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In Church Hill, a small nonprofit is 'keeping the fabric of the community together' with affordable rentals
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In Church Hill, a small nonprofit is 'keeping the fabric of the community together' with affordable rentals

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Nicole Fields dabbed away happy tears as she stood at the site of her future home.

Fields, a supervisor with the Richmond City Health District, has shared a three-bedroom Church Hill apartment with her four children for the last three years. Even with her oldest son now away at college, space is tight. However, finding another place in the community the family calls can home has been a struggle. What apartments are available are either too small, too expensive or both.

“I’m a believer that when you take care of the little, God will bless you with much,” said Fields, a 39-year-old who grew up on the North Side. “Church Hill is a beautiful place to live, but it’s not always the most affordable.”

That’s where Fields’ landlord, Urban Hope, comes in.

The small but mighty nonprofit has spent the last two decades creating and preserving deeply affordable rental housing in Richmond’s gentrifying East End. It marked a new phase of the effort Tuesday morning, with the groundbreaking of its first new construction on a home on North 29th Street.

The soon-to-be-built four-bedroom, three-bathroom house could rent for more than $1,800 in the private market. Others like it within walking distance have sold for more than $400,000.

Instead, Urban Hope will rent it to Fields’ family for $1,075 a month, in an arrangement that community leaders say is a model for fighting displacement in one of the city’s fastest-changing neighborhoods.

“It’s a special movement to do what we’re trying to do, to create opportunity and prevent displacement and make repair where damage has been done,” said Sarah Hale, Urban Hope’s executive director.

While the East End’s white population has more than tripled since 1990, its Black population has declined by a quarter in the same period, according to newly released Census Bureau data. Black residents still outnumber white ones by about 2-to-1, but new investment is fueling rising housing costs and ratcheting up pressure on existing renters and homeowners, some of whom are among the working poor or live on fixed incomes.

Urban Hope seeks to acquire property and renovate — or in this case develop — it as inexpensively as possible. It relies on rental income, individual and institutional giving and grants to fund its work and operational costs. The nonprofit is partnering with the Maggie Walker Community Land Trust and builder Center Creek Homes on the North 29th Street project.

Its approach demonstrates that equitable development is possible, said the Rev. Donald Coleman, the nonprofit’s founding director and a former Richmond School Board chairman.

“Keeping the fabric of the community together, making sure people who want to be here or were here previously can still afford to live here, that’s the challenge,” Coleman said. “We want all boats to rise. We need to model that we care about everybody, not just people who can afford it.”

Urban Hope works with households who earn under 50% of the region’s median income. That’s $36,000 or less for a household of two or $45,000 or less for a family of four, under U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development income limits.

For those families, housing in much of the neighborhood is becoming unobtainable. Most make too little to afford frequently developed affordable apartments targeting 80% area-median-income households — $72,000 or less for a family of four — and too much to qualify for federal subsidies and public housing available to those who make 30% or less: $27,000 for a family of four.

“Quality affordable housing is a challenge, and certainly housing that is at 50% or below, that inventory is sorely missing,” said Cynthia Newbille, president of the Richmond City Council and the representative for the area.

Construction on the North 29th Street house will begin in the coming weeks. Fields is slated to move in next spring with her 16-, 15- and 11-year-olds. When they do, they’ll have at least one familiar face close by.

Before leaving Tuesday, Fields introduced herself to her future next-door neighbor Alonzo Anderson, a retired employee of the city and state who has lived on the street since 1997.

Anderson has seen a lot change in that time. He said the new home and the family that will occupy it are welcome additions to the block.

“We’ll have good neighbors then,” Anderson told Fields after she climbed the steps to shake his hand. She smiled.

“You sure will.”

mrobinson@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6734

Twitter: @__MarkRobinson

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