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Repairing the Carpet of Community

Housing is about people-not just bricks, maintains a trail-blazing housing non-profit organization in Richmond, Virginia.

If you want to improve the lives of the poor, housing is the place to start, maintains TK Somanath, the Executive Director of a remarkable coalition in Richmond, Virginia, USA. The Better Housing Coalition (BHC) has regenerated some of the city's most notorious areas over the last 10 years and provided homes for 700 families and individuals.

For a low-wage earner in the United States, the chances of renting a home are pretty bleak. A low-income family, with one fulltime earner, cannot afford to rent even a modest one-bedroom apartment anywhere in the country, says Somanath. In Richmond, for instance, you'd have to work 14 hours a day, seven days a week at the minimum wage ($5.15 an hour) to pay the rent.

These figures are based on the assumption that people should not have to spend more than a third of their income on housing. According to Somanath, one in seven households in the US spend more than half their income on housing - and every year 100,000 low-income apartments in the US are demolished, abandoned or upgraded to a higher rent band.

Affordable housing, he says, is the key to everything. Take education, for instance. Families who cannot afford to pay their rent move around a lot ‘from one set of relations to another, for instance, or after constant evictions. Their children miss out because they keep changing schools - nearly a third of American children whose families earn less than $10,000 a year attend at least three schools by the age of eight. Providing good low-income housing is an education strategy, he maintains.

In a city like Richmond, where Somanath is based, poor housing is often a race issue. Federal policy after World War II favoured racially and economically homogenous neighbourhoods. As more affluent (and often white) residents moved out to the suburban counties, poor (and often black) families remained in the inner cities in public housing schemes or private apartments rented from absentee landlords.

In 13 years with the BHC, Somanath has seen this trend begin to be reversed, as improved housing has raised its occupants' sense of pride and responsibility, and thus stimulated neighbourliness and reduced crime. As neighbourhoods become more attractive and less dangerous, businesses and middle-class families have begun to return. In those years BHC has invested over $50 million, raised from government, banks, businesses, trusts and individuals, in housing and services.

Somanath plunged into housing issues soon after he arrived in the US from Mysore, India, in 1971, as a 25-year-old civil engineer. Unable to find work in New York, he took a Greyhound bus south, and lost his luggage somewhere between Washington and Richmond. The bus driver suggested he find a bed at the YMCA in Richmond - and he and his wife, Muktha, have made the city their home ever since.

Somanath worked as a surveyor, and then applied for a job at the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority (RRHA), the agency responsible for public housing in the city. The interview included a tour. He was horrified to see people living in tumble-down houses, with dirt floors and cold water. 'I was really surprised that in a country of such wealth there were huge pockets of poverty,' he says. Nearly 30 years on, there are still 400,000 families in the state of Virginia with housing problems.

By 1990, he was the authority's Development Director. He had built up a reputation for creating dialogue between the city authorities and the communities they sought to serve. So when a local philanthropist, Mary Tyler McClenahan, launched the Better Housing Coalition to 'rebuild communities that have long been forgotten or ignored', Somanath was an obvious choice for Executive Director.

With the RRHA, Somanath had managed $30 million worth of projects. BHC's budget in 1990 was $100,000. Moving from the security of a big institution to a fledgling non-profit was a big decision, but one about which he has no regrets. 'I wanted to give something back,' he says. 'When I used to bump into people from the Peace Corps in my home town in India, I used to wonder how these people left all their material comforts to work in the villages. I have been able to translate some of the beliefs so dear to me in terms of creating a just society.'

Another factor, he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, was a decision he made while his four-year-old son was fighting leukemia. 'Somewhere along the line, when he was suffering, I made up my mind to do something worthwhile with my life.' His son recovered and is now married and living in Florida, while his daughter, whose wedding took place this summer, lives in Virginia. Somanath is a Hindu. His son's illness, he tells me, gave him a 'special relationship with the Almighty'. 'Life is a journey: we must make the best use of it.'

On the day that Somanath takes me on a tour of BHC's housing developments, Hurricane Isabel is bearing down on Richmond from the coast of North Carolina. As we drive through the wind and rain, Somanath listens out for tornado warnings on the radio. By next morning, the hurricane will have left 1.8 million people without power, hundreds of thousands without water and 1,200 houses damaged by falling trees.

