Fund would help revitalize Richmond

The city of Richmond is on a path to give financial assistance to private firms doing work in blighted neighborhoods.

From Catherine Leth, Capital News Service

The city of Richmond is on a path to give financial assistance to private firms doing work in blighted neighborhoods.

Two proposals headed toward approval in the General Assembly – House Bill 1668 and Senate Bill 799 – would create a “community revitalization fund” that would allow renovators to apply for loans or grants when working in deteriorated residential areas.

Delegate Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, is sponsoring HB 1668. She said most of the funding would go to nonprofit groups, but for-profit companies could apply as well.

“The city is trying to find new ways to combat blight and fix up derelict properties,” McClellan said. “We’ve got buildings up in Northside that have been boarded up for 40 years. So if somebody wants to come and buy it and fix it up, they can apply to the city for a grant or loan to do that.”

Under current state law, localities cannot give money to private entities without express permission from Virginia lawmakers. This is one of many statewide policies that make it harder for Richmond to fix up its neighborhoods, says Chris Hilbert, a member of the Richmond City Council.

“I hope that people can see that and give localities, particularly some of our older cities, these powers to effect change in our jurisdictions,” Hilbert said. “It’s very difficult to speak with folks and give them, from the local perspective, a lot of hope … about what can be done because the state laws really tie up local governments.”

Hilbert, who helped create the legislation, said blighted areas are a haven for prostitution and drug dealing and tend to “drag down” neighborhoods. He showed little concern for property rights supporters who oppose government action targeting owners of blighted houses.

“I was taught early on that my right to swing my fist ended at my neighbor’s nose,” Hilbert said. “I feel like those owners of blighted properties are swinging indiscriminately at property owners around them.”

The proposed revitalization fund could be used in four ways:

  • Loans or grants to organizations for the construction, renovation and demolition of residential structures
  • Infrastructure improvements
  • Acquisition of blighted properties
  • Sustainability projects for residential structures

The legislation has met little opposition in the General Assembly.

HB 1668 passed the House, 99-0, on Feb. 8. On Friday, the Senate approved the bill, 36-3. (Three Republican senators voted against it: Stephen Martin of Chesterfield; Mark Obenshain of Harrisonburg; and Ralph Smith of Roanoke.)

The companion measure, SB 799, was introduced by Sen. A. Donald McEachin, D-Richmond. In January, it cleared the Senate, 35-3 (with Martin, Obenshain and Smith dissenting). On Friday, the House Committee on Counties, Cities and Towns unanimously endorsed SB 799.

Neighborhoods in Bloom

Supporters hope the proposed revitalization fund will build on the success of programs such as Neighborhoods in Bloom.

The city of Richmond created Neighborhoods in Bloom in 1999 to work with nonprofit groups to repair and sell vacant historic homes. The project involves meeting with community leaders and analyzing crime and poverty statistics to find areas most suitable for renovation.

In 2006, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the program its Opportunity and Empowerment Award for significantly decreasing crime rates in targeted neighborhoods.

A nonprofit group that promotes community revitalization is the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods.

Formed in 1998, ACORN acts as a resource center for homebuyers, promoting the renovation and selling of old or abandoned homes in Richmond.

Photo by John Murden.

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