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Rock band plays lead for public housing redevelopment while residents let their voices be heard

A colorful plastic playground sits between two brick residential buildings. The grass is green and the playground is surrounded by a metal black fence.
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VPM News Focal Point
When private donors and public housing residents come together, they find new ways forward.

With the need for affordable housing growing and public dollars to build or improve not meeting demand, private partners and longtime stakeholders find their way to the planning table. What results is better housing, new friendships and possibly, a blueprint for other cities


ANGIE MILES: Behind certain Charlottesville buildings, you'll find a band of builders you might not expect. Among the designers and funders of these public housing developments are residents and rock stars.

♪ Why I ♪

♪ Am still here ♪

ANN KINGSTON (HEAD OF PHILANTHROPIC GIVING, REDLIGHT MANAGEMENT): One of the many things I love about Dave Matthews Band and all of its members is they just have really always loved Charlottesville, and this is where they got their start, and they have remained true to that. And I think they just love Charlottesville, and want to make Charlottesville a better place and a more inclusive place. The band has a long history of giving back and raising funds from their shows, and had developed a relationship with some of the residents of public housing. And following the tragic events of August 2017, the band decided they wanted to do more in town, and we partnered with some of the residents of public housing. In an effort to redevelop all of public housing, we realized that public housing was in a deteriorating state, so the band decided to put in $5 million upfront as a catalyzing gift. The first thing we did was to tackle this building, Crescent Halls, which is behind us. It's 105 units, houses a lot of low-income seniors and people facing other challenges. Meanwhile, we started building brand new units on the backside of South First Street. So, those are completed and we're getting ready to break ground on the second phase of South First Street, and we're also getting ready to break ground on 6th Street, and eventually we'll make our way to Westhaven. So, all of Charlottesville's public housing.

JOHN SALES (EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, CHARLOTTESVILLE HOUSING AND REDEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY): A couple years ago we started investing in the preservation of housing, of affordable housing.

ANGIE MILES: The head of Charlottesville's Redevelopment and Housing Authority, John Sales, is overseeing major improvements or replacement projects for all of what has been public housing for the city. Increasingly, private partnerships have come into play as public funding shrinks, and the need for affordable housing is more pressing. Sales says, "Philanthropy allows the Housing Authority to solve big problems and unexpected crises as well."

JOHN SALES: So, this building, when we first started the project, within six to eight months, we had a huge flood. Without having the private donors that came to the table, I don't know how we would've moved all the residents out and put them in hotels for months. I don't how we would've fed them. I don't know how we would've got them into new housing for the year and a half it took to complete the project. I don't know how we would've eaten the $2 million change order for the water pipes to be replaced. And so having the private donors that have come to the table, I mean, this project probably wouldn't have happened without it.

ANGIE MILES: This building is testament to the power of resident directed design, something that was far from the minds of the first public housing planners nearly a century ago. But it is becoming more the standard for housing receiving public funds.

JOY JOHNSON (RESIDENT AND PHAR MEMBER): The residents are the ones who actually knows, and feel, and can tell you what's going on. They're stakeholders, because they have a lease with the Housing Authority, and the Housing Authority has a signed lease with them, and so they're stakeholders. And so why wouldn't you have a stakeholder at the table? They basically designed this patio here, the parking lot, the breezeway, and it's beautiful on the inside. Their kitchen, you know, it was what the residents wanted and asked for. Was it a easy task? No, but we stuck through it.

ANGIE MILES: The process was similar at South First Street where old row-style units are being replaced with multistory apartments. Phase one was finished in 2023.

JOY JOHNSON: Groundwork started without the residents. Where South First Street is now, it was a open lot, it was a ball field. There wasn't anything there. And so, when they decided that that's where they were going to build first and the residents found out about it, they decided that, "Oh, okay, we want to get involved," and they got involved, and all of the design inside was done with residents.

ANGIE MILES: One of those residents is Audrey Oliver. She and Joy Johnson both serve on PHAR, the Public Housing Association of Residents.

AUDREY OLIVER (RESIDENT AND PHAR MEMBER): The old units were like row units. And I lived in a unit that was like, to have somebody living over top of you and underneath of you. And then, we had a nice-sized, fenced-in backyard, and the front yard was just plenty of room there. All in all, I miss a lot, but I also enjoy a lot of what I do have, because, you know, we didn't have the patio like we have in the new units.

ANGIE MILES: Both women say the experience of being included in the planning process for redevelopment was pivotal for those who live in these communities.

AUDREY OLIVER: I think that people have always looked at public housing residents as slow people, not really able to catch it. And they realized how intelligent that public housing residents were, so it was really a challenge for them. But it was also a challenge for us to be able to deal with a lot of them, because they didn't know how to deal with us.

JOY JOHNSON: They learned about ceiling, learned about roof, they learned about windows, they learned about critical slopes. So they got a crash course in those kind of things.

AUDREY OLIVER: I just witnessed our residents being empowered. They were just so empowered. They were so proud of themselves. They were just so excited about learning the process and being able to go into the public and do public speaking, and being able to look at the blueprints, and just be able to pick out some of the designs that they liked and what they didn't like and they saw. And, I mean, they were just excited about being able to just get out there and do something different.

JOHN SALES: I think it's good for the city to see that, "Hey, there are other folks that want to see public housing still exist in 20 years", and they want to see new public housing units that are safe for the residents to live in with amenities. And so, I do think it's great for everybody.

ANN KINGSTON: We really feel that this is a blueprint that can, and will, and, hopefully, will be replicated in other communities. It feels very doable to us, and we've been amazed by the generosity of the other donors who've stepped up. But I feel like other communities could follow this lead and hopefully do the same.

ANGIE MILES: Partnerships and friendships grew out of the renovation process. And these builders of new home-scapes say they didn't get all they wanted, but they are eager to keep going, pooling ideas and resources to build better communities.


Angie Miles, Host/Producer, anchors and hosts VPM News Focal Point and special broadcasts.
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