When residents of the Stratford Manor Apartments in Danville were told in March that they had to leave the apartment complex, many of them had no place to go — and a mass eviction threatened to strain the already low housing stock in Danville.
More than 50 residents lived in Stratford Manor, which had fallen into disrepair and was closing for renovations. Many of them were older, single adults, said Susan McCulloch, the city’s director of housing and development.
“There was a big concern about what we would do if they were all evicted at once,” McCulloch said.
An unprecedented collaborative effort between the city and other agencies prevented a mass eviction. By early August, all of the former Stratford Manor tenants had been rehoused.
Still, the narrowly averted crisis speaks to the housing issues that the area is facing, said Diane Pagen with the city’s community development department.
“Something like this should never, ever have to happen in a modern society,” she said. “This cannot be the model for Danville.”
Most of the Stratford Manor residents were on a fixed income, Pagen said, which made moving daunting — especially as housing prices in the area continue to rise.
The median home price in Danville in June was $171,050, according to data from Virginia Realtors. This is the highest median price for the city recorded in the organization’s available data, which dates back to 2016.
“If we had more housing stock that was affordable for very low-income and fixed-income people, we would not have had to undertake this huge effort to help protect these people from becoming homeless,” Pagen said.
Living at Stratford Manor
Stratford Manor’s low rents, between $380 to $650 a month, were one reason tenants stayed despite the building’s deteriorating condition. Residents said they dealt with water leaks, insect infestations, rodents and nearby drug deals.
“The previous tenants who were staying there, I don’t know how they were staying there,” said one of the building’s co-owners, Praveen Devarapally.
Devarapally and three others bought the property near the end of 2022, after the previous owners, a group called Spectrum Hotel, sold it. The city was about to take Spectrum Hotel to court for building violations and failing to do repairs, Pagen said.
The roof, which began leaking under the previous ownership, was one of the biggest issues, Devarapally said.
“I went to the office and called the office complaining about water leaks, and I never did get that fixed,” said Stephanie King, a 52-year-old former resident of Stratford Manor who lived there for about eight years. “It was infested with bedbugs, rats and everything.”
Zhauriyah Hutchings called the bad conditions “breathtaking.” Hutchings works with Telamon, a nonprofit that provides housing and financial empowerment services. Telamon, alongside other local organizations, worked with the city on the effort to relocate residents.
Hutchings said she remembers when the building was in good condition — back when it was a hotel, the Stratford Inn.
“When I was younger, it used to be a hotel and it had a pool and everything,” she said. “I actually had birthday parties there.”
The building opened as a hotel and restaurant in 1960. The property changed hands repeatedly over the years, at times belonging to the Hampton Inn and Courtyard Marriott franchises.
About a decade ago, Courtyard Marriott sold it to Spectrum Hotel, said Pagen, who said she learned about the building’s history from Ryan Dodson, assistant city attorney and a history buff.
“There was uncertainty over who was supposed to be doing the regular inspections, the Virginia Health Department or the fire department, because one part was short-term stay and the other hotel,” Pagen said. “The result was that the physical property went uninspected while it continued to deteriorate.”
At some point, some units began to be leased as short-term rentals, which led to the building becoming an apartment complex.
But it was never renovated, Hutchings said. Even though there were in-unit kitchens and appliances, she said it still “felt like a hotel, not like a home.”
Hutchings said she visited residents several times and couldn’t believe they were living in that environment. During one visit, she said she “saw an entire drug deal happening.”
In March, the new owners decided to close the building for renovations. This meant that all tenants needed to leave.
For most of them, that was easier said than done.
The rehousing process
The city first heard about the situation in early March, when a tenant came in with a complaint about the living conditions, Pagen said.
“He had inspection complaints about rodents and cockroaches,” she said. “He was sent to talk to our inspections supervisor and in the process, he said something about the landlords trying to get everyone out and passing out notes to everyone saying that they had to leave.”
The owners initially gave tenants 30 days to move out. But after meeting with the city, they decided to expand that timeline to allow time for apartment searches and housing voucher applications, Pagen said.
“[The owners] did everything possible to evict no one,” she said. “This is extremely important, as having an eviction on one’s record makes it even harder for residents to find new housing.”
The city called a meeting in April, convening agencies including Telamon, Danville Social Services, the Danville Redevelopment and Housing Authority and the Danville Fire Department.
They began to strategize about how to rehouse the former Stratford Manor tenants.
The building’s owners were also invited to the April meeting, and they became very involved in the process, Pagen said. They helped Pagen, McCulloch and other city officials get in touch with residents.
