Ten years after Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville purchased the Southwood Mobile Home Park in Albemarle County for redevelopment, construction is still years away. But a group of residents working closely with Habitat staff and architects plans to bring the vision of redevelopment to reality in phases.
Habitat leaders and staff are committed to ensuring that none of Southwood’s 1,500 residents are displaced. Another central goal of the project is to empower residents to be the leaders of the redevelopment themselves.
“It starts with the dreams and concerns of the people,” said Dan Rosensweig, president and CEO of the local Habitat. “That’s the center of everything. From our perspective, a lot of what has gone wrong in redevelopment projects is when there are solutions imposed from the outside.”
Rush Otis, Habitat’s Southwood project director, agrees that long-term change means ensuring decisions come from within the community.
“The ownership that residents feel over the planning process is crucial to the success of the redevelopment,” Otis said. “For us, creating that space for residents to really have a voice and have that collective action and be empowered to affect change in their community is the end goal.”
“I’m just really grateful for their willingness to go with us on what is a really new and different and exciting but nerve-wracking process,” she added. “Their partnership in this is just incredible.”
Earlier this year, about 75 residents completed seven Habitat workshops on land use, roads, commercial space and housing, building their knowledge of the subjects and exploring what they want a redeveloped Southwood to look like.
Southwood residents at a master planning and design meeting last week, who all asked to be identified only by first names, agreed that their vision of redevelopment shifted over the course of the workshops.
“A project like this helps you build your community, helps build your neighbors, and it just makes you think about: Who really is my neighbor?” said Rose, who has lived in Southwood for more than 40 years. “You learn to negotiate, what you can live without, what you must have … We had to come a little ways to get there, but we’re there.”
“When we began the activities with that first meeting, everyone was thinking of, ‘my house, my pool,’” said Guille, a Southwood resident speaking in Spanish via a translator. “Everybody had their own idea for the American Dream.”
As the meetings went on, the group began thinking of the community as a whole, and a final workshop revealed that everyone’s top priority in designing a model neighborhood is affordability.
“We didn’t go with the great big houses, we went for the affordable houses, so a lot of people could have a house in here,” said Joann, another Southwood resident. “We wanted everybody to be together.”
This summer, a subgroup of residents who attended the workshops is working with architects to draft a master plan for the redevelopment, which could be presented to the entire community for feedback in the next two months, according to Rosensweig.
The idea behind the master plan is to define common elements such as roads and parks, then divide the area into pieces that can be designed by community groups in phases.
“We’re trying to do this based on excitement, generating excitement and helping people realize their dreams, rather than saying, ‘sorry, the bulldozers are coming,’” Rosensweig said.
Each piece of the neighborhood will be given to a small group of residents to design based on what they liked and disliked about the pieces developed before them.
“Not everybody is going to be ready at the same time, and that’s OK,” Otis said. “We have a big enough project here, it’s going to be done in phases so that we can really work with people where they are and when they’re ready.”
The residents at last week’s meeting agreed they would be happy to see construction start as soon as possible. However, some residents said others are misinformed about the project or simply don’t believe redevelopment will ever happen.
“If you’re too driven by the timeline, you’re not going to be mindful of when residents are ready to be the leaders of the change,” Rosensweig said. “At the same time, if you defer it for forever, you’re going to lose interest, momentum and credibility. So you have to hold both of those things in tension.”
Rosensweig said fear and anxiety certainly remain in the community, feelings Rose remembers from when news of the redevelopment first spread.
“If you’ve been here so long, like I have, and you can’t really afford anything out there in the open market, and you’re going to lose your home, it sends fear through you,” she said, adding that her fear turned to hope when she learned that the new housing would be affordable.
Southwood’s resident planners are still deciding where to start building. One attractive option is an empty parcel of land Habitat recently acquired from the state on the southeast corner of the neighborhood. Starting there would mean no one would have to leave their current homes before new ones are built.
“When you see the first house go up, it’s going to be mine,” Rose said. “And everybody’s going to say, ‘I want one.’”
Other residents at the meeting jokingly laid claim to the second and third houses.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, but I keep coming to the meetings in order to stay informed,” said another resident who spoke through a translator and preferred to remain anonymous. “That dream of owning a home, if that’s something we’re able to do and stay here, is the dream of a lot of people. So that’s something that we will continue to strive for.”