Roll of Dice: Fifeville gets a makeover

"Realtors told us, 'Don't set foot in this neighborhood,'" says Asher Biemann, leading a guest through the spacious– though still unfinished– rooms of his new home, a red brick house on a quarter-acre lot just blocks from the Downtown Mall. A large front porch, hardwood floors, and a working fireplace with an ornate mirrored mantel add character to the 1920 structure.

In nearby north downtown, such a house would probably be snapped up for a cool half-million. But just a year ago, even at the height of a red-hot real estate market, this property might not have found a buyer at a third that price.

Biemann and his wife, Dalia Rosenfeld, say making the decision to move into this neighborhood was made easier by one man: Joe Mallory.

"This is
not gentrification," says Joe Mallory of his work in Fifeville.

The neighborhood? Fifeville, an area bordered by Ridge Street to the east, Cherry Avenue to the south, the Norfolk Southern tracks to the north, and Valley Road Extended to the west. The land was once a 388-acre farm owned by the Fife family, and descendant Francis Fife still lives in the original farmhouse on a five-acre lot on Ninth Street.

Who's Joe Mallory?

He's a driving force behind the transformation of Fifeville, a visionary who is buying up decrepit, even condemned, properties and transforming them into charming city dwellings. If Mallory has his way, in two or three years Fifeville will be a different place– a bustling neighborhood filled with homeowners who take pride in their newly renovated properties.

But could Mallory's efforts backfire, and force the very people he's trying to help– longtime Fifeville residents– out of their homes?

Born and raised in neighboring public housing development Garrett Square (now called Friendship Court), Mallory, 31, spent much of his youth visiting his extended family in Fifeville. He knows the neighborhood– and its residents– like the back of his hand, and says he wants to remove the stigma that years of crime and poorly maintained properties owned by absentee landlords have attached to the area. Along with the renovation of properties, he's petitioning the city to change the name Dice Street– which for many conjures images of crime– to Fife Street.

Over the past two years, Mallory, who once ran a boxing gym for at-risk youths, has quietly bought up houses by the handful. He currently owns 16 in Fifeville, mostly on Dice and Fifth streets. He's sold five already, including Asher Biemann's, and several others are in early to mid stages of renovation.

Typically, he purchases a house– or in some cases several houses– from an owner who otherwise might not be able to sell because of the property's poor condition.

"It's a chance," he says, "for them to get some money out of their property."

There's no telling what he'll find inside those houses. Some lack indoor plumbing, have extensive water damage or rotting beams, and a few, he says, have only dirt for a first floor.

But, Mallory says, he can see the promise in each one.

At the southwest corner of Dice and Fifth streets is a grand-looking Victorian. The exterior is only slightly run down, with chipping paint and an almost-level wraparound porch. Inside, however, it's chaos. A musty smell permeates the air, and a fine green powder covers the floors and stairs– "Christmas packing," Mallory explains. Layer upon layer of vinyl flooring is peeling back in the foyer, the walls are stained, the floors sag.

The house is still furnished– several antiques sit amid clutter in what must have been the dining room, and the kitchen still has remnants of what may have been the now-deceased owner's last meal.

Upstairs, the smell is stronger. "It's urine," Mallory says, explaining that the woman who lived in here was bedridden and incontinent. When she died, her grown children sold the house to Mallory with many of their mother's possessions still inside.

To an onlooker, the project seems overwhelming. Where would you even begin?

Mallory just laughs at the question.

"This house should be easy," he says. "It's structurally sound. Come back in a few months, and you won't believe the difference."

As proof, he points to an orange house on Dice Street that he has just sold. A tour through the house reveals ceramic tile bathrooms and foyer, a sparkling kitchen, and shining hardwood floors in the living and dining rooms. Such touches, along with the HardiPlank concrete siding, make it hard to believe this isn't new construction.

