Non-profit group and volunteers alike pitch in to make homesteading a reality

September 20, 1992|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,Staff Writer

Urban homesteading isn't supposed to be easy. So Andrea Billy knew the rowhouse on East North Avenue would need considerable repairs if she and her three children were going to live there.

But she was understandably shocked when she first set foot into the residence about a year ago and found all the evidence that it had been a crack house and shooting gallery. Syringes and human feces were scattered about. Burn marks dotted the floor, blood was splattered on the wall and the accumulated ash from crack fires formed a black film over the baseboards.

None of this deterred her. Through a non-profit organization called the People's Homesteading Group, Mrs. Billy and others chasing the dream of home ownership got to work. They removed the feces, scrubbed the baseboards, installed cabinets, painted the walls and fitted plasterboard over a hole where addicts used to stash their drugs.

The Billys moved in about a month ago after signing an agreement that has her paying about $250 a month in mortgage payments to the homesteading group. Since it was founded nine years ago, People's Homesteading Group has turned 40 abandoned houses into homes for low-income city dwellers.

Besides organizing work crews, the group serves as an intermediary between a mortgage lender and people who may not have the necessary credit to secure loans themselves. Homesteaders, such as Mrs. Billy, qualify for low mortgages by contributing as much 2,000 hours in "sweat equity," working to renovate the homes they and others will occupy.

In May, when the renovation was nearly completed, thieves ripped out the bathtub, electrical fixtures and interior doors.

Unable to completely rid the neighborhood of crime, the homesteaders managed to at least keep the home from being further damaged by covering the windows with iron security bars that fit snugly into the brick. Iron gates shore up the front and back doors.

"Now that I have the bars up, I don't worry about people breaking in," Mrs. Billy said yesterday during a "housewarming" that was more of a painting party. "I feel relatively safe once I'm inside."

Mrs. Billy acknowledges that an abandoned house just east of hers still functions as a shooting gallery, and that drug dealers do a robust business in the back alley. But she is thankful for small things: the bars that keep people out and the security of knowing that she owns the walls around her.

"It really makes a difference," she said yesterday, taking a break from putting a fresh coat of green paint on a bedroom wall. "If I want to do something, put on wallpaper, mirror the rooms, I can do it."

Yesterday, seven volunteers from Chase Bank were helping her paint. The bank, which gave $3,500 toward renovations, regularly contributes money and manpower to the group of homesteaders.

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