Habitat for Humanity of Forsyth County, North Carolina
The area around Winston-Salem, N.C., was settled in the 18th century and grew to become a thriving industrial town built on the tobacco, furniture, textile, and banking industries. Booming business in the early 20th century led to a rapid increase in population and a demand for housing at all socioeconomic levels. The city expanded, creating a wealth of housing stock in planned developments. Winston-Salem’s Cherry Street was one such place, and developed into a thriving working-class African-American neighborhood in the 1930s and 1940s. The neighborhood boasted a diverse mix of housing types, including single-family bungalows, duplexes, small houses, and Y-stair apartment buildings—a housing type unique to Winston-Salem and a product of the immense demand for middle-class housing during the 1930s.
Following World War II, however, suburbanization, corporate restructuring, and population declines began to strain Winston-Salem’s inner-city neighborhoods. By the late 1990s, the area of Cherry Street roughly from 14th Street up to 23rd had fallen into disrepair. Absentee ownership, vacancy, and social problems, such as the presence of the city’s most active open-air drug markets, had taken hold. The City had targeted crime prevention efforts to the area but had not been able to bring decent housing back to the community. In April 2003, a redevelopment plan was approved for the area surrounding Cherry Street. A year later, after the redevelopment plan made it clear to city officials that the neighborhood was eligible for listing in the National Register and thus was eligible for historic rehabilitation tax credits, the North Cherry Street National Register Historic District was conceived.
Habitat for Humanity of Forsyth County (HFHFC) is a medium-sized affiliate founded in 1987. It has built nearly 300 houses and focused almost exclusively on greenfield development (development on vacant land). When Executive Director Sylvia Oberle joined the affiliate in 2006, she quickly become interested in the Cherry Street neighborhood, but neither she, nor her organization, had experience working in a historic context. Habitat had recently constructed 26 houses in a nearby Hope VI project (a federal affordable housing program), and several years prior had constructed 13 new homes in a neighborhood just to the west. According to Oberle, the affiliate knew it needed to do something about this “island of disrepair” located between downtown and Wake Forest University—just to the northwest.
Staff from a neighborhood development organization had begun speaking with Cherry Street residents to learn about the change they hoped to see in the area. Oberle began attending the organization’s public meetings to listen to discussions and to let the residents know that Habitat was interested in getting involved there. She said that it quickly became apparent that in order to see meaningful results in the district, revitalization efforts would need to develop a presence on the street. Without a critical mass of activity, homeowners wouldn’t feel safe or want to live there. Oberle contacted the City-County Planning Board hoping to learn about working in a National Register historic district, and there she met Michelle McCullough, historic planner for the City of Winston-Salem.
Oberle and McCullough began by meeting on Cherry Street, where they evaluated the condition of building stock and started to envision a way to improve housing conditions while preserving the neighborhood. McCullough brought her preservation planner perspective, identifying the resources that contributed to the National Register district, as well as those that, if necessary, could be demolished with least negative impact on the area. On their site visit, the two discovered buildings that were candidates for rehabilitation, including some the street’s single-family homes and unique collection of Y-stair apartment buildings.
Oberle and McCullough agreed on a series of goals and identified the partnerships they would need to achieve them. First, the parties involved in the project would have to gain control of enough property to actually effect change on the street. Second, they would need to provide new housing opportunities without negatively affecting the historic features that contributed to the significance of the district. Finally, in order to complete rehabilitation work, they would need to identify private-sector developers with a history of dealing with historic development projects.
To help accomplish these goals, Habitat first hired an architectural firm experienced in historic rehabilitation to develop the North Cherry Street Master Plan of 2009. A detailed analysis of conditions, resources, needs, and opportunities, the plan served as an unofficial but sympathetic update to the city’s 2003 redevelopment plan, and was designed to revive the original streetscape and re-create the sense of neighborhood that made Cherry Street so desirable in the 1930s and 1940s. The architect developed new craftsman-style infill housing designs that would integrate with the existing architecture of the neighborhood, reinforcing rather than detracting from the character of the district. The architectural designs were complimented by streetscape design standards, and a community education component further guaranteed local involvement and participation in matters of maintenance, landscape, “good neighboring”.
An ambitious project emerged from Oberle and McCullough’s planning process. Working with the city and the state historic preservation office (SHPO), Habitat acquired houses and vacant lots in the area. The initial plan was for Habitat to construct 16 architecturally compatible infill residences with guidance from the city’s 2003 redevelopment plan and the North Cherry Street Master Plan. The Landmark Group, a private company with experience developing and managing rehabilitated properties, would rehab four Y-stair apartment units to create 13 units of affordable housing. The Landmark Group worked with Preservation North Carolina, a statewide nonprofit preservation organization, to install a conservation easement on the three buildings that were considering “contributing” to the National Register district. Infill Community Builders, led by Jeff McIntosh, a local real estate agent who has done rehab work, agreed to rehabilitate six single-family homes. Seven homes were planned for demolition; to date, only five have been razed. “We were able, instead of losing a whole street to blight, to lose…just five structures,” said McCullough.
