NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — After several years of warning, mandatory move-out notices will be mailed to residents living in roughly 50 units at the city’s aging Tidewater Gardens public housing complex starting Friday.

The federally-mandated letters from Norfolk’s Redevelopment and Housing Authority (NHRA) officially give those who receive them 120 days to leave the property, as it has been approved for demolition.

The move marks the real beginning of the multimillion-dollar effort to transform downtown — and with it, thousands of lives.

Work has been underway since January 2018 when Norfolk City Council voted to have the NRHA move ahead with plans to eventually level the Tidewater Gardens, Young Terrace and Calvert Square public housing complexes and replace them with mixed-income communities. The goal is to increase the quality of life for the 1,700 families that currently call the aging complexes home and leave behind the neighborhoods’ poverty-stricken past.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded NRHA $30 million as part of its Choice Neighborhood Initiative grants to tear down the 618-unit Tidewater Gardens.

While the coronavirus pandemic, a federal shutdown and a federal lawsuit have slowed the project down some, in a press call Thursday, those overseeing the project with the city and NRHA said they are ready to move forward.

The wrecking ball will take out a six-unit, two-story building on the corner of Fenchurch and Wood streets by the end of the year, according to Steve Morales, NRHA’s project manager.

The demolition will make way for a pump station needed for additional development to come.

“It will just be one building to come down in 2020 … for a critical piece of infrastructure,” Morales said.

More buildings are expected to come down sometime in 2021 in order to help begin the realignment of Church Street.

On Thursday, the last resident to ever call the building on the corner of Fenchurch and Wood streets home — after its more than 60-year lifespan — moved out.

Donald Dixon, 27, had lived in the 520 block of Fenchurch street for more than 15 years. His mother had the unit first, then he stayed in it to raise his four children.

“I’m moving to a much better place,” Dixon said as he was sweeping out the place for the last time. “It has a fenced in yard and everything.”

Dixon — who chose to leave before ever getting a notice — had the option to relocate to another NRHA property or take a voucher and live on privately-owned property that accepts vouchers such as Section 8.

He said the People First program helped him find a home in the Little Creek area.

“We really think this is a secret sauce to our transformation,” said Susan Perry, director of the City Manager’s Office of St. Paul’s Transformation.

People First is the city’s $3.5-million-a-year program that aims to not only help residents through the transition to new housing, but give them tools to live more prosperous lives.

Urban Strategies, Inc. — a nonprofit organization — was selected by the city and NRHA to work with families on job training opportunities, financial advice, and other things that will help residents succeed once they relocate.

In their first year, Nicole Todd with Urban Strategies said the median income of the residents they have worked with increased by more than $6,000, from $11,900 to $18,005. Todd said they used the median household income from Census Tract 48 as a baseline.

“We can see where our residents started, and where they currently are,” Todd said. “It’s a mix of employees who obtained new employment on their own and it’s also going to be folks we worked with to get them connected.”

More than 38 percent of units in Tidewater Gardens are already vacant, which is an increase from May when 30 percent were vacant. Up until this time, all relocations have not been forced by the redevelopment plans.

The project team reiterated again that nobody will become homeless if they don’t find housing within the 120-day timeframe.

“If we need to provide extensions, we need to work with the families, we can do that. In no way shape or form will any family be made homeless. We always have options,” Morales said.

However, the groups that have filed the federal lawsuit against the city believe the city should have planned to build replacement housing before the existing structures are demolished.

Attorneys allege that the relocations as planned would just relocate residents to other poor neighborhoods in the city.

Of the 114 families who People First helped move in the first year, 39 percent moved to neighborhoods where less than 40 percent of residents fall below the poverty line and less than 62 percent are considered minorities, according to their first annual report.

Of those who have relocated, 73 percent have remained in Norfolk, according to Perry.

But NRHA has been forthcoming that not everyone will be able to return to the new community. Perry said so far only half of those of the Tidewater Gardens residents have expressed interest in doing that.

Groundbreaking is expected to occur for the first of the replacement buildings in June 2021 with opening expected in 2022.

In total — Illinois-based Brinshore Development is leading a team to build four mixed-use structures around the Norfolk Transportation center with 710 units, which breaks down to 226 for public housing, 232 for Section 8 and 252 at market rate.

“It’s delivering much more than is typically delivered as part of an affordable housing project,” Morales said.

An digital rendering of what the new mixed use developments around the Norfolk Transit Center will look like. (Courtesy: City of Norfolk)

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