A New Vision of Urban Life

Jeremiah Knupp -- May 6th, 2010

You can’t help noticing it when you drive by. The yard is a beehive of activity with fruits and vegetables being harvested from the edible landscaping. Bicycles come and go, as produce is ferried to downtown restaurants and markets. Others congregate on the front porch, an informal gathering on a summer afternoon.

That’s Tom Benevento’s vision for the white-sided frame house, its exterior in need of paint and its lawn neglected, at 715 North Main Street. The conversion of the property to a “restorative urban homestead/farm” is the latest endeavor for Benevento, a Sustainable Initiatives Coordinator with the New Community Project, a non-profit, faith-based organization that focuses on sustainable living and peace building.

“It’s a project we’re undertaking in response to a need in the area,” said Benevento, who explained that the home will have two purposes.

First, it will be a support home for those facing difficult life circumstances. It will give them a long-term (at least six months) place to live and the chance for “community healing through relationships.” It will house ten people, eight residents and two live-in mentors. House residents will share in the cleaning and cooking chores, as well as gardening based on the model of the Catholic Worker Movement. Produce will be sold at local farmer’s markets and to restaurants. 

“Our plan is that the home will ultimately be self-sustaining,” Benevento said.

Second, the home will be a local model for sustainable building and living and serve as a place where members of the community can come to learn and work. The remodeling of the home will focus on energy efficiency and incorporate solar heating and rainwater collection systems. The outside space will be redesigned with a permaculture approach and developed around the gardens and edible landscaping. 

“The home will model how can we live in such a way that doesn’t cause poverty or damage the environment,” said Benevento.

The project is being developed in cooperation with Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority (HRHA) and Our Community Place (OCP). HRHA bought the property, which they are in turn leasing to OCP. Benevento and the New Community Project will be running the program there. 

“We’ve had an eye on this house for a long time. It’s so large and so close to OCP,” said Our Community Place’s Ron Copeland, who says the organization has been contemplating establishing Catholic worker-style housing in the area for a decade. 

“It’s a community based model versus a social services model,” Copeland added. “I’m a Christian so the way I see it is I see Christ leading us to provide something for those struggling the most, for those on the fringes of society.”

The New Community Project home is not the first community-based program that HRHA has worked with. According to executive director Michael Wong HRHA has also joined in projects with Mercy House, the Salvation Army and the Boys and Girls Club.

“We looked at the housing needs in the area and identified this as a need,” Wong said of a local long term supportive housing option. “We were looking for a project like this and we hope that it will be a positive community force.”

Plans are for the renovations to start immediately and for the house to be operational by fall.

“In this day and age there are so many things to stand up against and say ‘no’ to,” Benevento said. “We’re trying to give the community something to say ‘yes’ to.”

Those interested in supporting the New Community Project restorative homestead or helping in the renovation process can contact Tom Benevento at tbenevento@newcommuityproject.org.

Photos by Holly Marcus

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3 Responses to “A New Vision of Urban Life”

  1. Renee says:

    Wow, this sounds like a really neat project. Looking forward to hearing about it as it develops!

  2. seth says:

    this does sound cool. anybody know if they have to get zoning exceptions to do this w/ the property?

  3. Deb SF says:

    This came before the Planning Commission in Feb for a set of rezoning requests and and special use permits, and was approved unanimously. City Council followed suit during the March 9 meeting. So they are good to go. Details here, starting on page 4.

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