"That one was much worse than this," he says, standing on the porch of the old Victorian. But while Mallory admits these houses would make excellent investment properties, he dreams of owner occupancy throughout the neighborhood. To that end, Mallory says he won't sell his properties to anyone not planning to live in them.

Historic homes line Fifth Street in Fifeville.


Homes on Dice Street have varied architectural style.


Francis Fife, whose family farm became the Fifeville neighborhood, says he thinks Mallory's work is beneficial for the area– and for city housing in general.

While he recognizes there's a risk of "gentrification"– loss of lower income residents in a changing neighborhood because of steeply increasing property values– he believes that Mallory will not go that route.

"He's a strong young man who could do a good job," Fife says. "Lower and middle income people have been able to live here," he says of his namesake neighborhood, "and I think that's the way it ought to continue."

But critics have a different view. They say that Mallory's work– and that of organizations like the nonprofit Piedmont Housing Alliance, which also renovates houses and sells them to low income residents– actually lead to gentrification.

Mallory bristles at the word.

"This is not gentrification," he insists, citing the fact that three of the five homes he's sold have been to working black families.

"It's a blessing when I sell a house to someone who works hard for a living," he says, "because that's what I do."

Aaron Wunsch, a graduate student in architectural history and a proponent of historic preservation, says that trying to avoid gentrification isn't always enough.

"It's possible for black people to be gentrifiers just as much as white people," he says. In fact, Wunsch believes that, to many white liberals, having an African American lead the transformation is a "less offensive way of bringing it about."

Wunsch is not alone in his criticism. William M. Harris, who chairs the Urban & Regional Planning department at Jackson State University in Mississippi, says that gentrification is happening right now in Charlottesville neighborhoods.

"There is substantial displacement neighborhood-wide," says Harris, who warned of impending gentrification while teaching at UVA in the early 1990s.

"Displacement is fairly defined as gentrification," says Harris. "Higher income groups are moving in and forcing lower income residents out."

Mayor Maurice Cox disagrees.

"We're increasing the housing supply," Cox says, by adding "in-fill" construction– a process whereby new homes are built on lots that were previously vacant.

"In addition," continues Cox, "long term renters are given heretofore nonexistent opportunities to own a home."

But Harris has a quick response to Cox's claim.

"That dog won't hunt," he retorts. Cox, he says, is "either ignorant of what gentrification is, or is simply playing political pool."

Cox envisions diverse city communities where people of varying races and socioeconomic standing live together harmoniously. "It's important to remember," he says, "that these neighborhoods weren't always low income. They used to be thriving middle-income areas, with primary occupancy by homeowners."

While Harris calls the idea of successfully integrated neighborhoods a "worthy goal," he believes there is one insurmountable hurdle. "Higher income people are not going to permit it," he says. "Most upper income people don't want to live with the poor."

While he says there are instances where it has worked– he cites Atlanta's Eastlake project, which combines low and moderate income families in a housing development– the number of such projects nationwide is low.

Harris says one only need look at the history of Charlottesville to see the outcome of gentrification.

He's referring, of course, to the Vinegar Hill neighborhood, a traditionally African American community that was razed in the late '60s as part of misguided attempts at "urban renewal" (including the western tip of the Downtown Mall).

Wunsch also cites Vinegar Hill as an example of "what not to do." Looking back 30 years, he says, urban renewal seemed to be "first about race and second about class." He predicts that 30 years from now, the work being done in Charlottesville's city neighborhoods will appear to be "not as much about race, and more about class."

Cox says nothing could be further from the truth.

"The city is approaching the improvement of these neighborhoods with eyes wide open. To compare Vinegar Hill to what's happening in Fifeville today is inappropriate and impossible," Cox says. "Every move we make today is mindful of that history," he adds, explaining that the City has already created a "housing policy task force" to look at, among other things, negative impacts of displacement, how to increase the range of affordability, and how to protect existing neighborhoods.

