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Fighting Blight in Richmond’s Church Hill

May 9, 2011

By Fletcher Babb and Catherine Leth
Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Kip Hart has spent his entire life in Virginia’s capital. He grew up in the West End and, like many VCU students, lived in a series of Fan apartments during college.

Two years ago, he and his wife relocated to Church Hill North – one of Richmond’s historic gems but more recently a neighborhood known for high crime rates and vacant buildings.

Hart purchased the house through the Richmond Better Housing Coalition, a nonprofit organization that builds inexpensive, eco-friendly homes on previously blighted lots. He praised the organization for selling at or below market value to avoid gentrification.

He is aware of his neighborhood’s reputation but said that he wants to be a force for change in the community.

“Of course there are great things about the Fan, and of course there are great things about the Museum District,” Hart said. “But you choose what you are willing to sacrifice and what’s important to you.”

Tackling the Issue: Legislation

In April, the General Assembly passed House Bill 1668, creating the Richmond Community Revitalization Fund. Effective July 1, the new law creates a new process to repair “derelict residential property to combat blight, crime and neighborhood decay.”

Delegate Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, sponsored the bill.

“What they want to do is create a fund where they can use city money to reinvest in the community and to give grants to non-profit or for-profit businesses to buy up and fix some of these properties,” McClellan said. The Better Housing Coalition is the kind of organization that would be eligible.

Richmond City Councilman Chris Hilbert, who helped draft HB 1668, said blight creates a Catch-22: Abandoned properties drive down nearby real estate values, causing more vacant buildings.

Hilbert said some speculators purchase blighted lots expecting renovators to eventually improve the surrounding neighborhood. That would drive up the value of the speculators’ own property. Then they can make a profit by selling their lot without fixing it up.

“People who have acquired a lot of property and are just sitting on it and not putting it to use are just dragging down a neighborhood,” Hilbert said. “There’s some inertia of inactivity there that really takes over.”

The Effects of Blight

For anyone driving the length of 25th Street in Church Hill, the problem becomes clear: Abandoned, boarded-up or otherwise decrepit homes stick out like crooked teeth.

Whitney Gayle lives with her mother on the 900 block of 25th Street. Next door is a boarded-up house that caught fire several years back. The front yard is overgrown, littered with garbage and old clothing, even discarded chicken bones.

Gayle said that when she and her mother moved in, homeless people slept on her front porch. Only when her mother protested did they move next door.

“The homeless people can get really loud and drunk, and they’ll do whatever they want over there,” Gayle said. “It’s in my backyard, over there. Everywhere.”

Gayle said that she has never seen an owner visit the adjoining lot.

“There’s a lot of an abandoned property around here that they hang around because nobody really says anything,” she said.

But these empty properties aren’t just a nuisance. Richmond resident Jerry Whitmore said they caused his car insurance to increase.

Whitmore moved to Church Hill from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, last July. His insurance premium increased when he submitted his new address.

“I was very upset,” he said.

Whitmore lives on a tree-lined block across from a historic home owned by the Library of Virginia. The buildings are well-maintained except for one empty house with boarded-up windows.

“It’s like a sore thumb,” he said. “You get your derelicts, your people who are drug abusing, you get dealers, prostitution – you get all that; all that is the offspring of houses of this nature. It makes a big difference.”

One Church Hill resident agreed that vacant properties are a problem, but he sympathized with homeless individuals who were hit hard by the recession.

“Nobody appreciates a homeless person living next to you, but you gotta do what you gotta do,” said the man, who asked that his name not be printed.

“A lot of people in the world, they ain’t got nothing. I see all kinds of people; they had it and lost it. Good people, had money and everything. So I’m not down on anybody for doing what they gotta do.”

Pushing for Change

Even beyond Church Hill, neighborhood decay has for decades been a thorn in the city’s side. Councilman Hilbert said the problem is especially evident in a slow economy.

“Now that the real estate market is down, the laws are hostile to getting properties that are blighted to get the owners to fix them up,” he said.

Despite the challenges, Church Hill is dotted with individuals like homebuyer Kip Hart who are determined to turn the neighborhood around.

One of them is Greg Bristow. But instead of using the Better Housing Coalition, he’s using his own hands.

For two years, Bristow has been renovating a house built in 1890 that was previously an eyesore on the block. When he found himself out of work in 2008, he decided to take on the entire project himself.

Bristow said that so far, city inspectors have encouraged the restoration.

“The city makes you jump through a few hoops, you know, because it’s historic property. But it hasn’t been a horrible process,” he said.

“I’ve found that the inspectors have really worked with me because they just see a young guy trying to do it himself, and they kind of respect that. They want to see the area get better.”

The Better Housing Coalition has worked in tandem with individuals who aren’t homebuilders in order to promote a positive change in the city. The coalition has built or rehabilitated more than 1,000 homes in Richmond.

Hart said that change in his neighborhood has been slow, but he remains optimistic.

“Of course everybody wants change, but change doesn’t happen overnight. We’re here for the long haul,” Hart said.

“There’s definitely going to be sacrifices that we have to make living in this neighborhood, but no change comes without sacrifice.”

Related story: Daunting DIY Project: Renovating Old Home 


On the Web

To read or comment on House Bill 1668, visit www.richmondsunlight.com/bill/2011/hb1668/

The Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods has posted a video showing a sample of vacant properties in Richmond. It is at http://vimeo.com/16325918