A Model for Trailer Park Transformation

Feb 1, 2021

A remarkable construction project gets underway next week in Albemarle County as residents of an old trailer park turn their neighborhood into the subdivision they planned.  These citizen-developers are now naming streets in Southwood with help from UVA’s basketball coach. 

Habitat for Humanity has partnered with residents of the Southwood Trailer Park to transform it into the neighborhood they have planned.
Credit Habitat for Humanity Charlottesville

Southwood is a mobile home park founded 55 years ago on a wooded property several miles south of Charlottesville.  In 2007, Habitat for Humanity bought the land and promised residents they could stay as new houses, condos and apartments were built around them.

“There are 1,500 people who live here at Southwood. It is the largest single concentration of affordable housing in the area," says Habitat Charlottesville’s CEO Dan Rosensweig. 

The  trailers were in pretty bad shape when his non-profit bought the park and began to make changes.

“When we purchased the trailer park the underground infrastructure had already essentially failed," he recalls. "There was sewage bubbling up into people’s trailers, kids playing in sewage,  trailer fires, because trailers were hot-wired to the grid, and so the first phase of redevelopment was really about stabilizing the immediate living conditions of people here.”

About 200 residents of Southwood have played an active role in planning their new community.
Credit Habitat for Humanity Charlottesville

Next, the residents – many of them Hispanic -- began meeting to talk about their dreams for the new neighborhood.

At first, Rosensweig says, people wanted their own house, surrounded by a white picket fence, but then they started learning about the realities of new home construction.

“We did things like take field trips to other places. We looked at what things cost, we started teaching people about land development and how many homes could fit on a particular amount of land, how much space you need for roads and parks, and they came to their own conclusion – that if we all had detached homes there wouldn’t be enough space here for everybody, and more importantly there wouldn’t be enough space to add people in, because they wanted this to be a welcoming place of opportunity for more people to come in.”

Citizen developers have learned about the challenges and costs of creating a new community.
Credit Habitat for Humanity Charlottesville

In exchange for their help building these homes, residents will get a very low mortgage through Habitat for Humanity, usually between $110,000 and $120,000.

And everyone gets to weigh-in on street names.  Southwood residents wanted to honor UVA’s basketball coach, but Tony Bennett came to one of their meetings and recommended against it.

“You don’t want to put my name on anything," he joked. "That’s no good, because if we start losing people are going to go ‘Boo,’ and throw eggs at it, and I don’t want that.”

Instead, he proposed a nod to his coaching philosophy – a set of values passed down from his own college basketball coach, his father.  He calls them the five pillars: humility, passion, servanthood, thankfulness and unity.

“Society says, ‘It’s about me,’  but this pillar of unity says, ‘It’s about us,” and we use an African proverb that says, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together,’” Bennett explained.

Residents agreed and have named their first community space Five Pillars Park. Dan Rosensweig hopes this will become a model for the nation.

“This is epidemic in the United States.  There are 20-million people who live in trailers but don’t own the land underneath them, and in many, many cases it’s like this place.  The real estate is really valuable, and so people are being displaced left and right.”

And like Tony Bennett, he believes the people of Southwood will work together to deliver a win.  The vast majority are employed – many working two or three jobs – and in Charlottesville, where Habitat for Humanity has provided 250 affordable homes for low-income families, only four have defaulted on their mortgage.