Roanoke’s public housing authority is shopping around eight acres in the Gainsboro neighborhood in hopes of attracting an affordable housing developer.
Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority has long owned the tracts of land between Orange Avenue and Cherry Avenue Northwest but is now trying more deliberately to spur interest.
“We've been talking about the property for a long time,” said Frederick Gusler, the authority’s director of redevelopment and revitalization. “More recently, we just started to try to get the word out more about it simply because the market … was really good, in terms of the interest in people that are looking for property to develop.”
The housing authority’s ownership of the steep-sloped woods traces back to urban renewal.
Beginning in the 1970s, the authority acquired swaths of the Gainsboro neighborhood — some of those properties were sold to developers of single-family homes and townhouses, while others, like the land sometimes referred to as Cherry Hill, remain vacant.
Roanoke is in need of thousands more housing units that are affordable to very low-income households, according to a 2020 study for the Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission.
Though the housing authority doesn’t have the ability to develop the land itself, it must ensure that any developer of the property construct housing with rents costing no more than 30 percent of a low-income family’s earnings, according to Gusler.
Gusler said the city’s recent investment proposed for Gainsboro also played into the authority’s decision to talk up the site more.
City Council has approved $5 million in federal pandemic relief funds for the neighborhood. Though initially intended to launch a healthcare and small business hub around the former Claytor Clinic, plans have since shifted toward outdoor recreation and roadway upgrades.
“We don't know what's going … to come from the hub plan,” Gusler said. “But I think there could be a feeling that things have changed in the neighborhood. And that there's also an attempt to really kind of … restore some confidence in the city government overall and have some sense of healing over what happened and what was done to the neighborhood in the urban renewal process.”
The city is preparing an official apology for its role in urban renewal — which over three decades resulted in the demolition of 1,600 homes, 200 businesses and 24 churches in the predominantly Black neighborhoods of Gainsboro and Northeast Roanoke.
The housing authority played a significant role in urban renewal through its use of eminent domain to seize property for redevelopment.
The Cherry Hill properties — 77 parcels total — make up most of the land still owned by the housing authority in Gainsboro. They’re still a part of a redevelopment plan, first adopted by City Council in January 1972, which states that the authority “has determined that the area is a blighted, deteriorated or deteriorating area and that it is detrimental and a menace to the safety, health, and welfare of the inhabitants” of the neighborhood and city at large.
Back in 2008, the authority proposed officially closing that Gainsboro redevelopment program. But residents pushed back because they felt the authority had yet to fulfill its promise of revitalization, according to media reports at the time.
“In public meetings Gainsboro neighborhood residents opposed this action and asked for the plan to remain in place,” the housing authority’s website states. “RRHA agreed to do so though there are no current plans by the City and RRHA to implement the plan or funding dedicated to such.”
The city also owns several vacant pieces of land in Gainsboro on Henry Street, which once thrived as Roanoke’s “Black Wall Street.”
Roanoke’s office of economic development has advertised those properties to potential developers. But the office has since removed the online listing after residents raised concerns this spring during discussion of a new Gainsboro neighborhood hub plan.
Constance Crutchfield, president of the neighborhood group Gainsborough Southwest Community Organization, expressed concerns about any new housing that would accept Section 8 housing vouchers.
She argued that current houses with that arrangement are in a dilapidated state.
“The landlords don’t take care of them, and they don’t enforce the people that live in them to take care of them,” Crutchfield said. “There’s got to be accountability somewhere.”
Elliott Major owns an apartment complex on Cherry Avenue. Built in the 1970s, the apartment was the lone development made on the hill since the authority acquired the surrounding properties.
“There’s always been some rumblings about it,” Major said about the authority’s plans to find a developer. “Any effort to continue to develop affordable housing in the Northwest, and even Roanoke as a whole, is a good thing.”
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