Raise the roof for low-income housing in Rockbridge County

By Tate Mikkelsen

Mac Smiley lived in a trailer for three years before he and his wife, Olivia, moved to their new home in Greenhouse Village in December.

“We wanted to improve our living situation before deciding to have a family,” Olivia Smiley said.

Their house was built by volunteers working with the Rockbridge Area Habitat for Humanity, a non-profit organization that builds subsidized housing for low-income families.

Habitat has constructed 66 homes in the Rockbridge area, eight of which were part of phase one of its Greenhouse Village Housing Production Project that began in 2014.

The Smileys moved into the most recently completed house built by Habitat’s program.

The Greenhouse village production project phase two was approved to begin building 12 new homes. (Source: Rockbridge County)

“It’s wonderful and difficult at the same time for me,” Mac Smiley said. “That [the trailer] was the first house I lived in by myself. With that, I had constant work on the trailer. Going from that to absolutely no maintenance whatsoever was a really hard transition because I’m always looking for a problem, and there is none.”

Twelve new homes will be built in phase two of the Greenhouse Village project, which was approved on Feb. 12 by the Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors.

The project will cost about $2.7 million. A Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development grant will cover about $480,000 of that cost, according to a fact sheet provided by Rockbridge County.

Lynn Leech, executive director of Rockbridge’s Habitat, said the grant will provide infrastructure, including water, sewer and roads, to serve the 12 new homes.

Like the first phase, this project also requires the new homeowners to contribute 200 hours of volunteer work.

“The potential owner of each house has to put sweat equity into that house,” said Sam Crickenberger, director of the Rockbridge Office of Community Development. “This gives them a feeling of ownership and hopefully a commitment to take good care of that home.”

Working on the houses also gives the homeowners a chance to get to know their new neighborhood.

“It was so great to be able to learn construction,” said Olivia Smiley. “I’m a secretary and my husband’s an electrician so we got to learn new things and, on top of that, got to meet and work with our neighbors before even moving into the community.”

Rockbridge County High School partners with Habitat to help build houses throughout the year, said Kurt Bennett, director of the Building Trade Lowe’s Grant Project at the high school

“It really transforms the students from the beginning of their junior year to the end of their senior year,” he said. “Their pride becomes more evident [during the process], because now it’s no longer just a project. Now it’s a home that they built.”

Bennett said many students continue to volunteer with Habitat after participating in the program, and some end up applying for and receiving their own houses through Habitat.

“They learn, ‘how can we affect the community,'” said Bennett. “And sometimes, it comes back to affect [them] as well.”

The building trade program will complete three of the 12 houses for phase two of the project.

The infrastructure for the approved 12 homes will lay the foundation for an additional eight homes in Greenhouse Village, Crickenberger said.

Construction has started on the first house in phase two. (Photo by Tate Mikkelsen)

“It forces us to run water and sewer up the links for the road, so that when we’re done with the grant we’ve got water and sewer in place for [Habitat] to continue to build out [new houses],” he said.

Potential buyers of the subsidized houses must earn no more than 80 percent of Area Median Income—about $39,000. Families earning less than 60 percent of AMI—about $29,000—will receive first priority, according to the project proposal.

Between 2013 and 2016 Habitat received 119 applications for the houses in the first phase of the project.

Eligible applicants must have lived in Rockbridge County for at least one year. They also must be unable to obtain a conventional mortgage. And they must take 27 hours of home buyer education classes.

The first owner of the newest house in phase two will be a mother of three who lives in a trailer in Lexington.