fruit. She said that should be a reminder that today’s efforts may not pay off in this lifetime.
“The only thing we have for sure is that we are going to die, so what are we going to do with our lives while we have them? Are we going to build systems? Are we going to break down systems? Are we going to do both?” she asked, rhetorically.
Edwards said putting the residents first in the effort is essential to changing the system.
“It is important that we sow the seeds for a crop that will continue to grow forever and forever and forever,” she said. “And happy birthday, mom.”