Dogwood Housing stays affordable

Selena Sims was definitely worried when she heard that Eugene Williams (pictured on right) had put Dogwood Housing, which specializes in affordable rentals, on the market last spring. The four-year resident of Nalle Street knows well how hard it is to find affordable housing in Charlottesville's pricey real estate market. And while Williams wanted a buyer who would continue his vision of mixed-income families living together, there was no guarantee the purchaser of his $6.4 million properties would do so.

Today over barbecue and fried chicken at Washington Park, Sims' new landlord, Keith Woodard (pictured left, with United Banker Harold Warner, center), welcomed her and other tenants with a promise to keep 58 of Dogwood Housing's 73 properties scattered throughout Charlottesville affordable. And he had the support of the City of Charlottesville, which ponied up $850,000 in five-year, interest-free loan, and United Bank, which provided $3.4 million in favorable funding.

When Williams started Dogwood Housing in 1980, he bucked the norm of putting poor people into "the projects," insisting it was better that people of all incomes live together and opting for gentrification over ghetto-ization. He risked not only his and his wife, Lorraine's money, but also convinced his brother, Albert, a music teacher in New York, and his wife, Emma, to sink their savings into buying 21 dilapidated rentals that had come on the market and fixing them up.

Today, Williams is lauded as a visionary, and Woodard, who owns residential and commercial properties throughout the area, including four buildings on the Downtown Mall, has stepped forward to carry the affordable housing torch.

"I am struck by the vision of these two men," says City Councilor Kendra Hamilton, who was elected on a platform of affordable housing. "We have preserved more affordable housing in one stroke than in my entire four years in office."

United Bank, formerly Albemarle First Bank, also saw an opportunity as the new kids in town to bond with the community, and an official called Woodard to help with the deal. "I've know Keith Woodard for years," says Harold Warner, the bank's senior lender. And the bankers stressed that in a deal like this, key is who the property manager is.

"We do a lot of affordable housing in the D.C. area," says Tom Nida, United's head of community development. And despite the wave of foreclosures and mortgage lenders that currently are going belly up, he dispels the notion that this is a high-risk loan.

"One of the things you find with affordable housing, when lending goes crazy, that's at the top of the market," explains Nida. "The bottom stays the same. It depends on the property manager, and with one like Keith, there's not much risk to it."

Employees from Woodard Properties were on hand, and Woodard acknowledged, "We're stepping out of our comfort zone to do this."

The new entity will be known as Dogwood Properties of Charlottesville, LLC. Williams, who just turned 80, says he's "extremely happy and pleased" Woodard wanted to keep the Dogwood name and philosophy as part of his new venture– which calls itself "an affordable housing initiative for the next generation."