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The Cherry Legacy Project: Raising the bar for affordable housing


William E. Farnsel, Executive Director, NeighborWorks Toledo Region

Challenge: Toledo, Ohio’s Olde Towne has many majestic homes built during the late 1800s and early 1900s, over 150 of them are registered as historic. But the neighborhood fell victim to urban blight, with hundreds of abandoned properties, high crime rates, soaring unemployment and failing schools.

Two newly built homes on a tree lined street.

The center of Toledo, Ohio, boasts some of the grandest old homes in the city, many built at the turn of the 19th century by the leading architects of the time. But the Olde Towne has suffered serious decline in recent decades, with blighted, vacant lots, dilapidated houses, high crime rates and a disaffected community. The 2008 foreclosure crisis deepened that despondency, investments were bottoming out and many believed funding revitalization efforts would be a waste of taxpayers’ money. Even the neighborhood’s oldest stakeholder was considering relocating, threatening the community’s complete collapse. Since it was built in 1855, Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center has been an anchor in central Toledo, but the area’s demise was prompting the hospital to think about pulling up stakes.

The mission of NeighborWorks Toledo Region (NTR) is to restore and revitalize neighborhoods, primarily for the benefit of current and future inhabitants, by providing services and programs that renew pride, stimulate reinvestment and restore confidence. In 2010, NTR conducted a survey of Olde Towne to establish a baseline for measuring development progress. The biggest concerns to emerge were community engagement, crime and the properties’ improvements in appearance and value. We needed a project that would address all those goals, one that would seamlessly blend compatible architecture, implement a holistic approach using green materials and methodologies and successfully engage disinterested residents and project partners.

The end result was the Cherry Legacy Project, a 40-unit infill housing project of affordable single-family homes. Completed in 2014, the historically-sensitive designs range from 1,328 to 1,800 square-foot homes, 28 of them with full basements. Rather than building the homes on adjacent sites, they are scattered throughout the neighborhood around the medical center. The low-income renters would be able to purchase the homes after the 15-year tax credit period, and $40,000 has been set aside for down payment assistance. The homes are also designed to allow residents to age in place, with at least one bedroom and one full bath located on the first floor.

A home in the process of construction.The Cherry Legacy Project was an admittedly ambitious goal, but it started out small. It began in 2010, when NTR came up with a plan to build a single-family home on land the Grace Temple Church acquired through Toledo’s Land Bank. Real estate values in the neighborhood made the construction project commercially impractical, but federal stimulus funding was secured to build the single home.

Construction was completed in six weeks and the home became the prototype for the future Cherry Legacy Project, which uses unprecedented energy efficient systems. A third party rater scored all the homes ranging from 40-50, with an overall average of 42 on the Home Energy Rating System. A typical new home today, scores 100 on the index, the lower the score the higher the structure’s efficiency. The Cherry Legacy homes create a new paradigm in developing affordable housing using materials and methodology more typical in a high-value subdivision.

During pre-production, NTR purchased more than 70 parcels, dedicated numerous hours in establishing partnerships and educating contractors about our environmental approach. In August 2013, NTR finally broke ground on the $10.4 million project, which was funded through private equity, federal HOME funds and NeighborWorks America. What could be considered an insignificant expenditure proved to be a crucial component in the project’s success. The investment far exceeds the local market value, and cost per square foot ranged from a high of $130 to a low of $86, with utility costs expected to be approximately $1000 a year. Thanks to the high efficiency ratings, NTR became a New Homes Builder Partner and is currently the only Affordable, Site-Built Homes Energy Star Builder Partner in Ohio. In recognition of this achievement, NTR also received the EPA’s 2015 Energy Efficiency Award of Excellence in Affordable Housing and other recognitions.

Surveys conducted following construction showed a strong increase in the residents’ satisfaction with the community. Crime rates are down, schools are thriving and prospects for future investments in Olde Towne are good. And rather than fleeing the neighborhood, Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center is investing $32 million to expand its emergency room facility, providing further economic stimulation and stability to the area.

NTR’s Cherry Legacy Project’s approach was comprehensive, therefore raising the bar for affordable housing and community development. We discovered that doing our homework in the earliest stages was critical. We invested time and money listening to the community, conducting comprehensive surveys before and after construction. Our cross-sector collaboration introduced financial stability and demonstrated nonprofit excellence. We set standards high while keeping costs down and were able to offer the community high-quality affordable homes with unprecedented energy efficiency.  

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