With rent increases of 15% annually in Richmond, VA, and Better Housing Coalition (BHC)’s new inventory is filling as fast as they can build it. BHC, the region’s largest nonprofit CDC has built and operates more than 1,500 units of affordable housing, including 15 multifamily communities and 250 single-family homes serving more than 2,700 individuals and families. They have invested $250 million, with another $250 million in their pipeline. As in almost every community, however, the need still outpaces the supply.
The variety of people and families needing affordable housing services also continues to grow. That’s why BHC is merging with Virginia Supportive Housing (VSH), the Commonwealth’s oldest provider of permanent supportive housing. VSH provides permanent housing and supportive services to individuals experiencing homelessness. Their portfolio includes 17 rental communities and five scattered-site housing programs serving more than 1,600 individuals and families in and around Richmond, Charlottesville, and Hampton Roads.
“We want to lift the best of both organizations to become a powerhouse with a clear mission, passionate leadership and a financially strong business strategy to serve many more people. Once fully integrated, our new company will be able to provide quality, service-enriched housing options that address homelessness to home ownership … all under one roof. We’re super excited about it,” said BHC President and CEO Greta Harris.
Scale through merger
Both organizations started in 1988 and have had common board members throughout the years. Together, they cover the affordable housing spectrum, from individuals who may be experiencing homelessness all the way to affordable homes and workforce housing.
Once the merger is finalized, the new organization will have more than $135 million in assets and 4,000 residents. They hope to increase their output of new affordable family? units and units of permanent supportive housing by 50%, and to double the number of single-family homeowners. This growth will allow them to expand their overall footprint throughout two of the Commonwealth’s fastest growing regions, Hampton Roads and Central Virginia.
“Our motivation for the merger was to help serve more people better. The last two years have just exacerbated an already significant housing challenge within our community and across our country. People are hurting because of the lack of quality, affordable housing choices, and the options have just gotten worse,” Harris said. “We can’t build our way out of this affordable housing crisis we’re experiencing around the country.”
“We are two of the few organizations that develop quality, rental homes in Central Virginia that also offer resident services to help families and individuals navigate complex problems. Both organizations have grown bigger over the last three decades and yet our community housing need is still outpacing our collective response,” Harris said.
Pandemic challenges and opportunities
The official meeting to decide on merging with VSH was set for March 2020. That meeting was delayed due to COVID. The rest of the year was tumultuous as BHC rushed to respond to new challenges.
“When the pandemic first appeared in Richmond, we put together an internal task force that met regularly. It was unnerving: no one knew anything for sure, except keeping staff and residents safe was our top priority. We had to figure out a way to keep going as a corporation for the wellbeing of our associates and our residents. On top of that, racial protests happened near our offices in downtown Richmond that are located a block from the police headquarters. For a few months, it looked like a war zone and it was very heart-wrenching. Throughout the last two years especially, we’ve led with our values to make hard decisions and get us to a much better place as a company,” Harris said.
The BHC staff worked hard, achieving what was perhaps BHC’s most impactful years on everything from fundraising to real estate development to supporting its residents. In addition, they raised money to help 400 of their households who lost jobs, continued food service for seniors and students, and even helped residents secure laptops and Wi-Fi. Most other services pivoted to telephonics, including checking in on people and seeing if there were any needs BHC could help address.
It’s come at a high cost, Harris said, pointing to the global exhaustion from the experience of the pandemic.
“My biggest worry today is the cumulative stress that everyone is facing. Our team has done amazing things over the last two years, but they are exhausted. While I’m excited about the merger, I know it is adding more stress to our teammates. We are continuously figuring out ways to support our incredible staff.”