‘We still have a tremendous amount of work to do’

Steena Hymes

March 28, 2014

For the past decade, DASH – Dependable Affordable Sustainable Housing – has been a sustaining force in LaGrange and officials said its track record shows that it’s not just in the business of revitalizing homes, but revitalizing lives.

Coming off its 10-year anniversary, DASH officials said the non-profit has attracted and invested $54 million in capital within Troup County and is going into its 11th year with a stronger focus on expanding affordable housing across the county.

Joining poverty awareness week, DASH offered an open house and bus tour of their housing developments Friday, showcasing its decade’s worth of work.

In 2002, upon coming home after many years away from LaGrange, DASH founder Ricky Wolfe was appalled by the condition the mill villages had digressed to. With this, he set out to find a solution.

“I had this idea, is it possible for our community to revitalize those areas … for the common good, and secondly, is there a way to bring true community back to those areas?” Wolfe said.

Cathy Smith, DASH executive director, identified the years of transient activity in the neighborhoods as a key cause to the decline in quality.

“The actual physical structures were only a piece of what needed to be revitalized and the fabric of the neighborhood had come unraveled and there wasn’t a sense of community, neighbors didn’t know neighbors,” Smith said.

DASH started with its Hillside community initiative to restore it back to its historic and vibrant state which remains its central project. Hillside currently has over 80 single-family homes that have been restored or reconstructed through DASH.

Wolfe said before DASH, Hillside had the highest crime rate in the city of LaGrange, however it now has one of the lowest.

“A reputation is a very hard thing to change, these old mill towns had developed a reputation for being unsafe, dirty, crime-ridden places to live,” Wolfe said. “To change that reputation has taken time.”

Hillside has now become home to a diverse group of people including professors, nurses, police officers and firefighters, which Wolfe said is evidence of the change Hillside has seen.

Smith said the accomplishment of DASH’s efforts have brought in new people to invest in the community. She said Hillside now has over 70 home owners.

Ben Wheeler, community liaison with DASH, lives in the Hillside community and said he is seeing the start of the what he called the “old tradition” neighborhood coming back.

“There is a feeling of community. We definitely have a lot further to go, but in a lot of ways we’re getting there,” he said.

Aside from single-family homes, DASH invested many rental housing developments including the old Dunson School building, which was reconstructed into apartments for seniors.

Overall, DASH has created more than 500 units of quality affordable housing and has completed or began development on seven rental housing projects.

Despite its quick progression, DASH has had to work itself through several challenges, one of them being the housing market crash in 2008 and the other being the social component.

Wolfe said the social aspect of restoring these neighborhoods have proven to be more difficult than any technical challenges.

“How do you attract a diverse group of people to come into that community, join hands with the people that are there and to rebuild that community socially?” Wolfe asked.

As a result of the housing market crash, Wolfe said DASH had to adjust to the times and shift its focus from home ownership to affordable rental units to address the demand for high quality, yet affordable rental housing in LaGrange.

Wolfe said if asked 10 years ago if DASH would be involved in rental housing, he wouldn’t have imagined it, but now the vision is about providing sustainable and affordable housing to all people regardless of their situation.

“I’m glad to say during that real dark period we were able to build and provide housing,” Wolfe said.

DASH has expanded its efforts, not just to providing homes, but to educating citizens. It offers home ownership counseling and education on topics such as mortgage, credit and finance management skills.

The organization also has put in place community projects to create a better living environment for its residents.

Paint the Town began nine years ago, started by former LaGrange City Councilman Frank Cox when he urged DASH to do something for homeowners in southeast LaGrange. The now-annual event serves as a way to help homeowners who could no longer maintain their homes because of physical or financial restraints.

Over 130 homes have been painted and each year has brought out around 300 volunteers through local businesses, civic groups and city leaders.

“We recognized that Paint the Town was a good opportunity to build relationships between neighborhoods and residents,” Wheeler said. “We really believe in this kind of citizenship idea that residents can work together to make a better town.”

While DASH has invested in LaGrange’s housing market, more importantly, officials said it has shaped people’s lives.

“The housing we provide make a difference in people’s lives and how they feel about themselves,” Smith said.

Wheeler shared those sentiments that DASH is there mainly to walk alongside individuals during the stress of owning and maintaining a home, and provide manageable help.

Wolfe said the future of DASH is bright and with the support of the city of LaGrange and DASH’s financial stability, the organization is looking to be a developing force in cities such as West Point, Hogansville and Pine Mountain.

“Our future is going to be based on our ability to attract capital to continue this effort,” Wolfe said. However, “with all of the good things we’ve done, we’re not even close to be able to say that we have a control of the destiny of our bad housing stock in LaGrange - it’s still a significant challenge. We still have a tremendous amount of work to do.”