CHARLOTTESVILLE — Reina Vazquez moved to Southwood Mobile Home Park in Charlottesville 11 years ago when her second child was only a few weeks old because it was the only home she could afford.
The 39-year-old mother of two likes that it is a calm place to live, even though her trailer has minimal heating.
Since Vazquez moved to the United States 15 years ago, she’s wanted nothing more than to own a house. Opportunity zone funding may make Vazquez’s wish a reality.
“I always told my children that someday we’d have a house,” said Vazquez, who works at a dry cleaners. “Now my children won’t have to be so cold.”
Southwood is in one of the 8,700 opportunity zones designated as part of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. Opportunity zones are economically distressed neighborhoods.
The new program is intended to spur development in these communities by increasing investment through tax incentives. Anyone who sells an investment at a profit can defer the capital gains tax on the sale if the proceeds are put into a fund that invests in an opportunity zone.
The reason Southwood was selected by the state as an opportunity zone is not only because it has a 33% poverty rate and 6% unemployment rate; there also was a plan in place to transform it.
Back in 2007, Habitat for Humanity purchased Southwood with the intention of redeveloping it into a mixed-income neighborhood while at the same time promising no residents would be displaced.
It was not the first time the organization known for building affordable housing took on the role of a developer. Three years earlier, Habitat embarked on a similar plan at Sunrise, a smaller trailer park in Charlottesville.
“Around 2004 or so, we were looking at opportunities to move from a builder to a developer-builder, largely because of the cost of land here in Charlottesville,” said Dan Rosensweig, president and chief executive of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville.
Habitat’s success at Sunrise — believed to be the first time a trailer park was transformed into a mixed-income community without displacing residents — gave it the confidence to move forward on Southwood.
First opened in the 1950s, Southwood is tucked into a southwest corner of Charlottesville near Interstate 64. The 120-acre enclave is home to 1,500 residents, largely Latino, in 341 trailers.
By the time Habitat bought Southwood, it was run-down with aging trailers and failing infrastructure.
“Honestly, it was kind of a mess,” Rosensweig said. “There was sewage bubbling up out of the ground into people’s trailers. There were electrical fires. ... [But] when you look past the obvious, when you look past the failing infrastructure and crumbling trailers, you see something that’s really worth preserving.”
Habitat invested close to $20 million in repairs to stabilize the community before it even started talking to the residents about redesigning it. About 200 of the 340 families participated in the redevelopment discussions, but a core group of 40 families were the most active.
“They set the vision,” Rosensweig said. “They actually learned and were trained in architecture, engineering and financing. Our goal was to stand back and support the residents as they made a plan of development.”
Vazquez was part of that group. She has enjoyed sharing her opinions about the project. She never misses a meeting and has invited several of her neighbors to come along.
“People are excited,” she said, adding that she and other members of the community were skeptical at first. “Some of them say that they have been hearing about this for years, and that it’s all lies. But now they see the posters and they know it’s real.”
Joann Pugh, 68, also attends the meetings even though she no longer lives in Southwood. Pugh, who lived there for 25 years, moved out a year ago after a problem with her furnace led to smoke damage in her trailer.
“When we went to the meetings, they asked us different questions, and everybody wanted the same thing,” Pugh said. “Everybody wanted a nice place for your family.”
Unlike Vazquez, Pugh doesn’t want to buy a home.
“I told them we need apartments,” she said. “That’s what I would like to have. I want senior citizen [apartments].”
Plans are to create 800 residential units with more than half of them affordable. Habitat will build most of the low-income housing. Developers will build market-rate housing. Another key aspect of the redevelopment is to give residents access to a business development consultant who can help them start their own businesses, such as a restaurant or a beauty salon, in the neighborhood.
Although groundbreaking remains a year away, the opportunity zone funding has accelerated Southwood’s transformation. According to Rosensweig, one of the developers in the project told him that opportunity zone funding stimulated the early investment in the project, allowing them to build structured rather than surface parking, thus creating more green space for residents. It also allowed them to design row houses that better fit the residents’ vision for the community.
Despite these benefits, Rosensweig remains skeptical of opportunity zones.
“By and large, I think a lot of opportunity zone investment is going to bring about gentrification,” he said. “I think there’s a lot that’s right about the OZ. Certainly, there’s enough incentive. Oftentimes, there are government programs that don’t create enough incentive to make things happen. The OZ is creating a ton of incentive.”