Decrepit public housing project is replaced with a beautiful new subdivision. By Daniel Walker Guido

The old public housing complex was decrepit, two-story barracks-style housing, which was mostly boarded up and abandoned. Called Ida Barbour, the nearly 50-year-old complex had a bad reputation that depressed housing values on surrounding blocks near downtown Portsmouth, Va.

But Ida Barbour is no more.

In a stunning example of a public housing turnaround, Ida Barbour has been leveled, its debris carted off to make way for an impressive new single-family housing complex on a 41.4-acre inner city site, with 161 for-sale homes and 117 rental units.

Today, the new development boasts colorful two-story single-family homes and duplexes on well-landscaped lots dotting half-moon shaped roads. Priced from $75,000 for duplexes and $95,000 for the single-family homes, the homes sell for 30 percent less than market price.

"These homes could go for $20,000 more or even higher, depending on the location," says Kathy Warren, project coordinator for the Portsmouth Redevelopment and Housing Authority. "They have a lot of quality built into them, and the color scheme is drawing doctors and lawyers off the nearby highway who are interested in buying them."

Westbury is attracting doctors and lawyers, but the homes--built on the site of a former public housing project--are sold only to income-limited buyers.

But homes in the development, now called Westbury, are sold only to income-limited buyers. Five of the homes were sold to those who had between 80 and 115 percent of the area's median income, while the rest were sold to those who had incomes under 80 percent. For a family of four, the area's median income is $51,000. The median for a two-person family is $40,800. "At that rate, you would have to make about $32,600 to qualify," Warren says. The beginning

Designed in 1955, the old public housing project was an example of "urban renewal" designs then enveloping the country. The 663 units were placed on superblocks, where streets and street connections were minimized.

Because of that, the buildings were difficult to police; crime was rampant. Poverty was pervasive. Slowly but surely the buildings crumbled, and maintenance was spotty. By the mid-1980s, renovation of the entire complex was estimated to cost $50 million.

The housing authority wanted to tear down Ida Barbour and replace it with something else starting in 1988, but HUD didn't have funding. Then, in the 1990s Hope VI funding was created to level old, crumbling public housing complexes and replace them with a mix of rental and for-sale units.

The Ida Barbour housing project in Portsmouth, Va., has been torn down to make way for 161 affordable for-sale homes and 117 income-qualified rental units. The housing authority was awarded the $50 million Hope VI loan, which was matched by local and other federal funding sources. The housing authority turned to Urban Design Associates of Pittsburgh, which designed the entire complex. Construction began in early 2000. By March 2001, 40 homes were built or under construction. When completed, Westbury will have more than 50 percent owner-occupied, affordable, and income-qualified homes. The rental units will be split between public housing tenants, most of them from the former Ida Barbour project.

With a very low down payment and interest rates as low as 4.75 percent, the units have been easy to sell. Phase one of 46 single-family homes and 14 duplexes sold out before ground could even be broken on most of the units.

The buyers

Tracy Brown, a Realtor at nearby First Providence Realty, was retained to offer a homeownership consulting program to help low- and moderate-income residents buy the housing units.

"We found that credit problems are the number one problem that keep many low-income people from buying a house," Brown says. "In our monthly seminars, we pull the potential buyers' credit reports and figure out how to overcome their credit problems."

Brown says he works with such prospects for as long as two years to clear up their credit and make them eligible to buy an income-restricted house such as those for sale in Westbury.

To find such applicants, Brown says he advertised on local urban radio stations and posted notices downtown.

"We also made 2,200 solicitation cold calls to gather 600 people for the classes. From that, we made 59 sales in 11 months," Brown says.

Now that construction has moved into apartments, Brown says he is tutoring prospective tenants on how to budget for utilities and how to clean up their credit so that they, too, can one day be considered potential home buyers. "We try to educate and motivate and increase self esteem so that they can one day have the opportunity to participate in economic growth through homeownership."

High quality

The new units have fiber cement siding, which gives them excellent insulation and allows vibrant colors that are much more noticeable than similar colors would be on vinyl siding, says Freda Rosso, Westbury's construction manager on site.

The impact the homes will have on downtown Portsmouth is immeasurable, Rosso says. "Already we are seeing new commercial projects planned for the surrounding area to serve the new residents. You can just see the life coming back to this part of town."

Rosso expects to finish construction within the next three years. Already, the new residents are reporting that friends and relatives are in awe of the quality of home they were able to purchase.

"When my friends visit, they cannot believe how nice a home this is for the price I paid," says Freda Johnson, a new Westbury resident and president of the subdivision's civic association.

"I never dreamed I would be able to own such a house. People come through here driving slow, hoping to find a house for sale here," she says.

Johnson, a single parent with one son who still lives at home, says she still is stunned at being a homeowner. "This is a dream come true," she says, "I still pinch myself sometimes to see if I am just dreaming. But if I am, don't wake me up."