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Blacksburg townhomes mark a new era for Habitat — and its director

Blacksburg townhomes mark a new era for Habitat — and its director


BLACKSBURG — One of these seven new houses is for Christopher.

By the end of the month, Nakia McBride and her family hope to be moved into their new, affordable, ADA-accessible townhome in the 700 block of Church Street.

It’s one of seven multifamily units built by Habitat for Humanity of the New River Valley on an acre of land near downtown Blacksburg.

The project will put the family of four — McBride, her fiance and their two young sons — in walking distance of the farmers market, the public library and their church. And it will cut their housing expenses in half, McBride said.

But most of all it will be a safe place for Christopher, 12, who was born with microencephaly. Because his head is smaller than normal, he suffers from developmental delays and is confined to a wheelchair. He can’t see or talk.

It’s been hard finding affordable housing in town that also meets Americans with Disabilities standards.

“Right now we have to walk up stairs, and it’s just not safe because we have to carry him,” McBride said. “As he gets older and larger and heavier, it’s a lot on one body. So, we’re excited to roll him right in the front door.”

If all goes well, that will happen by the end of the month.

“He may not know exactly what’s going on,” McBride said. “But in our hearts as his parents, we are excited to just to be able to give this to him.”

All seven units have been sold for $150,000 to $160,000, retiring Executive Director Shelley Fortier said.

As much as the Church Street project is a turning point for McBride’s family, it also marks a new era for Habitat, Fortier said. And for Fortier herself.

This is Habitat’s first multifamily construction project and signals its growth as an affordable housing developer in the area. And it marks a full recovery from near financial ruin a decade ago.

Getting here has taken significant work.

From 2009 to 2013, Habitat didn’t build a single house. It faced a substantial budget shortfall, had problems keeping its ReStore — a retail thrift store that helps fund operations — open and was embroiled in a lawsuit with a former landlord.

Since 2013, the group has built nine single-family homes wherever in the valley lots were donated, but the leadership wanted to tackle bigger projects.

A few years ago, Fortier and the Habitat board at the time decided they wanted to build a multifamily project in the valley’s least affordable housing market — Blacksburg.

Fortier started talking to businesses and landowners and even churches. And there she found a promising lead.

At a meeting of the Blacksburg Ministerial Association, Fortier met a former Blacksburg Presbyterian Church pastor. Eventually the congregation brokered a deal to donate an acre of land near downtown for affordable townhomes.

It took hard work to get the necessary rezoning and permits, site plans and funding together. Habitat broke ground at Church Street in October, but by March, the novel coronavirus pandemic had hit, and the organization made the hard decision to send most of its volunteers home.

Homebuyers who hadn’t yet completed their required 200 hours of sweat equity on the building site instead processed donations that came into the Habitat ReStore in Christiansburg. Although the store was closed to the public, Resource Development Director Kim Snider said donations continued to come in.

But the lack of help on the building site left construction manager Dan Crowder shorthanded during the largest, most complex project in the history of Habitat NRV. Normally, a Habitat house requires 2,000 hours of volunteer labor to come to fruition, Fortier said.

“Can you imagine being one of those six construction people — three staff, an intern and two volunteers — looking at that seven-unit thing, saying, ‘I don’t want to do this by myself?’ ” she said. “They could have run away crying, but they didn’t. They stuck in there.”

And the crew accomplished the goal, on time and on budget.

“We proved that not only could we do this, but we could do it under less than ideal circumstances,” Crowder said.

It has set a new trajectory for the organization.

“This was the capstone of our five-year strategy,” Fortier said. “We wanted to acquire land in Montgomery County, we wanted to build multifamily, we wanted to grow so that we could be a more relevant affordable housing provider in the New River Valley — and we did that.”

The Church Street project was the most complex Habitat has done. It required rezoning and an extensive permitting process. And it required a number of partnerships, including a competitive project grant from the HOME Consortium based in Blacksburg.

Matt Hanratty, assistant to the town manager for Blacksburg, oversees the HOME Consortium, which brings federal housing grants to the counties of Montgomery, Giles, Pulaski and Floyd, as well as Radford. He said approving the Church Street project was important to boosting Habitat’s abilities.

“This is, as I see it, a stepping stone for Habitat to keep building that capacity,” Hanratty said. “They had a lot to overcome over a decade ago, and they’ve come a long way. And now seven households that didn’t have housing before, do.”

Habitat and HOME are already planning another seven-townhome development, this one in Floyd. Under federal rules, houses built through HOME must be sold to income-qualified buyers for 99 years. That keeps the housing affordable, Hanratty said.

Church Street is also the capstone of Fortier’s career at Habitat.

She will step down next week after eight years with the organization, first as a board member and since 2013 as executive director.

Together with a board of directors she calls her “Phoenix Team,” Fortier worked to rescue Habitat after a series of problems, including the 2008 financial collapse.

The organization had nearly shuttered in 2009. Its balance sheet was in the negative, a dispute with a ReStore landlord forced a move from Christiansburg to Pulaski and sales declined. Habitat started construction on a handful of homes, but unemployment among its buyers starved the projects of funding, and they stalled.

For years, Habitat couldn’t build any homes.

But under Fortier’s leadership, the ReStore moved back to Christiansburg and resumed brisk sales — until the pandemic shutdown in March. Revenues from the store, which sells salvaged and new construction supplies, fund a large portion of the organization’s expenses. She worked to rebuild trust among donors and partners. And Habitat started building houses again.

By 2015, tax records show, the organization was recovering, with assets of just under $1 million and revenues of $721,978.

Today, the balance sheet is even healthier, Fortier said. The Habitat budget sits at about $2.5 million, and she feels good about their progress.

With the Floyd townhome project getting started, “it’s a really great time for a new leader to step in because the next project is determined. It’s funded, we’ve got the land, we know how to do it,” Fortier said. “And it’s a great time for a new person to learn and also to create a new five-year strategy that is their own.”

“The great thing about Shelley is she’s a doer. She’s a big-time strategic thinker, and she’s able to look up on the balcony and kind of see where she wants to take Habitat and she’s been able to do that,” Hanratty said.

“She’s leaving it in a much better spot than she took it over in,” Hanratty said. “I think she’s set a great foundation for the organization.”

For the past several weeks, Fortier has been training her replacement, Jim Drader, who was hired in August. He came from Indiana, where he worked in homeless advocacy and housing services.

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