Run by Isabell Thornton, Restoration Housing is a local nonprofit affordable housing developer. She and her husband Lucas also develop downtown for-profit properties, like the new apartment building at Williamson Road and Church Avenue, but Restoration Housing has a different mission: to provide affordable rental housing in rehabilitated houses while also reducing blight in Roanoke’s older neighborhoods.
That mission was evident in late January when Isabell Thornton, helped by several members of Roanoke City Council and Mayor Sherman Lea, cut the ribbon at 530 Day Avenue on a rehabbed, 3200 square foot house more than a century old. That house, which sat vacant for ten years according to Thornton, had also seen two other developers unsuccessfully attempt to turn it into a single family home. It’s now a duplex with a separate apartment on the top floor, with the goal of “turning it into high quality affordable housing,” according to Thornton. “We thought this was the highest and best use for this house.”
Historic tax credits will reimburse the Thorntons for about half of the $230,000 they invested in the Day Avenue home. That program is only available for income-producing properties, which is why it has been turned into a rental unit that they will manage. Up and down the 500 block of Day Avenue there is evidence of other older houses that have been renovated as Roanoke’s outer ring downtown neighborhoods begin to reemerge.
“It needed so much work,” said Thornton, who showed off several pictures of how much work actually needed to be done at the ribbon cutting. Her first reaction when they walked into 530 Day Avenue in the Old Southwest neighborhood? “Only a crazy person would buy this house,” she chuckled, “but I’ve worked in construction for many years and was able to visualize the end product. There were good ‘bones’ [in the structure]. The end product could be something really magnificent, which I think it is. It turned out really nicely.” That end product included restoration of the original hardwood floors, wood trim and windows. “In many ways we’re just bringing back something that was authentic to the neighborhood.”
Rentals have their own stigma added Thornton, “especially in this neighborhood. A big part of what we’re doing is also trying to spread the word and reduce the stigma about rental housing.” Restoration Housing currently has another project in the works, rehabbing another older home in the 1000 block of Patterson Avenue.
City Council member Michelle Dykstra, a resident and proponent of another Roanoke neighborhood on the comeback – the nearby West End – was on hand to help cut the ribbon. “The West End in general has a lot of opportunity,” said Dykstra, “and what really excites me is when people look at that opportunity and do something that is not only good for the neighborhood but can do something that is good for the citizens of Roanoke. This idea of quality, affordable rental housing stock is really important. We need to able to make sure we put our workforce in good homes where they can raise their families, [housing] that they can still afford.” Dykstra called 530 Day Avenue an example of “what can happen when a private non-profit comes in and takes interest in a neighborhood to try and make a difference.”
By Gene Marrano