The National Register and Section 106 Review
Because North Cherry Street is not a local historic district, the City’s Historic Resource Commission would not be involved in the project and would not need to approve plans for rehab or infill. However, because the district is listed in the National Register and the project would take advantage of federal funds, the SHPO had to consult with the City and Habitat to ensure that the revitalization would not result in “adverse impacts” to the listed area. Known as “Section 106 Review” (after Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act), the SHPO conducts the 106 review process as a way to ensure that federal funds—in this case HUD money spent by Habitat and by the City to create the redevelopment plan—are not used to the detriment of resources listed in the National Register.
When staff from the SHPO came to Winston-Salem to discuss impacts to the district, Oberle and McCullough’s advanced planning paid off. The SHPO consented to their vision provided that several conditions were met. First, any structure being demolished would have to be documented. Second, the city would have to provide infill guidelines for new construction in the district. Fortunately, Habitat’s architect had already prepared guidelines as part of the 2009 North Cherry Street Master Plan, and the SHPO approved them. Finally, as a way to determine the impact of the demolition and new construction—and whether or not the district would still meet the criteria for listing—the city would have to reevaluate the integrity of the National Register district once the project was complete. This follow-up evaluation would verify that the adverse impacts that the 106 consultation sought to prevent had not, in fact, occurred.
With Oberle, McCullough, and the SHPO in agreement, a memorandum of agreement was signed and Habitat had the green light to begin construction of the craftsman-style houses.
Although Habitat’s leadership—in partnership with Michelle McCullough at the City-County Planning Board—was key to revitalizing North Cherry Street, Sylvia Oberle’s affiliate only undertook the construction of infill housing; rehabilitation efforts were left to two private developers. By working with the Landmark Group, whose partner company Rehab Builders specializes in the rehabilitation of structures eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, and Infill Community Builders, Habitat was able to fulfill its traditional role of constructing new homes while remaining part of the larger revitalization and preservation effort. Although the project was new territory for everybody involved, the partnership played to the strengths of each organization. Together, they leveraged their resources on a larger project than they had the capacity to execute individually.
The Winston-Salem-based Landmark Group is a for-profit development company which has completed nearly one billion dollars in tax act rehabs in 13 states, primarily in the Southeast. According to President and CEO Dewey Anderson, North Cherry Street’s Y-stair apartments were a new kind of project. “It wasn’t for profit,” said Anderson. “It was more altruistic. It really served our community, the City of Winston-Salem…It wasn’t hard for me to see how the whole neighborhood, comprehensively, was going to be repositioned. There was nowhere to go but up.”
When Landmark took possession of the four, Y-stair apartment buildings, they were in very poor condition. Anderson discussed with Habitat and other groups what kind of units to create, and worked through Rehab Builders to reconfigure the buildings’ interiors for contemporary living. In order to cover financing gaps, a Winston-Salem organization called Community Development made a community development block grant contribution. According to Anderson, the result is “above market spec”—a finer product than would normally be available for the same rent. The apartments are affordable, however, with a ceiling for renters at 80 percent of area median income.
Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits
Because the Y-stair buildings are contributing resources to the National Register historic district, the rehabilitation was eligible to receive historic rehabilitation tax credits. According to Dewey Anderson, the total development cost for the project wasn't large enough to merit investment syndication, a process by which tax credits would have been sold to investors to generate capital to fund the rehab. Instead, the credits will provide a tax break to the developer.
A May 27, 2010 article in the Winston-Salem Journal reported that change was already evident on the street. According to the Journal, “Tomache Jones and her two children moved into one of the Cherry Street Habitat houses in December. She said she was concerned about the area's reputation for drugs, rundown housing and crime, but she has found her fears to have been groundless. Her children enjoy having their own rooms, and the front porch has become a gathering spot for the family, she said.”
Today, all 16 of Habitat’s houses are occupied. The Y-stair buildings were dedicated on October 8, 2010, and the first single-family home is renovated and occupied—others will follow one by one. According to Sylvia Oberle, crime and loitering have waned on Cherry Street, and families are spending time on their porches and children are playing in their yards—neither of which happened before.
Neighbors have formed a neighborhood watch program, and group members joined some Habitat staff for a three-day “Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design” training session, aimed at keeping crime out of the neighborhood. Kimberley Park Elementary School, located in the neighborhood, recently held a “Walk to School Day” to demonstrate to families that it’s safe to walk to school from nearby. Winston-Salem University and the elementary school students have planted a community garden at the end of the block.
Habitat is working with local landscape designers to complete the landscaping part of the master plan, including developing a visual focal point, with attractive landscaping, benches, etc., along a former kudzu gully in the middle of the neighborhood. Habitat has designated the Cherry Street area and surrounding streets as its target area for the Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative, through which a three-year community plan will be developed to continue to renovate and repair other structures throughout the neighborhood.
Header image courtesy of Habitat for Humanity of Forsyth County