A proposed Richmond area “agrihood” pairs affordable housing and urban agriculture

This post by Wyatt Gordon originally appeared on Greater Greater Washington.

Nine acres can make a huge impact when it comes to affordable housing or urban agriculture, but without the right resources a parcel with such potential can also sit dormant for a long time. That was the problem Marcia Woodley faced when she turned to Duron Chavis, the founder of Happily Natural—a nonprofit that merges the fights for racial, climate, and food justice across the Richmond area. Shortly thereafter, Happily Natural, Girls for Change, and the Maggie Walker Community Land Trust (MWCLT) teamed up on a planning grant application to develop Woodley’s lot in the Chesterfield neighborhood of Bensley, a racially-diverse inner suburb just south of the Richmond city line, into Virginia’s first-ever affordable “agrihood.”

A plot with a plan

Many Americans are used to regularly paying into a homeowners’ association, but residents who purchase a home in the agrihood will face fewer restrictions and receive one big benefit: farm shares that translate to fresh, hyperlocally-grown produce delivered to their doorstep. Current renderings of the Bensley Agrihood drawn up by Timmons Group, as shown above, envision ten single-family homes for purchase and four rental units available for those who want to work on this new two acre urban farm.

“The agrihood would function as an incubator farm by dividing up the two acres into quarter acre plots and assigning them to folks who go through our Happily Natural agricultural training program,” said Chavis. “Lots of people want to engage in the agriculture space but don’t live close to a farm, so our goal for the rental units is to offer space for folks who want to live on this farm while growing their business at this site,” he continued.

Aerial view of Swineford Road “agrihood” site. Image courtesy of Happily Natural.

Chavis and his collaborators aren’t yet sure how densely they can build on the lot and what types of homes may be allowed under the existing antiquated agricultural zoning classification which dates back to the early 1900s.

The partners behind the project have engaged Chesterfield County to do a zoning analysis to clarify their exact options on the site. Chesterfield’s Zoning Ordinance Modernization process, the county’s first zoning update in 50 years, is set to be finalized later this year and aims to allow more multi-family housing and density. If the county decides that tiny homes and missing middle housing are possible on this suburban lot, the contours of the agrihood could look very different from the current renderings.

Although the Fair Housing Act doesn’t allow the project to specifically recruit racial minorities for housing opportunities, the land trust is hoping to have an equitable impact with this agrihood by utilizing a candidate scorecard it developed which prioritizes community members most adversely affected by displacement to become homeowners.

Sustaining a vision

By awarding Happily Natural, Girls for Change, and the MWCLT a two-year $200,000 planning grant, the US Department of Agriculture sent a strong signal that the agrihood is a potential national model for similar communities. The money will allow the groups to complete community engagement, hire consultants to assess the market feasibility of the farm, and create a site plan. The funding will also make it possible for the collaborators to hire staff and employ interns from Girls for Change to assist with the project as well.

To pay for the actual construction of the homes and farm infrastructure will require far more funding; however, the Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production Grant is a major first step.

“This is just stage one in the courting process, but the fact that the USDA was willing to give us this planning grant shows us that they are really interested in our agrihood concept,” said Chavis.

Although the nine acres off of Swineford Road are currently little more than tree canopy, the three groups behind the project have a lofty vision for the site encompassing everything from building to the highest sustainability standards and solar panels, to walking and cycling trails and limited parking.

With median rents in the Richmond region now topping $1,512 and over 26% of residents still living in food deserts, one agrihood of a dozen plus homes can’t solve all of the city’s woes. However, the planned agrihood is proof that a different world is possible.