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Richmond Nonprofit Reflects On 30 Years Of Providing Affordable Housing

Shante Williams and her two children play in their apartment. They live at Lincoln Mews, the Better Housing Coalition’s first rental complex in the Northside. (Photo: Yasmine Jumaa/VPM)
Shante Williams and her two children play in their apartment. They live at Lincoln Mews, the Better Housing Coalition’s first rental complex in the Northside. (Photo: Yasmine Jumaa/VPM)

In 1989, the late Mary-Tyler McClenahan and Carter McDowell saw an unmet need in Richmond for affordable housing. 

“The goals were to have everybody in the city of Richmond have a nice place to live,” McDowell said. 

The pair founded what’s now the Better Housing Coalition as an advocacy group but soon realized they’d make more progress if they built affordable housing themselves.

“We understood that if you have good housing and support services that you can improve your life and your neighborhood,” McDowell said. 

McDowell and McClenahan’s efforts gained the attention and support of a New-York-based organization with a similar mission -- the Local Initiative Support Corporation, or LISC. 

“They said if we would raise $500,000 they would match it,” McDowell said. “We began as Mary-Tyler said ‘with our little tin cups’ and went around to corporations mostly and managed to raise $750,000.”

LISC helped the group open their first office. And with the extra money raised, the coalition hired T.K. Somanath as their first director. McDowell said they hit the ground running.

“When we started, we really wanted to do homeownership only, but we found that we weren't making enough of an impact,” McDowell said.

The organization got started on their first rental community on Cary Street in 1991. But McDowell said they faced some obstacles.

“There were people who resisted, who thought that we were bringing not nice housing and not nice people -- that happened all the time,” McDowell said. 

The stigma still exists but the Coalition has played a role in helping to dispel stereotypes about affordable housing.

“I'm very proud of what we've done. I think we've made an impact and I think we’ve gotten other people started,” Carter McDowell said of the work she and the late Mary-Tyler McClenahan (left) have put into affordable housing. (Photo: Better Housing Coalition)

Since the nonprofit’s founding, the need for affordable housing has continued to grow, with a 2017 VCU report estimating a shortage of more than 40,000 units in greater Richmond. In 2015, the Virginia Center for Housing Research at Virginia Tech and the Center for Urban and Regional Analysis at VCU conducted a study on the region’s growing deficit in affordable housing.They’re set to release an updated report by the end of the year. 

“Folks who are taking care of our kids, the folks who are taking care of our parents, even ballerinas at the Richmond Ballet all qualify for affordable housing,” said Greta Harris, the CEO of Better Housing Coalition. “We know that because those folks are living in our communities today.”

She said the organization plans to build 1500 units over the next five years -- that’s equivalent to the number of rental units they’ve built over the last 30 years. 

“We are strengthening our ability to be able to do larger scale developments throughout the region,” Harris said. 

As part of the Coliseum redevelopment proposal, the Better Housing Coalition is working with the developer to raise funds to build 200 income-restricted units. 

Harris said the organization is building 60 senior units in Chesterfield County, and recently opened the Goodwyn development in Church Hill with about 50 apartments. 

On the Northside, the Better Housing Coalition operates Lincoln Mews, a 115-unit rental community. Shante Williams has lived there for over two years. Before that, Williams and her son Darrelle were homeless and she was expecting a second child. 

“Transition is not easy,” Williams said. “Trying to find stable employment, being able to maintain bills.”

The Better Housing Coalition offered her the chance to enroll in an eight-week job assessment program, and she was able to earn a rental stipend by helping with the after-school program at the complex.

“Having the opportunity to work more in the community empowered me to want to do more to feel better about my own situation,” Williams said. 

Stable housing gave Willams’ son Darelle the chance to focus on school, and get to know youth in his new community. For Williams, it was the first step in gaining control over her life and achieving her goals.

“If you don't have the firm foundations or solid foundations such as housing, how do you go to school? How do you go to work? Where am I at mentally or emotionally with taking care of my children?” Williams said. 

Despite all the challenges, Williams said the Better Housing Coalition gave her the opportunity to build confidence. She’s now a health-worker with the city, and an outreach coordinator with Resource Mothers, an organization mentoring first-time pregnant teens. Williams is also working on working to improve her credit in hopes of buying a home by next year. 

Williams’ success is exactly what the Better Housing Coalition aims to provide. Greta Harris said their work goes beyond real-estate.

“Our primary focus is the economic and social uplift of the folks who honor us by living in our communities,” Harris said.

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