Infested with termites, to the point that she once fell through its thin plywood floor, the problems with Bonnie Newton’s 40-year-old trailer weren’t merely cosmetic. It had become a health and safety hazard.
Finding anything better within her limited budget was a daunting challenge, with rents soaring across the region and a scarcity of safe, secure affordable housing for low-income residents.
Then a groundbreaking partnership between Chesterfield County and a local nonprofit turned that equation on its ear.
Working collaboratively with the County Attorney’s office, staff in the Community Enhancement, Building Inspection and Planning departments facilitated the September 2020 acquisition of Bermuda Estates by Project:HOMES, which has ambitious plans to revitalize the Chesterfield trailer park, improve the lives of its residents, prevent displacement and eliminate the social stigma associated with mobile homes.
“We had a coordinated strategy. Everyone was on the same page and understood what we were trying to accomplish,” said Dan Cohen, Chesterfield’s director of Community Enhancement, acknowledging the county’s interests aligned with those of a willing seller and a buyer that is committed to making meaningful investments in the property.
“It was serendipity,” he added.
Chesterfield has allocated more than $200,000 in federal funding for infrastructure improvements at Bermuda Estates, including new lighting, updates to water and sewage systems and road repairs.
An additional $40,000 that was collected from the property’s prior owner as part of a legal settlement of numerous building code violations also has been designated for the project.
While Project:HOMES has completed major home repairs for thousands of low-income people over the past three decades, the $1.95 million purchase represented a significant departure from its normal operating model and what CEO Lee Householder called “the biggest risk we’ve taken as a company.”
Its plan for the 7.8-acre site is to gradually replace most of the 50 existing trailers with more sustainable, energy-efficient manufactured housing that meets Department of Housing and Urban Development standards.
“Durability is at the top of our list because that is key to maintaining the value of the homes and the quality of the community,” said Zack Miller, manager of housing innovation for Project:HOMES. “They’re definitely built to last.”
Mobile homes are attractive to low-income populations because they’re much less expensive to purchase than stick-built homes. Such units don’t hold their value over time and tend to depreciate like automobiles, though, making it impossible for owners to build equity.
At Bermuda Estates, the replacement homes are being constructed with quality building materials, including cement-fiber siding that lasts much longer than wood or vinyl, as well as HVAC systems, eaves and gutters, front and side porches and custom-designed, sealed crawl spaces made of PVC.
Project:HOMES is heavily subsidizing the cost of the new 840-square-foot units, which can be paid for with a 10-year loan, and retaining ownership of the land beneath each residence to keep costs low. Once the loan is paid off, the resident owns the home, but not the lot.
“We can’t afford to do them all at once … it’s going to take some time,” said Miller, noting there is a waiting list of interested residents.
Only current Bermuda Estates residents are eligible for the home revitalization program.
Newton, 71, was selected to receive the first new residence – a model with blue-gray siding and a bright orange front door -- because her trailer was deemed to be in unlivable condition.
She and her son moved into the home in August. On a recent afternoon, her three cats were sleeping contentedly on the sunny front porch, seemingly oblivious to the presence of visitors.
“It’s the size of a trailer, but it’s like a mansion to me,” Newton said. “We’re just ecstatic.”
Cohen called the revitalization of Bermuda Estates “an example of what’s possible in other manufactured home communities.”
Chesterfield is home to a number of trailer parks, in various states of repair, particularly along the economically challenged Route 1 corridor.
Lamenting the lack of quality housing that is affordable to low-income populations in the Richmond region, Newton prays every night that her fellow residents “get the help they need.”
“I hope everyone here has an opportunity to get a new home,” she added. “It’s going to be a beautiful day … I hope I live long enough to see it.”