NEWS- 'Give back': Housing plan omits flooded homeowners
North Berkshire Road has a history of flooding well known to the City. Unfortunately, that information was not shared with Ken and Heidi Vanderford when they purchased their first home five years ago. They'd just finished moving in when a storm sent eddies of water rippling through the downstairs.
Worse, they soon learned from the City that the storm drain failure that caused the flooding was a private problem that would cost $400,000 to $600,000 to fix, according to officials. Charlottesville would pay 75 percent of the cost– if all five affected property owners agreed to chip in on the balance.
As their soaked starter home became infested with mold, the Vanderfords moved out, went bankrupt, and divorced.
"It was devastating to us," declares Heidi Vanderford in a phone call before heading off to one of her two jobs. She now lives in Scottsville and says she hasn't seen her ex husband in more than two years. "I have to work my a** off to rent a home here in Scottsville," she says.
While the Vanderfords' lives imploded, the City fixed the drainage problems for $300,000, according to planning chief Jim Tolbert. The Vanderfords had purchased the duplex at 2210 North Berkshire for $166,650 in 2002 and lost it to foreclosure after the water problem pushed them and their tenants out. After the house was razed, Charlottesville bought the lot from Countrywide Mortgage for $7,000, and on May 5, City Council approved donation of the property to Habitat for Humanity, which plans to construct and sell a new duplex for two families.
The City plans to donate labor to the project by allowing City employees two to three days administrative leave to work on the house.
"City Council has decided affordable housing is a top priority," explains Tolbert. "We've partnered with Habitat for Humanity on a lot of projects. This is a way to demonstrate our commitment to affordable housing. We're looking for team building, a give-back project."
Former councilor Rob Schilling doesn't quite see it that way.
"This [property] is not yours," Schilling recently fumed on his WINA radio show. "You took it from someone. I don't call it giving back– I call it stealing."
Schilling describes the saga on North Berkshire as "How Charlottesville City Council took a man's life and his life savings, trampled it into the ground, then put a ribbon on it and handed it to Habitat for Humanity, all with a smile on their collected faces."
Schilling maintains that the drainage problem was the City's problem all along, and he points out that the estimate for the repair dropped from $400,000-$600,000 in 2003 to $300,000 when the City actually did the work.
"If the City was knowledgeable about the neighborhood being a drainage ditch," as a City official told the Hook in 2003, "they should have put up signs," Schilling says. "I think the City has a moral obligation– maybe not legal– to tell buyers. Does it make any sense that the City is aware of the problem and doesn't tell anyone?"
"In my opinion, the Vanderfords were taken advantage of by people not giving them proper information when they bought it," says Tolbert.
"We knew that property flooded," he acknowledges, "and we had people [interested in buying] come to City Hall over four or five years and then not buy it."
It was after the Vanderfords defaulted on the mortgage that Countrywide Mortgage sold the lot to the City. Schilling thinks there's a reason Charlottesville got a bargain price in a neighborhood where land on average is assessed at $70,000.
"When I was on City Council, we were told by Jim Tolbert this land would never be built on, that it was going to be a City park," remembers Schilling. "I've never heard anything as egregious as this."
"He's incorrect," contends Tolbert. "I told Council we wanted to get the project finished to see how the land laid out as a possible house or park site."
Schilling wonders why– if the City is so eager to provide affordable housing– officials don't try to return the property to the "poor man whose life was ruined."
"It was never even discussed," answers Tolbert. "The last I heard from Mr. Vanderford, he was living in the country and loving it. I think he had so many nightmares, if we built a house on it and gave it to him, I don't think he'd want it."
So how safe is the chronically flooded land at 2210 North Berkshire now that the original, developer-installed 48-inch corrugated pipe has been replaced with concrete?
"We did it right," says Tolbert, adding, "and we're going to put in a little fill" to further raise the land.
Overton McGehee, Habitat's executive director, writes in an email: "The City engineering department is researching what height the living area needs to be to be safe from flooding. Once we know that elevation, we will make sure that all living areas are well above that level."
McGehee says he was unaware of the property's history and Schilling's comments, and he notes that Schilling has supported Habitat in the past.
Neighbor Cathy Crosby says she's had no complaints from her tenants since the new drain pipe went in, and as a neighbor, she has no qualms about use of the lot for a Habitat house.
However, "As a person putting a house there, I'd want an engineering report," she says. "They put a huge culvert there that took up 25 percent of the lot. I might have qualms about that."
"Why didn't they try to help me and my ex?" asks Heidi Vanderford, when told about the City/Habitat collaboration on the property that was supposed to be her American dream. "I hit rock bottom. Ken hit rock bottom. Why didn't they help us?"
"Once again, the City is playing Robin Hood, taking from the middle class and giving to nonprofits," says Schilling. "I say there's figurative blood on the hands of the City. There's figurative blood on the hands of Overton McGehee. Where is the justice for Ken Vanderford? This is one of the most egregious things I've seen, tied up in a bow for affordable housing."
On the other hand, Tolbert says, "We'll get two new homeowners paying taxes. We feel pretty good about that."