Houses that Virginia built
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As a girl, Virginia Lewis spent 13 years living in Delbarton, but never really noticed the disrepair of many of the homes until she saw them featured in a Michigan newspaper.
"I had traveled to Michigan to baby-sit for my sister's twins and one day I opened up the Grand Rapids newspaper and saw two full pages of housing dilemmas in West Virginia," Lewis recalled. "Particularly in Cinderella Hollow in Mingo County."
Those images stayed with Lewis, now 58, who has devoted more than half her life to creating affordable housing opportunities.
On May 2, Lewis will be inducted into the West Virginia Affordable Housing Hall of Fame, a recognition given by Habitat for Humanity of West Virginia.
In 1977, Lewis helped create the Mingo County Housing Authority, where she served as executive director for 30 years.
"I had been working with a community development agency with the county and the housing authority spun off from that," she said. "There was a need for housing and still is in southern West Virginia.
"What I found was in order to do housing you have to have public infrastructure. It's very difficult to build and construct single-family houses, particularly if you have no water or septic system," she said.
Realizing that, Lewis became project coordinator for the Mingo County Commission, and under her leadership approximately 75 percent of the county was equipped with public water.
"It has been extremely rewarding," she said about her career. In 2009, Lewis retired from the housing authority, but has continued fighting to secure affordable housing for low-income families.
"Southern West Virginia is very deteriorated. Some places, floods have devastated areas and you see huge populations of mobile homes," she said. "You see a great many of FEMA mobile homes that are supposed to be temporary but somehow become permanent."
Lewis now lives in Charleston and runs her own consulting business, where she writes grant applications for nonprofits. She also advocates for housing as a lobbyist.
"I've known Virginia for about eight years, since I came to work for Habitat," said Lora Pierce, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of West Virginia. "When you think about people who really contribute to affordable housing needs and families in West Virginia, her name comes right at the top of the list."
In West Virginia, one out of five families live in some kind of substandard housing, according to information from Habitat for Humanity.
"Even though West Virginia has one of the highest home-ownership rates in the country, those houses are substandard," Pierce said.
Lewis is the eighth West Virginian to be inducted into the Housing Hall of Fame. Last year, Mary Skeens, executive director of Community Works WV, was inducted.
Lewis said she is humbled by the recognition and is proud to have made such a difference in Mingo County and throughout the state.
"I usually work behind the scenes and shy away from accolades, but this is timely and pretty much at the end of my housing career," she said.
"I think my son stated it best when he said, 'Mom, you have to be proud when you drive through Mingo County, there's not a place you drive that you don't see evidence where you've been -- whether it be a fire hydrant, a house or a community center,'" Lewis recalled her son saying.
For more information about the hall of fame event, visit habitatwv.org. Reach Kate White at email@example.com or 304-348-1723.