Hurt Park neighborhood seeing signs of new life

Community residents say the renaissance is due to the cooperation of agencies that all too often are competing for government grants.
By Matt Chittum | matt.chittum@roanoke.com | 981-3331

Hurt Park has been needing some love.

It’s been as blighted and troubled a neighborhood as any in Roanoke.

But change is afoot. The crumbling public housing at its core has been replaced by new, low-income town houses. New, single-family houses are popping up in vacant lots and in place of decrepit old houses all over the neighborhood — some 30 of them altogether.

And dozens of other houses have been repaired, if not completely rehabilitated.

In all, some 130 houses in the neighborhood have been touched by the effort, not including the new town houses.

“It’s been almost like a miracle,” said Jimmy Cook, president of the Hurt Park Neighborhood Alliance.

Part of that miracle is that the work is getting done because five nonprofit and government agencies that typically compete for coveted government grants are doing the work together as the Roanoke Neighborhood Revitalization Partnership. They came up with a plan, divided the work and shared $3.74 million in funds. They also leveraged another $1.25 million on their own.

“This has really changed the whole notion of our relationships,” said Karen Mason, executive director of Habitat for Humanity in Roanoke.

This fall, the effort was recognized as the Virginia Statewide Neighborhood Conference’s neighborhood project of the year.

It all amounts to a kind of “duh” moment for the partners: Why didn’t they do it this way all along?

“It’s so simple that when you look at the end result, you’d think surely everybody would see that’s the way to go,” said Glenda Edwards, executive director of the Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority, one of the partners. “It’s more novel than it probably should be in this world.”

Yet, said Ed Murray, director of another partner, Rebuilding Together Roanoke, “There are very few cities … that are doing this.”

In fact, it’s the result of an evolution of the way Roanoke has used U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant funds to improve neighborhoods.

Years ago, the city government, which distributes the funds, spread its Community Development Block Grant money across the city in a kind of scattershot approach. Work was done, but the money was spread so far and wide that it was hard to see the effects.

About eight years ago, city leaders opted for a more focused approach: pick a neighborhood to target and pour the HUD and other funds into it to really make a difference. Efforts in Southeast Roanoke and Gainsboro followed that model, with Roanoke’s housing agencies each coming up with their own proposals and competing for a slice of the funding pie.

Four years ago, the city turned its attention to Hurt Park.

Work was already under way there. The housing authority planned to demolish the 105-unit public housing complex there and replace it with 40 town houses that aren’t subsidized but have lower rents and are leased based on income requirements. The city spent $1 million for infrastructure improvements such as curbs, gutters and sidewalks to aid that effort.

For the rest of the neighborhood, the city got the players in urban revitalization together and offered them a different way to tackle Hurt Park: rather than each come up with a proposal and fight it out for the money, decide together what needs to be done and who will do it, and share the money.

“We kind of catalyzed things,” said Frank Baratta, who manages the city’s HUD funds, “but they picked up on it. … They’ve kind of run with the thing along with us.”

Each agency took on a role that played to its strengths.

The housing authority handled land acquisition, buying lots and derelict houses — and doing demolition if necessary — before donating the land to other partners. Separately, the authority is building 11 single-family houses of public housing scattered throughout the neighborhood.

Habitat for Humanity took on building infill housing and, in something new for the chapter here, major renovations of older structures. In all, Habitat will build 11 new houses and overhaul three others.

Total Action Against Poverty is building seven new houses and renovating three others. TAP also is making limited repairs on dozens of others.

Rebuilding Together Roanoke has tackled limited repairs on owner-occupied homes, from replacing roofs and gutters to building porches and handicap ramps.

Blue Ridge Housing Development built a house for the city’s “Officer at Home” program, in which a city police officer gets a new home in the neighborhood in order to create a police presence there and foster better relations between police and residents.

“Each of us has a different niche, so it’s this great quilt of all of us bringing our collective resources,” said Mason, of Habitat for Humanity. “Each of us is meeting the goals of our mission, and we’re benefiting the neighborhood as well.”

“It really takes the focus off of the funding and really puts it on the goal of the project,” said Angela Penn, vice president for real estate development at TAP.

The effort has meant more efficiency, the partners said.

With a comprehensive plan put together by all the players, redundancy from one agency to the next was eliminated, and aspects that might have fallen through the cracks weren’t overlooked.

“We take limited resources and we do more with them,” said Edwards, of the housing authority. “If everybody’s working in concert and taking different roles that are the strengths of that organization, we can stretch those dollars further.”

The partners were also careful to include neighborhood residents and their concerns and desires at every turn.

Skepticism is natural when the government shows up and says, “Here’s what we’re going to do for you,” Baratta said.

But Cook, the neighborhood alliance president, said the partners have been diligent about attending neighborhood meetings and seeking input. “We were able to see what they exactly promised,” he said.

The housing improvements are part of an overall revitalization effort, Baratta said. The city also has put money into funding enhanced police bike patrols in the area. Other grants have aided the nearby West End Center for children, a push by the health department to reduce childhood obesity in the neighborhood, an oral history project put on by the library system, and coming this spring, a community garden.

There also has been an effort to expand business in the neighborhood, but that tends to follow from residents feeling safer, plus the economy’s down.

Cook said he sees the comfort level of residents on the rise.

Mason said residents frequently stop by Habitat’s projects and thank them. She sees more people spending time on their front porches and chatting with neighbors.

“Of course, we’ve still got some way to go,” Cook said. But his organization is “motivated to just go forward with it.”

So are the members of the partnership. They have up to two years of work left in Hurt Park, but they’re already committed to the same approach when the city chooses its next target neighborhood in a couple of years.