Most of Richmond has taken the morning off to clear their porches and backyards of moveable objects. But BHC's offices are manned, to Somanath's pride and delight. We meet Carol Jackson, BHC's Director of Property Management, who is checking up on the residents of the coalition's housing developments. 'She has young twins,' Somanath tells me. 'I didn't expect to see her at work today.'

Jackson has been working with BHC for the last five years, after spending her early career in public housing. 'BHC's mission fitted with mine,' she said. 'I'm not too keen on the private sector: residents aren't their priority. I think you should pay more attention to your residents than to the bottom line.'

The office where we meet is at the heart of BHC's first major project, Cary 2000, in a neighbourhood which was dismembered when the Richmond downtown expressway was built in the 1970s. This, in Somanath's words, left 'the rough edges of the community exposed'.

'In the early Nineties people didn't walk these streets,' says Somanath. 'Housing conditions were deplorable, there were drug dealers and gangs. People couldn't borrow money or get homeowners' insurance. Pizza companies wouldn't deliver.' The corner of Cary St and Meadow St was particularly notorious.

In 1990 some of the 'live wires' in the community heard about BHC and asked for help. 'We started having meetings and they told us how the community had been 30, 40 years before. They told us that if we could take care of the corner of Meadow and Cary, then we could do just about anything.' As a first step BHC approached the city council and got the corner's zoning changed from commercial to residential. Then they helped the community to persuade the city to set up a police station there and to get the police out of their cars and onto the beat.

They raised funding, started to buy up properties from absentee landlords and worked out a neighbourhood plan with the residents. Then they began to build. Many long-term residents were afraid that they would be unable to afford the rents of the renovated houses, so BHC raised the money to subsidise rents and minimize displacement.

BHC's architects go for traditional Southern designs, with porches where people can sit out, watch the street and chat to their neighbours. The residents seem to like this: in BHC's flagship development, Winchester Greens, there is hot competition to rent the houses with the largest, wraparound porches.

The aim, says Somanath, is to create 'walkable, humanscale neighbourhoods'. In Winchester Greens, which was built from scratch, the roads have been kept narrow to encourage neighbourliness. The houses have a 5-star energy rating - 'so as to be light both on their inhabitants' pockets and on the planet. Wherever possible, BHC uses recycled materials. 'I'm very concerned about the way we consume resources in the US,' says Somanath. If each of the world's inhabitants consumed as much as the average American, humanity would need four more planets, he says.

Today Cary 2000 has 86 rental apartments and town homes (terraced houses), eight single-family homes and a community resource centre where children can come after school to do their homework and use the computers. This helps to address the digital divide which excludes poor children from the educational benefits of the Internet. The centre also serves as a base for BHC's property management staff, its social work team, and for programmes which offer financial and budget counselling for residents.

A couple of weeks before I visit, there has been a community fair on the very corner which used to be ruled by the drug dealers. The residents have taken back the streets, and newcomers are even choosing to live in the community. Just down the road, someone has bought a house for $280,000.

'It took almost 10 years to see results,' says Somanath. 'It's a really patient block by block building process: there are no quick solutions.' He compares the work of regenerating a community to repairing an oriental carpet.

Somanath and Jackson reckon that BHC's holistic approach is 'kind of unique'. 'We don't just build a building and leave it. We stick with the building and community.'

For instance, says Jackson, if one of the older residents isn't paying their rent on time, she arranges for the social worker to make a home visit. 'She may find the early stages of dementia or depression. At that point she can call in the family and discuss the situation and put them in touch with a network of referral agencies who can support the person in place.' Although sometimes evictions are necessary, in response to flagrant lease violation or drug activities, BHC's approach can often avert a crisis.

BHC has empowered the residents to lobby the council and demand services such as policing, schools and street lights. 'We have connected citizens back into the democratic fabric,' says Somanath.

At first, says Jackson, people were afraid to call the police, for fear of repercussions from the criminals. The police would often give their informant's identity away by arriving at their front door to report. To avoid this, the community resource centre has set up a telephone tree, so that calls to the police, initiated by worried locals, can be made by someone outside the neighbourhood.

Alongside family homes, BHC has prioritized affordable housing for the elderly. By 2010, 19 per cent of Richmond's population will be over 60-and there is a critical shortage of suitable housing. BHC has set up four retirement communities, with some 300 affordable apartments in all.