Cox is incensed by the resistance that improvements to black neighborhoods must confront.

"When you improve white neighborhoods, it's called economic reinvestment," he insists. Cox is particularly sensitive to accusations of impropriety in the development of lower income neighborhoods because he says the City– in conjunction with Piedmont Housing Alliance– is doing everything in its power to create a wider range of housing options for all citizens, and to drastically increase opportunities for home ownership among the least wealthy.

Dr. William Harris: "Mayor Cox is either ignorant of what gentrification is, or he's simply playing political pool."


Maurice Cox: "We can disagree and still get along," says Cox, who calls Harris "my mentor

The City's sweeping new zoning ordinance, passed September 15, allows property owners in R-1 zoning who live in the primary residence to place one rental unit on their property. That change, Cox and other city officials believe, will help to offset increasing property taxes.

Cox, also an architect on the UVA faculty, and his family moved into a lower income neighborhood several years ago. He says he'd like someone to explain why middle and upper middle class African Americans shouldn't move into traditionally African American neighborhoods.

"When I moved to Ridge Street," he says, "that could be called gentrification. How is that right?

"We have to move away from a reality of segregated neighborhoods by race or income," he says. And to Harris' claim that wealthier people simply won't coexist with the poor, Cox differs. A diverse neighborhood, he says, "attracts those who embrace social diversity and make for good urban neighbors."

In the end, Cox says, it's the ultimate catch-22. "If you make the neighborhood nice for the people who already live there," he says, "you end up attracting other people to move in." And improving the value of homes in neighborhoods that have typically appreciated slowly– if at all– over the last few decades, he insists, is not a bad thing for residents.

But Wunsch says that's not the whole story. He's particularly concerned about the work being done by the Piedmont Housing Alliance in the Starr Hill and 10th and Page neighborhoods, between Main Street and Preston Avenue.

He cites a duplex at 1113 Page Street that PHA has slated for demolition.

"It's no worse than the houses that Habitat for Humanity fixes up routinely," he says of the two-story green house with white shutters.

And it has a history a new house won't ever have. At the time of the 1930 census, says Wunsch, the house was home to a cook and his family of six. Sometime in the next 20 years the house was converted to a duplex, which, like many of the houses on that street, provided decent housing for working-class residents.

Wunsch fears that historic structures are being sacrificed in order to further the goal of "single family, owner-occupied dwellings suitable for gentrifiers." And he worries that many of the old houses, like the rainforest, will be "cut down" before their histories can ever be learned.

Preservation Piedmont, an organization to which Wunsch belongs, is pushing the city to create a record of the buildings slated for demolition.

"These aren't official historic districts," says Wunsch of these traditionally African American areas, "but they have the most to tell us about black history."

In January, a house was demolished at the corner of 10th and Page streets to make way for a new PHA construction.


Mallory recently sold this Dice Street house. HardiPlank siding along with ceramic tile and hardwood floors make it seem new.


Stu Armstrong, director of the Piedmont Housing Alliance, says his organization does consider history. PHA performs a structural analysis on each house it works on, and only those with significant structural problems– which Armstrong claims include the Page Street duplex– are torn down.

"Some of these houses," Armstrong says, "don't even have foundations." To ensure that each house's history is preserved, Armstrong says, PHA is partnering with UVA's Architecture School. Students will use PHA's 10th and Page Street project as "a studio."

Wunsch is also bothered by the fact that several City-supported PHA homes have been resold for a fat profit just a few years after the initial sale.

Such is the case with 208 Sixth Street NW. PHA purchased the property in 1997 for $35,000, fixed it up and sold it to a low income resident for $85,050 in July 1998. Jump ahead five years to March 2003 when that homeowner sold it for $239,000– an increase of more than 280 percent.

Is such a profitable turnaround fair– especially when public dollars are involved?

Armstrong says situations like that are unusual– and in the Sixth Street situation, he says, the property's skyrocketing value was a result of the booming market and the owner's original willingness to take a financial risk back in 1997.

