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Richmond REALTORS® Tackle Vacant Properties, Affordable Housing and Win

Historic Church Hill, on the east side of Richmond, Virginia, has seen better days. Centuries after Patrick Henry sent up revolutionary sparks there, declaring, “Give me liberty or give me death!,” the neighborhood of modest brick row houses and shotgun bungalows features a high concentration of public housing, abandonment and blight. Now, building on the success of workshops for stakeholders, new legislation and the establishment of a Community Land Trust, the Richmond Association of REALTORS® (RAR) is moving swiftly and surely to improve Church Hill’s fortunes with an ambitious plan for infill-development of affordable housing.

There’s no time to lose. As Laura Lafayette, RAR’s Chief Executive Officer, explains, the city’s need for affordable housing is dire, but the private sector is catching on to Church Hill, and the market is escalating quickly. “It’s stunning, how many vacant, tax-delinquent structures there are in the neighborhood,” she says. “With enough money, we could completely de-concentrate the housing crisis. But if we don’t step up and preserve some of these parcels for affordable housing while we can, we’re going to have a hard time solving the problem at all.”

The solution was catapulted forward last fall, when RAR was tapped by the National Association of REALTORS® through the REALTOR® Party to pilot two workshops in collaboration with the Center for Community Progress, a non-profit focused on eliminating urban blight. “This was a great opportunity for us to bring thoughtful people to Richmond to address complex issues of local housing markets, vacant properties and land banks, all in the context of neighborhood revitalization,” says Lafayette. By inviting the cities of Norfolk and Danville to be involved in the workshops, RAR also strengthened its position behind legislation advancing its efforts to transform blight into affordable housing.

Early in 2016, a law was passed allowing a Virginia municipality to create a land bank, or to designate an existing non-profit to serve as a city’s land bank. The bill had been sponsored by a member of the Virginia House of Delegates from Danville whose staff had participated in RAR’s housing workshops, and also received support from the Virginia Association of REALTORS®. Within weeks of the law being in effect, the City of Richmond established a Community Land Trust (CLT), incubated by RAR’s Partnership for Housing Affordability, the association’s not-for-profit arm that will act as the CLT’s fiscal sponsor until it gains traction. Efforts are now underway to have the CLT designated as the city’s land bank. “We won’t be able to accomplish that until after the elections, when we’ll have a new mayor and five new council members,” notes Lafayette, “but that’s the value of having a PAC: it gives us the opportunity to communicate with all the candidates, so that after the election, we won’t have to do too much re-education.”

In the meantime, with RAR’s encouragement, the city of Richmond is stepping up its efforts to dispose of the vacant properties it owns. Once the new land bank system is up and running, the CLT will be able to acquire properties identified by its board for a single dollar, instead of having to bid for them at auction. Within the urban core of Church Hill, the CLT will either build on vacant lots or revive blighted properties to be sold as affordable housing. The CLT will retain ownership of the land beneath each house, and future sales of the homes will be based on the appraised value of the structure itself, with the equity split 50/50 between the homeowner and the CLT, which will offer its share as a discount toward the next purchase of the house.

“That’s how the housing will remain affordable,” explains Lafayette, adding, “We won’t have to replicate the infrastructure, and we’re not looking to re-invent the wheel. We have a strong pipeline of partners whose expertise is just what we need: development and construction experts, lending partners who are very good at qualifying aspiring homeowners, and pro-bono legal counsel to make sure prospective homeowners understand the complex shared-equity re-sale formula. And, of course, we’ve got no shortage of great REALTORS®!”

The most important task, she says, is the delicate work of community engagement in a city that struggles with its past. “RAR wants to be part of the solution that mitigates the negative effects of gentrification. That’s the value of working with so many local non-profit partners. They know their neighbors, and will help us to build into the fabric of the Church Hill community in a way that benefits longtime residents, as well as newcomers.”

To view an interactive map of targeted Church Hill properties commissioned by Richmond's new Maggie L. Walker Community Land Trust, visit: https://public.tableau.com/profile/jonathan.knopf#!/vizhome/MWCLTTargetParcels/MWCLTTargetParcelsMap. To learn more about how REALTORS® in Richmond are helping to foster neighborhood revitalization by transforming vacant properties into affordable housing, contact Laura Lafayette, CEO of the Richmond Association of REALTORS®, at 804-422-5000.

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