NEWS- In transition: What's next for Southwood residents?

John and Joan Kent have lived in the Southwood Mobile Home Park for 36-years, but a Habitat for Humanity development project on the 100-acre site could send them packing.
PHOTO BY Will Walker

Just four miles from downtown Charlottesville, 361 rusting trailers dot a tangle of pitted roads just south of Interstate 64. Built in the 1960s on what was once-rural Albemarle county real estate, Southwood Mobile Home Park was one of the area's few remaining places where one could park a trailer and set up housekeeping. Today, its site is included in the County growth area, with developments such as Biscuit Run emerging nearby, and the land has been acquired by Habitat for Humanity. But what will happen to the neighborhood's estimated 1,500 residents?

Barbara Beasley worries that Southwood will soon become nothing more than a fleeting memory. On April 15, Beasley and her husband will mark 37 years in Southwood. The couple arrived in 1971 hoping to live out their lives quietly in their new home. Yet the Beasleys worry they will be forced to move their trailer– and they don't know where. 

"We don't have any idea what will happen to us," Beasley says. "My husband and I are both 76, and we have major [medical] problems." 

In March 2007, Habitat purchased the 100.5-acre Southwood complex for $7 million. According to Habitat director Overton McGehee, the nonprofit housing organization plans to redevelop the trailer park into a high-density, mixed-use, mixed-income community with hundreds of homes and access to public transportation. Although the project is still in the planning stage, Southwood has the potential to be rezoned for 600 units, "the second largest Habitat project in the U.S." McGehee says. (The largest is a parcel of land donated to the Habitat organization in Collier County, Florida.)

According to Habitat's chief operating officer, Ken Hankins, Habitat has "watched the soaring land values in greater Charlottesville with increasing alarm," and the organization recognizes the need for a shift in its traditional strategy of purchasing single-family lots. 

In 2001, Hankins says, Habitat was able to purchase a buildable lot in the city for about $15,000, and in the county for as low as $13,000. By 2007, the cheapest lots had jumped to a staggering $80,000 and $60,000 respectively. In response to these drastic increases, Habitat is now focusing on developing high-density, mixed-income neighborhoods rather than individual homes, he says.

In addition to increasing the number of low-income units available to area residents, Hankins sees the Habitat project as unique in its ability to act as "a catalyst to build partnerships in the area" with other local non-profits and private builders.

While Charlottesville Habitat is celebrating a recent $1 million donation from the Hunter Smith Family Foundation– the largest in the group's 15-year history– Southwood residents aren't feeling quite so festive, as many wonder what their future holds. 

Longtime resident Beasley says that moving her trailer is not an option, not only because of the expense– moving a trailer can cost as much as $5,000– but also because "There aren't any other trailer courts around." Whether Habitat would help cover expenses incurred by the redevelopment– like hauling trailers away– is unclear. Habitat's board chair, Lynne Conboy, says the group is considering helping, but a policy has not been adopted.

Like Beasley, Joan Kent, a 36-year Southwood resident, says she's not sure her old trailer would be easy to sell– she's just hoping to find someone willing to move it for her if she gives it away.

Indeed, trailer parks seem to be a relic of days gone by. As Charlottesville city planner Brian Haluska explains, "There has always been a stigma in society about trailer parks." Haluska says he and other planners no longer support trailer parks because they symbolize "segregating low-income people."

Instead, Haluska says, city planners look for ways to promote socioeconomic diversity.

"Every affordable housing initiative in the city," he says, "is all about integrating neighborhoods."

County planning director Wayne Cilimberg agrees that trailer parks are becoming a thing of the past. "We want to move away from income concentration," he explains, "and toward serving a variety of income levels in our neighborhood model concept." The last time the county approved a new trailer park was 15 years ago, he says. The city hasn't approved a new mobile home park or subdivision in 50 years, according to County zoning chief Ron Higgins. 

Habitat's Southwood plans are compatible with the planning vision in Albemarle County, Higgins says, although he realizes the Southwood transition may pose challenges for residents. Higgins, who worked for the city for many years, recalls that the redevelopment of another large trailer park on Allied Street was very difficult for the community. Long-term residents had a hard time moving their homes, and "Many of them probably had a real struggle to find alternative housing," he says.

Choosing to sell their mobile homes won't be an option for many Southwood residents.

"Some of the trailers," McGehee explains, "have no market value."

While Beasley and Kent face these basic concerns, other residents have an even tougher situation. For some, Habitat's promise of a better life can never be fulfilled until they address their immigration status. Southwood is home to an estimated 800 Hispanic immigrants, many of whom are here illegally. One immigrant resident, who asked to remain anonymous because of concerns over his legal status, was unaware of Habitat's plans for redevelopment, and has "no idea" what he will do if he has to move his trailer. 

"I've been living here for four years," he says in Spanish, "and I'm not sure where else my family and I will go." 

While Habitat says it's not its role to determine the legal status of Southwood residents, officials have been working with Legal Aid to address such concerns– and they've been translating notices into Spanish, according to Conboy. 

In spite of challenges like the immigration question, Habitat seems determined to ease the struggle for affordable housing locally. Habitat officials, noting that redevelopment may lie more than five years in the future, say they hope Southwood residents won't face the same challenges as the Allied Street residents. Hankins says residents "will be kept informed," and that leaders will devote the next few years to studying how to best develop the neighborhood.

If Beasley and her neighbors are waiting and watching with alarm, others are more philosophical about the change.

"I hate to move," says Kent, "but I'm sure I can find someplace. You have to go with the times."