Earl Gary is fixing up the building on Hull Street that he bought for his landscaping business, which he now runs out of his house. (Photo by Tina Eshleman)
Heading west on Hull Street from Manchester, I pass a defunct supermarket and a smattering of vacant houses and boarded-up storefronts. In the 3300 block, beside a razor wire-enclosed parking lot and across from a worn-looking office building, is the future headquarters of Earl Gary’s landscaping business.
Newly painted in a welcoming avocado green, the two-story building with gray shutters stands in polished contrast to its surroundings. That’s the idea, says Gary, owner of YME Landscape, who plans to spruce up his 3/4-acre property with crepe myrtle trees and other plantings. He chose green because it’s easy to see from a distance.
“It’s going to draw you to see what’s going on,” he says. “I want to [inspire] other people to make their properties attractive, to make the area look better.”
Gary, 41, started YME in 2007 while working at an engineering firm. After five years, he had enough contracts to quit the other job and focus on his own company. Now he has three employees working for him and plans to expand into new lines of business.
After he completes work on the inside of his building, he’ll lease out the first floor to a church and use the upstairs for his offices. Offering a tour through the unfinished rooms, Gary points out where cubicles might go, where a secretary would sit, the kitchen location and where his office would be.
His is the kind of success story that Virginia Community Capital (VCC) is working to duplicate along South Richmond’s Jefferson Davis corridor and in other places around the state that have “untapped” markets, as Leah Fremouw, VCC assistant vice president for community impact, puts it.
Fremouw will be one of the speakers at the Valentine’s Community Conversation on the topic of prosperity (Tuesday, March 7, at 6 p.m., 1015 E. Clay St.). She and two others — Brian Koziol of Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME) and David Loope of Reynolds Community College — plan to address the question “How can we grow wealth in the Richmond region?”
YME Landscape is one of six businesses given a boost by Virginia Community Capital loans through a partnership with the city of Richmond and Altria that is entering its third year. VCC, a nonprofit community development financial institution, is able to provide loans that traditional banks might not approve, Fremouw says, adding, “We have tools through grants and other means that help us mitigate risk in challenging markets.”
So far, “we’ve been able to get $1.4 million into the Jeff Davis corridor through our lending program,” she says. “We know from the economic development perspective that for every dollar we lend, an additional $1.40 gets leveraged into the community.”
Earl looks at plans for renovating the inside of his new office building. (Photo by Tina Eshleman)
In Gary’s case, the loan enabled him to buy the $247,000 property this past June. The loan, he says, “just opens me up to do more things — to have a storefront, to look more professional. I can have meetings here.”
Gary grew up in Richmond and attended Meadowbrook High School and later, John Tyler Community College. After a stint in the Army Signal School, he graduated with an electrical engineering degree from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, alternating a semester of school with a semester of work through Altria’s Co-op Program.
Besides providing landscaping services such as grass-cutting, bush trimming, mulching, leaf blowing and general property maintenance, Gary repairs small engines, installs office cubicles and panels, and does handyman work. Just before meeting up with me, he attended a class on concrete pavers — one more certification to add to his résumé. He plans to build a workshop and equipment storage facility on the undeveloped property next to his building.
As a business owner, he hopes to extend a hand to others who need opportunities. He’s hired former inmates and down-on-their-luck job seekers referred to him by local churches and social service agencies.
Why does he do it? “I’m an African-American from the city of Richmond,” he says. “I’m no different from them.” If he had not had parents who were positive role models, if he had not decided to go to college, if he had made the wrong choices, Gary says, he could be in their shoes. He tells about receiving a call from a bank asking to verify employment for a man who had been in prison before taking a job with him. That man had since found other employment and was applying for a home loan.
“I was happy to hear that,” Gary says. “He took this opportunity and used it to benefit himself.”
Gary would agree with Loope, vice president of academic affairs at Reynolds Community College, on the importance of education in improving prosperity.
“Not everybody should aspire to be rich, but we should all aspire to a life well-lived,” Loope says. “From our perspective in the community college sector, we’re often talking about folks who come from vulnerable populations. What they need is hope.”
Beyond just finding a job, he says, “we want them to have a pathway so they can be flexible and move ahead economically and socially.”
To that end, in addition to traditional baccalaureate programs, Reynolds offers a variety of certificate programs that are “stackable” — that is, students can pursue additional certificates over time, with breaks for work, and increase their marketability.
Home ownership can also be a pathway to greater wealth. But discriminatory lending practices have created obstacles, says Brian Koziol, director of research and HOME Consulting Services.
“If you look back through history, there’s a very clear record of laws being enacted to deny housing choice, and therefore wealth accumulation and access to opportunity, to specific populations,” he says.
For example, of 11 million mortgages granted to American veterans under the GI bill from 1945 to 1970, between 1 and 3 percent went to African-American veterans, even though African-Americans represented roughly 11 percent of veterans, Koziol says. Those who were unable to obtain loans missed out on significant wealth accumulation as home values tripled from 1970 to 1980 — wealth that could have been passed on to the next generation.
One way that HOME is working to level the playing field is by offering down payment assistance to low-income households (those at 80 percent of the area median income or below are eligible to apply), up to $10,000. Operating in Henrico and Chesterfield counties and the city of Richmond since 1989, the down payment program has provided assistance to 2,000 loan applicants as of this past fall, he says.
Henrico County resident Howard Smith, 55, is one such recipient. As someone with a felony conviction on his record who is working a minimum-wage job at a fast-food restaurant, he says there’s no way he could have come up with a down payment on his own. But with HOME’s assistance, he closed on a house last Monday.
At the end of this month, he’ll move into a two-bedroom, 840-square-foot house in eastern Henrico — the first place he can truly call his own. The mortgage payment for the $63,500 house is $425 per month, significantly less than the $660 monthly rent for the apartment he’s been living in.
“It gives you something to invest in,” he says, adding that he’s painting the house and plans to install new windows. In time, he thinks he may rent it to someone else and invest in another property for himself.
“It gives you something to work on, something to look forward to.” And, he adds after a pause, “some self worth.”
Never miss a Sunday Story: Sign up for the newsletter, and we’ll drop a fresh read into your inbox at the start of each week. To keep up with the latest posts, search for the hashtag #SundayStory on Twitter and Facebook.