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'I wish we had more programs like this.' New affordable housing development opens in Abingdon

One of the duplexes at Sweetbrier, an affordable housing development in Abingdon. Marilus Perez stands outside her home.
Roxy Todd
Radio IQ
One of the duplexes at Sweetbrier, an affordable housing development in Abingdon.

This time last year, Marilus Perez was focused on recovering her ability to walk, after suffering a stroke. She spent months in the hospital, and her apartment didn’t have access for her wheelchair.

Then, she got a spot at a new affordable housing development in the Southwest Virginia town of Abingdon, called Sweetbrier.

“And moving here is so quiet and stress free. I just love it,” Perez said.

It’s estimated that over 100,000 affordable houses and apartments are needed across Virginia, and the need continues to grow.

Perez’ home was completed this year, one of 42 houses, all duplexes, built inside a neighborhood subdivision developed by a non-profit called People Incorporated. Their chief development officer, Bryan Ailey, said as soon as the final homes were built this fall, they had occupants.

“And we already have 22 units full, with a waiting list of over 195 people waiting on it,” Ailey said.

All units in their first phase also filled. They’ve been working to complete this project for 16 years. The first 20 homes at Sweetbrier were built in 2009, right in the middle of the mortgage crisis, so the second phase was pushed back.

“We tried on and off for about ten years, to find the financing for it. We couldn’t do it,” Ailey said.

Finally, they were able to secure funding, partly with low-income tax credits. The homes at Sweetbrier are leased to people who make 60 percent of the median income for Washington County, or less. (For a family of four, around $45,000.

They’re townhome style duplexes, all with three bedrooms. Perez’ home has a huge back porch, and a patio out front. When her grandkids visit, there’s space for them to play outside and run inside.

“Cause where my daughter lives, is where I used to live, it’s like a little matchbox,” Perez said. “And they come here. They have all the space to run back and forth in that hallway.”

Ailey said they’re working with the local Community Service Board to make sure people with mental illnesses or developmental disabilities are given priority on leasing. Several residents here have physical limitations.

“We have an accessible path that connects to a community garden that’s also wheelchair accessible,” Ailey said, pointing to several raised beds made of wood.

People Inc. has other housing projects across Virginia. Everywhere, they’re seeing a need, and Ailey says he wishes they could build more.

“And there’s a lot of people out there that need the housing that simply don’t have access to it,” Ailey said. “And the stock doesn’t exist for them to have access to it.”

Marilus Perez stands outside her new home. She is using a cane, and her home is accessible for her to use her wheelchair.
Roxy Todd
Radio IQ
Marilus Perez

“I wish we had more programs like this,” Perez said. And while it doesn’t solve all her worries, she said her life has changed since she moved in. “This was a blessing.”

Her kitchen is her favorite room in the house, because there’s plenty of space for her to cook while sitting in her wheelchair.

Her bathroom is her second favorite. “I love it,” Perez said, pointing to a shower seat that she can access from her wheelchair.

Her grandkids love to play hide and seek in the bathroom. Down the hall, she’s decorated one of the bedrooms with toys, kids’ books, a small bed, and a tiny piano.

“Oh yeah, my granddaughter plays it all day, when she’s here,” Perez said.

She’s looking forward to hosting her family at Thanksgiving, especially having the noises of her grandbabies filling her house.

Roxy Todd is Radio IQ's New River Valley Bureau Chief.