Keeping Up Appearances 

A crime-plagued neighborhood got a makeover. Now the real work begins.

Today the sun is bright, warming a winter afternoon to feel like spring. Moseley, 30, and a few neighbors converse on the sidewalk in front of her apartment building. A cluster of children buzzes nearby. “Now they’re out here every day,” she observes, shaking her head and laughing.

To hear Moseley and her neighbors tell it, their community has witnessed a turnaround since December 2002, when a new management group took over their 132-unit, low-income apartment complex in the city’s South Side.

That’s when the Woodland Crossing neighborhood off Walmsley Boulevard dropped Walmsley Terrace as its name — a good thing, say the people who live and work here. It’s hard enough to transform a place without having to bear the title “Walmsley Terrorist,” as it was called, even to outsiders and police.

“We changed the name and changed the attitude of everybody here,” says Robert O’Brien, district manager for the Shelter Group, a Maryland-based property management company that specializes in low-income and affordable housing.

To be sure, what everyone here describes as a metamorphosis didn’t happen overnight. Yet, remarkably, 14 months after the takeover, O’Brien’s assertion appears true. And at a time when city officials plead for community help in combating crime, and police increasingly target blighted and low-income areas, an example such as this, especially one with signs of permanence, is paradigmatic.

Is Woodland Crossing’s success the result of a unique collective effort or a particular set of circumstances — or is it something that can be replicated elsewhere?

Richmond Police Detective Erlan Marshall thinks it’s the latter. He’s working to pull data together for Chief André Parker to prove it.

Since Marshall was a rookie cop in 1998, he’s fought — and often lost — a battle to keep Woodland Crossing clean and safe. “It used to be you wouldn’t see grass, you’d see trash,” he says, adding that it was the only complex he knew where maintenance crews had to shovel beer bottles into garbage bins. What’s more, he asserts, “It was an open-air drug market.”

Police knew this, he says, but arrests were few because residents weren’t willing to get involved. He recalls times he had to chase trespassers on foot down the steep hill from the entrance of the complex, past the 10 apartment buildings and through thick woods to the lake far below Woodland Crossing’s property line. For criminals, it was a regular escape path. Today the woods are thinned out, providing visibility for police.

In addition, the management office keeps a “bar book” with names and, if available, pictures of nonresidents banned from the property. Illegal behavior is now reported — and Marshall will know what happened that day.

The residents call Marshall their “glue,” though he insists it’s their help that’s made the difference. “If it weren’t for the citizens saying, ‘We don’t fear this; we can change this,’ we would have nothing,” he says.

The fear was first confronted by a band of women who pledged, with the support of then-Councilwoman Reva Trammell, in October 2001, to tackle the problem themselves. Style reported on their effort in April 2002. Calling themselves the bold “5-0,” they formed the Walmsley Tenants Association, a citizen’s crime patrol. Equipped with cell phones donated by Verizon, they began blowing the whistle at signs of trouble with phone calls to the Richmond Police’s 2nd Precinct. Within six months crime had dropped by 70 percent, says the group’s president, Carrie Cox.

Most of the 600 or so residents of Woodland Crossing are low-income women and children. A small percentage of them pay the $525 monthly rent. The rest receive government subsidies through welfare and Section-8 vouchers. The majority of the women are single. It was the male visitors and boyfriends, Cox says, who had taken over the complex years ago, bringing in drugs and guns that threatened its future.

The five-women — who still patrol the area with their cell phones in-hand and who range in age from 50 to 69 — exhaustively worked to curb crime. In the process, they say, they convinced many of the younger women that they were contributing to the ruin of the neighborhood by turning a blind eye to their visitors’ illegal behavior. Still, a dramatic overhaul of the physical space was necessary to make the dreary complex a desirable place to live.

But who would take the risk?

Officials at several public agencies, including Amon Martin, director of the Shelter Group that co-owns and manages the property in partnership with Southside Community Development Corp.

In a move he calls rare, Shelter landed public financing through low-income tax credits, tax abatement from the city and loan funds through the Virginia Housing Development Authority for $1.4 million in improvements to Woodland Crossing, spending $13,000 to $15,000 per unit. In addition, the Richmond office of the Department of Housing and Urban Development renewed the complex’s contract to receive Section-8 vouchers for 20 years.

“We scrutinized this deal,” Martin says of the company’s first property ownership in Virginia. “The residents were held hostage by a few bad households,” he says. “We saw the diamond in the rough even though we knew it’d be risky.”

Shelter’s district manager O’Brien says the risk was overcome by “a policy of active participation.” He draws an analogy of a three-legged stool. Management, residents and police each represents a leg, he says, and are equally responsible for the project’s support.

The cleanup has required some losses. In the past 14 months, 68 of Woodland Crossing’s 132 apartments have changed hands, with management “initiating” the process of having 50 problem tenants leave, says Shelter’s on-site manager Judy Fahl Still, she says, a handful remain.

The transformation from the decay two years ago is unmistakable. What had been an enclave of drab blue buildings is freshly painted gray. A donated playground that once would have gone unused appears indispensable. Trash no longer peppers the pavement. It is quiet, Cox says, not because people are afraid and stay inside, but because there is peace.

At the new clubhouse and management office, residents regularly stop in to log onto computers or ask about upcoming activities. A gold trophy sits on a table. It is the pride of the place, proof that the Woodland Crossing Cougars, its youth basketball team, can hold its own. A glee club also has formed.

“Nothing makes you feel better than the Walmsley story,” Martin says.

Outside, Detective Marshall responds to a disturbance. A female resident is drawing attention and speaking incoherently because of medication she takes, explains a Shelter employee. Even this, says Cox, is atypical drama for Woodland Crossing.

Today, there’s a waiting list to get in. Cox sums up why. “What we have here now is a bona-fide community,” she says, “and that means people look out for each other.” S

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