“We were calling them one by one, trying to see what their situation was, if they could move on their own or if they needed help,” Pagen said.
About 15 of the 55 residents had sufficient incomes to move on their own, but the rest requested assistance, she said. The list of those 40 residents was divided up, and each agency took on a few.
“It was a great community effort, and it never would have happened if we hadn’t all worked together so closely,” McCulloch said.
Then, the agencies went about figuring out who needed housing vouchers, and how many, McCulloch said, and this is where Hutchings came in.
Hutchings helped former tenants with applications for housing vouchers and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. She had experience with the process through her work at Telamon.
“Many of them were not inclined enough to put in the application on their own,” she said. “I already knew what they needed, things like Social Security cards, birth certificates, driver’s licenses or ID, and pay stubs.”
Income was a sticking point for a lot of residents, Hutchings said.
“On a fixed income, if rent is $1,200 a month, and they only make $934, they go into a $300 deficit,” she said. “How are they supposed to pay a light bill? How are they supposed to buy their groceries if they don’t have SNAP? How are they supposed to live if the income is not where it’s supposed to be?”
John Harden, a 66-year-old military veteran who had been living at Stratford Manor for about seven years, said that he was not expecting the application fees that came with trying to find a new home.
Though all the tenants were successfully rehoused, virtually everyone saw a rent increase after their move, Pagen said.
“We didn’t get anyone rehoused in a place where rent is that low because those places simply do not exist,” she said.
Housing vouchers helped, but many former Stratford residents will need to budget more carefully, Pagen said.
“It’s not only income, but peoples’ habits got in the way of trying to find them housing, too,” Hutchings said. “Some of them, if they get paid on the first of the month, by the third, it’s already gone.”
The building’s owners stopped collecting rent to help ensure that the residents had enough money to move, Pagen said.
“Tenants who had paid any month after February got their money refunded by the owners,” she said. “Anyone who hadn’t damaged their unit also got their security deposits returned.”
And Devarapally said he personally helped several tenants move their belongings into storage during the moving process.
“I understand why the tenants were aggravated, but I have to get the landlord his props for being patient with them,” Hutchings said.
Still, King said she doesn’t plan to move back into Stratford Manor when the renovations are finished. The work will take at least six more months to complete, said Deverapally.
King was one of many residents that Hutchings helped apply for new places to live. She said she applied for Section 8 housing for the first time in her life and to her surprise, she qualified.
“Where I’m at now, I’m in a better place where I don’t have leaks, roaches or nothing,” King said.
Housing problems still linger in Danville
Although this particular story had a happy ending, it was a close call.
The Stratford Manor situation “illustrates the housing need that we have,” McCulloch said. “Our needs go from affordable housing, transitional housing, supportive housing, all the way up to market rate.”
There’s pent-up demand for more than 600 homes in the Danville region, according to a 2022 study.
And recently announced projects in the area focus more on upscale housing, like the 1,900-unit mixed-use development that was recently approved in neighboring Pittsylvania County, and a 30-townhome project that a group in Danville wants to build.
While Danville needs housing across the board, including upscale units, affordable housing is perhaps the most pressing issue, said Hutchings.
“Housing is scarce, yes, but affordable housing is even more scarce,” she said.
And the need for housing will only increase as Danville continues to bring new jobs to the area.
In August, both Sen. Mark Warner and Tom Barkin, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, visited Danville. Both mentioned the need for housing.
“Housing these days is a much bigger topic than it was three or four years ago,” Barkin said. “It’s gotten increasingly more expensive, increasingly less affordable, and increasingly less available.”
Warner said he’d like to see better incentives for homeownership and programs that provide tax credits to employers for supplying down payments on employee homes.
“That’s a way to actually meet your workforce needs, because in a lot of rural communities, you can’t get folks to stay if you can’t get them a place to live,” said Warner during his Aug. 24 visit to Danville.
Barkin echoed the importance of creating housing to retain and attract a labor force. Small cities that have succeeded in attracting business, like Danville, often find themselves short of workers, he said.
At Stratford Manor, most of the tenants were not participating in the labor force. But they still deserve decent housing, Pagen said.
A large portion of the residents were middle-aged and older women who had significant caregiving responsibilities.
“Getting them rehoused did not only help these women, it helped their children and grandchildren and strengthened the families of the tenants in ways that can’t be measured by dollars and cents,” Pagen said.
Pagen said her eyes were opened to the amount of work these tenants do, adding that the rehousing effort wasn’t a one-way deal.
“This is not about showing them charity by helping them to be housed,” she said. “Rather it’s a matter of fundamental fairness, since what they do for their families and their neighbors has economic and social value for Danville.”