"There was no evil intended," Armstrong says. "This was not a plan. We were trying to help that neighborhood."

Mayor Cox says that PHA's help cannot be underestimated. "PHA has multiplied the City's investment many times over," he says.

In all, the City has invested about a million dollars in PHA in the last three years. Armstrong says that with federal grants and other funding, his organization has been able to leverage $15.9 million of new capital in city neighborhoods. Ninety percent of that money, Armstrong says, "goes toward helping low-income households typically in low-income neighborhoods."

And as for critics who claim that increased property values– and therefore taxes– force low-income owners out of their houses, Armstrong and Cox disagree, citing the City's tax abatement program for elderly and low-income residents.

Armstrong says his organization aims to help people with incomes between $15,000-$40,000. The net mortgage for PHA homes is $80,000-$125,000, with as much as 20 to 25 percent of cost covered by grants.

To protect against rapid– and overly profitable– re-sales, Armstrong says PHA funds are now contractually restricted. Much– or all– of the down payment is forgiven for PHA clients unless they sell quickly. If PHA forgives a $5,000 down payment, for example, the homeowner must stay in the house five years or pay that money back. A $15,000 payment requires 15 years in the house.

Not all PHA home purchasers need such assistance.

"We do mixed income developments," he says. While most of the buyers are low income, there are some who have no subsidy and get a market rate. Those sales, he says, fund future PHA projects.

Armstrong agrees with Wunsch that it's important to preserve socio-economic integration. "We're very careful about which house we put on the open market," he says.

But while Wunsch feels that more effort should be going into preserving rental housing in these neighborhoods–"Tenants are people, too!" he says– Armstrong disagrees.

"Home ownership strengthens the neighborhood," he says, "and helps combat gentrification" by allowing low-income residents to have stable, long-term housing.

John Gaines, president of the neighborhood association in the 10th and Page Street area and a PHA board member, agrees with Armstrong.

"The area I live in has the highest percent of rental housing in the city," he says.

Since PHA has been restoring houses in Gaines' area and increasing home ownership, he says, he's witnessed an improvement in properties overall.

"Landlords are fixing their properties up," he says.

Gaines admits he worries about gentrification and the certain increase in property taxes, but he says the improvements right now seem worth the risk.

Asher Biemann and Dalia Rosenfeld (with sons Gidon and Natan) hope to move into their new home sometime this fall

Asher Biemann and Dalia Rosenfeld's 1920 home on Fifth Street


In Fifeville, residents don't seem too concerned about gentrification– they're more concerned about feeling safe in their homes. And Joe Mallory helps on that front.

"He's cleaning up the neighborhood, making it less of a hangout street," says homeowner Alfreda Carter, who lives on Dice Street with her husband, Melvin, and 12-year-old son. While groups of idle men gripping brown paper bags used to gather on the street, Carter says, they now go elsewhere.

"You don't find a lot of people because they think Joe is 5-0," explains Carter, using the numeric slang for police.

Carter says things were different not so long ago. And her house bears scars that prove it. Two years ago, her young son had just left the kitchen when a bullet ripped through the house, lodging in a wall just feet from where he had been standing.

Does she feel safe in the house?

"I do now– since Joe's come into the neighborhood," she says.

Mallory and his crew spend approximately three months restoring each house.

Antique heaters sit outside one of Mallory's Fifth Street projects.

Asher Biemann, who lived as a tenant in Fifeville several years ago before moving into UVA faculty housing off Fontaine Avenue, admits he knows that the neighborhood to which he is returning has had problems.

"We heard gunshots when we lived here before," he says. But for him and his family, the proximity to downtown, the racial and socioeconomic diversity, and the affordable price of his new home were all powerful draws to move back to Fifeville.

Surveying the scene from the front steps of his future home, he says simply, "We feel comfortable here."