Habitat program volunteers unveil rehabbed homes with beaming owners

October 27, 1991|By Jonathan Bor

Jean Bowie turned the key, pushed open a freshly varnished door and yelled with abandon: "It's mine! I thank the Lord and bless him! My prayers have been answered! It's mine!"

She ushered a visitor inside, then strode proudly over a gray rug, past tropical fish and into a kitchen outfitted with a tile counter and smart wooden cabinets. Pushing open the back door, she gestured to a backyard surprise and cried out again:

"My deck! I love it!"

For Mrs. Bowie, owning a home on a McDonald's salary would not have been possible without extraordinary good fortune. Hers came in the form of Habitat for Humanity, a burgeoning movement of volunteers who have been building and renovating homes across the United States for the simple purpose of helping earnest people realize the dream of home ownership.

Yesterday, a collection of churchgoers, college students, teachers and carpenters who call themselves Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity dedicated the ninth and 10th houses they've completed since the chapter began rebuilding inner-city Baltimore about a decade ago.

Half of the homes are located on Sherwood Avenue, a narrow street off North Avenue that could easily pass for an alley were it not for the two-story row houses of orange brick and Formstone whose front stoops come nearly flush with the curb.

Backyard decks aside, the street could not be farther from suburbia. Many of the street's houses are still dilapidated and boarded, but Habitat has renovated five homes over the last five years and given this once bombed-out neighborhood a spirit of renewal.

Habitat purchased the homes for $1 each from the city housing department, which had come to own them through abandonment or seizure.

Then, Habitat sold them at cost -- approximately $20,000 each -- to applicants who demonstrated the ability to manage finances and an eagerness to grab a hammer or a paintbrush themselves. Families like the Bowies were given long-term, no-interest loans to pay off the houses, but also agreed to volunteer at least 300 hours of "sweat equity" toward a renovation somewhere on the street.

"Every year, I hoped I'd have my own house, my kids, get married and settle down -- now my prayers have been answered," said the 33-year-old Mrs. Bowie, who actually moved into her new house almost two months ago with her husband, Clarence, and three children, Jean, Vera and Bee.

She had never heard of Habitat until she moved from Washington to live with her sister on Sherwood Avenue about two years ago and saw a Habitat sign on the side of a vacant building.

(The other house dedicated yesterday was purchased by Vickie Dobbins, 28, who plans to move from her rented home in West Baltimore in about two weeks.)

Renovating the Bowie homestead was a unique endeavor. Last year, a group of Goucher students adopted the house as a community service project. Although supervised by professional carpenter John McCormick, they organized work crews and learned to do things like nail roofing material and install drywall.

"A lot of them didn't know one end of a hammer from another," Mr. McCormick said. "But you go with it. My philosophy is, if it isn't fun, why do it?"

Betsy Hubbard, who graduated last May, said renovating the house gave her a sense of accomplishment unlike anything she had experienced before: "It's so tangible. You can stand there and say, this wall is standing. It looks good. Yeah."

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