“This country needs an entire rethinking of the ways in which our society provides housing. Recognizing the problem and advocating for a change of philosophy are the foundation for progress, but they are not enough. We need specific programs, and we need to implement them now.”
Born in Durham, N.C. in 1933, Virginia Swain Peters was a go-getter who stood up for what she believed in and made things happen. She caused uproar at her conservative high school when she organized students to get up and dance at their annual junior/senior banquet. She co-authored a resolution that called on all Methodist colleges in North Carolina to open their doors to Black students. When her husband Charles was attending school in London, the couple was presented to the Queen of England. Virginia delighted in telling people that she wore a short-sleeved dress she had purchased in a consignment shop for the occasion.
Virginia received her bachelor’s degree from Greensboro College and taught elementary school in New Jersey before moving to Arlington in 1958 and teaching for a year in public schools.
She was also a member of a local Methodist church. As co-chair of a Methodist housing task force, Virginia witnessed decrepit housing and a severe housing shortage, especially for people with low incomes. The task force concluded that the solution was creating decent housing for low-income people, arguing that suitable housing is a basic human right. Click here to learn more about the Methodist roots of Wesley Housing.
Already an involved member of her community, Virginia quickly became a fierce advocate for Northern Virginia’s low- and moderate-income individuals and families. Though she didn’t have any previous experience in housing or community development, Virginia entered the then male-dominated world of real estate in 1974 and built Wesley Housing from a cardboard box in the back seat of her car to a multimillion-dollar enterprise. Over the past forty years, Wesley Housing has developed 25 communities and served more than 20,000 low- and moderate-income households in Northern Virginia.
“For Virginia, [Wesley Housing] was more than putting a roof over someone’s head. It was about the people she worked with, the community she lived in, and, perhaps most of all, those who found shelter in Wesley properties,” wrote her husband, Pete. “A decent, affordable place to live was the starting point for a better life.”
Combining affordable housing with family programs and supportive services to foster positive development and self-sufficiency for all adults, children, and families, Wesley Housing changes lives, true to Virginia’s original vision. In 1989, the Washington Post recognized Virginia’s contributions to the community in an article, “Unsung Heroes: Eight Who Made a Difference.” Fairfax County recognized Virginia’s work by honoring her with a Human Rights Award in 1993. The Virginia General Assembly commended her for her work in February 1997.
Virginia’s legacy lives on in the continued work of Wesley Housing across Northern Virginia and with her family, including her children and grandchildren. On April 8, 2014, the Virginia General Assembly commended Wesley Housing on the occasion of its 40th anniversary for its work helping help low- and moderate-income families avoid homelessness.