The Columns on Grove, a beautiful renovation in the fashionable Fan District of downtown Richmond, is the pearl in this collection. The buildings, erected at the turn of the last century as housing for Episcopal women, are on the national register of historic buildings. They were later converted into a nursing home, which stood derelict for 10 years after it closed in the Eighties.

When BHC came up with the idea of converting the buildings into seniors' housing, there was some local opposition, based on the fear that the development would undermine local property values. BHC engaged the community in a six-month dialogue and then embarked on a tasteful renovation. 'Local people are now bringing their parents to live there,' says Somanath. The apartments, with rents of $325-500 a month, stand next door to houses which sell for up to $700,000 and, far from depressing values, are credited with raising them. 'We can't do any more affordable housing in this area because we have been priced out of the marketplace.'

We drive on to Church Hill, site of Richmond's first settlement and one of the US's largest areas of preserved 19th Century housing. Alongside an upmarket sector of mainly white homeowners, it had a rundown area of public housing. Four hundred houses stood empty.

BHC has renovated some of these houses and built new homes on the site of an abandoned supermarket. Once again it had to engage with the NIMBY ('not in my back yard') syndrome. After months of 'delicate negotiations' with concerned locals, BHC agreed to blend in with the neighbourhood's style by incorporating nine foot ceilings, wooden rather than PVC windows, and metal porch roofs on some properties. The community also insisted that 50 per cent of the homes should be for owner occupiers.

'It took a lot of patience and staying power, but it worked out,' says Somanath. 'Once the homes were built, the city provided brick pavements, new trees and street lights.'

While building so many homes for sale may have been a concession, helping poorer families to make the leap to home ownership is one of BHC's core objectives. It helps first time buyers through the labyrinth of mortgages and grants. It adds its own interest-free mortgages, which only have to be repaid if the family sells the house before 15 years are up. People can become BHC home owners for a down payment of less than $1,500.

Our final visit is to Winchester Greens, winner of the prestigious Maxwell Award of Excellence from the Fannie Mae Foundation. Unlike BHC's other major developments, Winchester Greens is situated not in Richmond City itself, but in Chesterfield, one of the suburban counties which surround it. Here BHC demolished a complex of decrepit Sixties housing, and replaced it with attractive town homes and seniors' apartments. The development also includes a childcare centre, swimming pool, fitness centre and other amenities. Since the first buildings opened in 2000, crime has fallen by 80 per cent and violent crime by 90 per cent.

As always, BHC started out on the development by consulting the community. They found that most households were run by women, who were unable to go out to work because of their children. So BHC's first step was to build a childcare centre, open from 6am to 6pm, with an income-related fee scale and space for 140 children. They also drew in government schemes to help people back into work. As a result the proportion of households who depend totally on welfare has dropped from 40 per cent to 5 per cent and average incomes have trebled.

Transport was also an issue. Because of the lack of public transport, low-wage earners who live in the suburbs of US cities often find themselves spending over a quarter of their income on running cars. The proposal that Chesterfield County should lay on a bus service met with considerable opposition initially. In the end, BHC won through-although the service has since been reduced owing, the county argues, to lack of finance.

There is a racial subtext to this, as to other NIMBY protests. 'People in the counties want to keep the city people out of their schools and shopping malls,' explains Carol Jackson tersely, using what another Richmonder later describes as 'Richmond 'code' for race'. The counties have resisted the building of both public and affordable housing within their boundaries. When I ask Somanath whether BHC has had any failures, he cites a development in Henrico County which was blocked by local residents.

Of Winchester Greens' 240 family units, some 90 are rented by people with very low incomes, ‘most of them people who already lived in the neighbourhood and decided to stay on. Most of the other residents are teachers, nurses, police officers, with an average income of $35,000. Ten per cent earn over $60,000. People from all three groups take leadership through the Civic Association-and BHC prides itself on the fact that you cannot tell a resident's income by looking at their home.

A visit to the development's show-house, with its two bathrooms and beautifully fitted kitchen, makes this clear. There's nothing shabby about BHC's idea of affordable housing. 'Give people the best: that's my belief,' says Somanath, simply.

When the building work began at Winchester Greens, many of the original inhabitants could not believe that they would really be allowed to live in the new houses. When they discovered that they could move in, many, says Somanath, 'just cried'.

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Publishing permission refers to the rights of FANW to publish the full text of this article on this website.