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Building Pleasantville

Winchester Greens has become a model for a new kind of low-income housing.


"He's going to be a scientist or something," says Trica Parham, smiling, her cheeks dimpled with delight.

On a bright, breezy late afternoon in August, Winchester Greens is everything Parham, 33, had ever dreamed of. Coming from the projects in West Philadelphia, she moved to the notorious Park Lee Apartments in May 1995. Park Lee, known for its drug-dealing and violence, was to her a step up from "real projects" in Philly, where she once witnessed two people get gunned down in the hallway of a high-rise building.

After Park Lee was demolished to make way for Winchester Greens in the late 1990s, Parham's life took a turn for the better. She moved into a townhouse on the corner and today feels safer. In a year or so, she and her husband, Gilbert Sr., and their three children — daughter Shatora, 15, and sons Charles, 13, and Gilbert Jr., 9 — plan to move into their own house.

"We're just having a good old time," Parham says.

The nonprofit Richmond Better Housing Coalition purchased the old 424-unit Park Lee for $1 in foreclosure from the federal government in 1997. It stitched together various federal and state grants, along with a $6.7 million bond issue from Chesterfield County, and began tearing it down, section by section, a year later. The coalition rebuilt the complex with brick townhouses along narrow, well-landscaped streets and sidewalks.

The $21-million Winchester includes 240 apartments, a new child-care facility, a community center, swimming pool and access to public transportation. Unlike high-rise public housing projects built in the 1960s and '70s, stacking poor on top of poor, the housing coalition spread out Winchester Greens, building townhouses that attract renters of various income levels. The coalition partnered with county schools and the department of social services to offer on-site help to low-income residents. There's even a public library branch located in the management office.

As you drive along the blue-collar Jeff Davis toward Petersburg, Winchester's Pleasantville aura seems to pop up out of nowhere, an oasis on Route 1.

Parham, a room attendant at a nearby Hilton, remembers walking excitedly from her dingy, barracks-style Park Lee apartment to inspect her new townhouse, still under construction, a few years ago. "When it was time to move, I was so happy," she recalls.

Winchester Greens is about to enter its second stage of development. At the front of the property, construction of some 40,000 square feet of retail and office space is underway (first up: a discount store). A single-family subdivision with 80 homes is being constructed behind the apartments. High demand also has the coalition planning 70 new apartments for seniors in addition to the 100-unit Market Square complex at the entrance.

Meanwhile, Winchester Greens is gaining attention from across the country for its holistic approach to affordable housing. The trend of replacing the projects with privately built townhouses is nothing new. But Winchester is the first project in Virginia, and one of the first in the country, to include from conception a multitude of support services for its residents — such as day care and on-site social workers. Typically, federally funded housing includes only the bricks and mortar.

"We made up our minds that the people were our main concern, not the buildings," says T.K. Somanath, executive director of the housing coalition. So the coalition went to the residents and asked them what they wanted.

"The residents wanted to have mixed-income and renters," Somanath says. That made the design element critical.

The coalition heard what academics such as Gary Johnson, associate professor of housing and transportation in the VCU Department of Urban Studies and Planning, have been preaching for years. "The real lesson is, the low-income problem needs to be addressed holistically," Johnson says. "You have to address the needs of the residents. By mixing incomes, you have a lot of positive social effects."

Apartments rent from $665 to $765 a month. People such as Parham with government assistance usually can rent an apartment for about half that. The result, Somanath says, is that Winchester attracts hard-working, low-income families and middle-income wage earners, "people who want to help themselves."

Johnson, who sits on the housing coalition's board, says Winchester is one of the best examples of mixed-income, subsidized housing in the country. He regularly gives tours of the complex to other academics and planners. "There have been people who have come from around the eastern United States to look at it," he says.

From the beginning, Somanath says it has been critical that the residents have some incentive to keep out the bad element, the drug dealers and the rowdiness that typified old Park Lee. To do that, the coalition hired a management company and installed strict rules. Residents were warned that they would be held responsible for their guests' behavior and could be evicted for it, Somanath says.

"There is the whole mindset that has to change," he says.

Their efforts paid off. Because the housing coalition is a nonprofit that operates outside the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, it wasn't handicapped by the bureaucracy that can make typical government housing difficult to manage.

During the changeover, the new rules and higher rent meant most of the old Park Lee residents bolted. About 74 of the 240 apartments are occupied by former Park Lee dwellers, according to Winchester Greens management.

As a result, crime has dropped dramatically since Winchester was completed. Sgt. William Jerome Pannell, supervisor for Chesterfield County's south district community policing program, says serious crime is all but gone, and Winchester is no different from any other neighborhood. The number of police calls dropped from nearly 600 a year to about 60, Somanath says.

Chesterfield Police records show in the first year Winchester Greens was fully opened, violent offenses dropped some 94 percent, and domestic disturbances dropped nearly 50 percent. Other minor offenses, such as theft, vandalism and burglaries dropped more than 90 percent from the second quarter of 1997 to the second quarter of 2002, according to police records on file at the housing coalition.

Pannell says Winchester Greens management played a critical role in keeping crime down, by sticking to a zero-tolerance policy for breaking the rules. "I was impressed with how quickly the process went," he says of the changeover.

There are drawbacks. Because many of the original residents of Park Lee have gone elsewhere, it's likely problem residents have merely shifted to other housing projects and other areas, although that's nearly impossible to track. The zero-tolerance policy can also be too strict at times, Parham complains. She recalls a struggling single mother in an apartment behind her who was evicted after a couple of minor incidents. Her daughter got into a fight on a school bus; on another occasion, her boyfriend started a shouting match. The last straw came when the woman threw a birthday party for her 12-year-old daughter. The music wasn't that loud, the way Parham tells it.

"The lady was very bold, she just didn't take any mess," Parham says of the woman who got the boot. "I just couldn't understand why."

There are other rules that she doesn't understand: The $125 fee if the children harm one of the small twiggy trees out front. And the $10-a-day fee to access the pool, which meant she couldn't afford to take her visiting niece swimming this summer.

It's a little strict, a little Big-Brother, but still not enough to dampen Parham's enthusiasm. Her eyes still light up when talk turns to the amenities.

"We have washers and dryers in here," she says, beaming. "We got dishwashers, garbage disposals. I get my carpets cleaned for free. Where can you get that with low-income housing?" S

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