Canton, Ga. -‘You could hang glide out here,” said affordable housing developer Rob Hoskins, referring to the open space and picturesque hills of this bedroom community located 40 miles north of Atlanta and minutes from mountains the Cherokee Indians called “The Great Blue Hills of God.”
Located on the side of a cliff, six minutes from downtown Canton, Hearthstone Landing is a respite, but not for thrill seekers. It is a sanctuary for victims of domestic abuse and a place where they make plans for a better life. Its location serves to keep abusers out and give residents a sense of security.
“My initial thought was, ‘We weren’t in the shelter business,’” remembered Hoskins, managing principal of The NuRock Cos., the Alpharetta, Ga.-based affordable housing developer that built the 72-unit apartment community. “But I thought it was something NuRock might be interested in. Of course, Hearthstone isn’t a shelter at all, but a college campus-like community that provides a firm foundation that will allow victims of domestic abuse to become productive citizens again.”
Hearthstone Landing is a public/private partnership between The NuRock Cos. and the Cherokee Family Violence Center (CFVC), a nonprofit group in Canton that has been providing support services such as counseling and emergency shelter for victims of domestic abuse since 1986.
“Affordable housing was always the biggest problem for people, well after they had left emergency shelters,” said Meg Rogers, executive director for CFVC. “I’d been looking at how I could solve this problem for a long time.”
A local reporter put Rogers in contact with someone that she thought could help with a solution. That person was not building affordable housing but knew someone who was. And that’s how Hoskins entered the picture in 2002.
NuRock develops affordable housing through new construction and rehabilitation of older properties. Residents at NuRock properties earn about half the local median income. The firm operates approximately 6,500 units in the Southeast and Southwest.
Hearthstone Landing consists of 36 three-bedroom, 24 two-bedroom and 12 four-bedroom units. The apartments in the garden-style complex are fairly large, ranging from 950 square feet to 1,450 square feet, and each unit has its own washer and dryer. The community includes a two-story, 7,000-square-foot community center, a computer resource lab, a playground, and a swimming pool. Leasing commenced in March 2005, and the grand opening was held last August. Currently, Hearthstone Landing is 98 percent leased. Residency is restricted to women with children, said Rogers, although the development houses two women without children who moved in before those restrictions were imposed.
“These people have been through a tremendous amount of stress,” said Hoskins. “They need a peaceful oasis … and a lot of ashtrays. We have them all over the place. I’ve never met a group of folks that smoke so much.”
Hoskins said the sale of 9 percent low-income housing tax credits funded $4.4 million of the $7.4 million development. National Equity Fund, Inc., provided the equity. HOME funds provided by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA) funded the rest. The loan was a zero interest loan during construction, with the HOME loan converting to a fully amortizing, 20-year loan at 2 percent.
“The funding was exceptionally clean, which can be rare for affordable housing developments,” said Hoskins. “Plus, each resident gets a Sec. 8 voucher, and once they go through the learning program and leave Hearthstone, they take the Sec. 8 voucher to pay their rent elsewhere while they get on their feet. One of the problems is that most abusers control the money, and once people get away from their abusers, they usually have no means to pay rent,” said Hoskins.
Residents who live at Hearthstone don’t stay indefinitely. They go through a three-year Journey of Healing program administered by the Cherokee center; its office is located on the premises. Upon execution of the lease, the resident agrees to participate in the program, which is designed with four phases. Participants work with a case manager, attend support groups, take budgeting and parenting classes, and are assisted with finding jobs. English as a Second Language classes and GED classes also are offered. The fourth and final phase is a mentoring phase in which seasoned participants share their insights with those in Phase One. Rogers said some participants might finish the program in as little as 18 months.
“Since the CFVC is a co-developer in the project, we share in the developer fees,” said Rogers. “It helps our center be more self-sustaining, and we can provide assistance to those who need it and expand our programs.”
Even though the funding was smooth sailing, Hearthstone Landing encountered a roadblock during construction.
“Initially, we chose to hire a third- party contractor to build Hearthstone, but it went bankrupt halfway through construction,” remembered Hoskins. “Fortunately, NuRock was able to take over the construction and complete it.”
Also, Hoskins and Rogers had to convince the DCA to allow NuRock and the CFVC to join forces. At the time, the state agency would not fund partnerships between for-profit firms and nonprofit groups.
“The concept was to build a community dedicated to the needs of victims of domestic abuse, both adults and children,” said Hoskins. “I felt that we needed both sides to get this built and then to maintain it. Let the service side do what they do best and the real estate developers do what they do best.”
It turns out that Hoskins is pretty good at the service side, too. The NuRock Housing Foundation operates a program called BreakOut on each of NuRock’s properties—including Hearthstone Landing—that provides residents’ children with academic and personal enrichment, after-school care, recreational activities, and more, free of charge. The BreakOut Center at NuRock’s Eagles Run Apartments in Atlanta was highlighted on the Home & Garden Television show, “Dream Builders.” Hoskins plans to bring the BreakOut concept to properties he’s developing in Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.
He described the BreakOut program as an essential component of NuRock’s properties. “It benefits our equity investors, our lenders, and ultimately helps our residents live in a community they can be proud of, that will stand the test of time,” Hoskins said.
Rogers said several nonprofit groups looking to imitate the Hearthstone Landing model have approached her. They may be more successful at helping to bring affordable housing to more who desperately need it if they take her advice to heart: “They’ve got to make their case, like we did. They’ve got to do a lot of homework up front.”