Habitat for Humanity rolls out the welcome mat in Brooklyn

Building hope from scratch

November 07, 2007|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,Sun reporter

Suddenly, the little porticos are everywhere in Brooklyn - signs of life at homes that were once vacant, and symbols of hope in a neighborhood where drugs were once sold fearlessly in the daylight.

They are the signatures of Arundel Habitat for Humanity, which is concentrating its efforts on five blighted blocks in the South Baltimore community. Reasoning that a home is only as good as the neighborhood it's in, the group is buying and rehabbing homes at a rapid rate to turn around a neighborhood on the brink.

During the past two years, Habitat has gutted and rebuilt a dozen World War II-era homes on those five blocks. Another four homes are now being rehabilitated. And today, the Baltimore Board of Estimates is expected to approve the sale of 16 more vacant homes in the area to Arundel Habitat. The group is closing on two others this week as well, bought on the open market.

When the work is completed in a few years, fully a quarter of the homes in this corner of Brooklyn will have been rehabbed by Arundel Habitat, a shift in strategy for a group that once worked on scattered home sites across the region.

"By investing millions of dollars over several years into a concentrated area, you can have a much greater impact than merely building some homes" in a broad area, said Dan Ellis, executive director of Arundel Habitat. "You can transform a neighborhood."

Five years ago, East Jeffrey, Jack and Stoll streets were pockmarked with vacancies, and drugs changed hands in the open air, residents said. Charles Rines, 58, who lives on Jeffrey Street, said he used to be afraid to leave his home because of the drug activity.

He still doesn't go out at night, but now Rines has no fear of using his motorized wheelchair to get around during the day. Yesterday, he was out on the sidewalk, picking up litter from his and his neighbors' yards.

"It's calmed down a lot," said Rines, who has lived on the street for five years. "I'm hopeful."

Rines and other residents credit Habitat with bringing some stability to the neighborhood, where you can now hear the sounds of hammers and saws bringing back to life homes left for dead. The brick homes - most of which have three bedrooms and a basement - were built in the early 1940s for workers at the nearby shipyards.

When the original owners died, the homes often went to their children, who maintained them as rental properties, which often meant not maintaining them at all. Or the children sold the houses to landlords who rented them out without keeping them up. Flipping and predatory lending also took a toll.

Two years ago, Arundel Habitat saw a chance to make an impact. The high concentration of vacancies meant the group could acquire multiple properties at bargain prices and then bring homeowners into the neighborhood.

The group counted 60 vacant homes on the five blocks it targeted and set a goal of rehabbing 40 of them, hoping that would spur private investors to take care of the rest.

With this week's purchases (the city is selling the houses at $2,500 each because they will be used for affordable housing), Habitat will have acquired 34 of the houses, nearly reaching its goal.

To purchase one of the homes, applicants must have a steady job, decent credit and an income of about $18,000 to $39,000. Habitat for Humanity provides no-interest 30-year mortgages, so the monthly payments are often less than what the buyer was paying in rent.

Jan Redd, 41, and her 14-year- old daughter moved into a three-bedroom Habitat home on Jeffrey Street three months ago.

Her monthly mortgage payment, which includes taxes and insurance, is $454, compared with the $685 rent she was paying in her last home in Annapolis.

"I thought I had won the lottery," she said of being approved to purchase the home. "If it hadn't been for Habitat, I never would have owned my own house."

She said that as more homeowners come into the neighborhood, they are taking better care of the properties. But change of the sort Habitat wants to make does not come quickly.

Many of the streets remain strewn with trash, and the alleys are almost impassable in places because of the piles of garbage, beer cans and the occasional stray mattress.

"It seems like people just come in, drop the trash and drive right out and think nothing of it," said Kathleen M. Hogan, president of Concerned Citizens for a Better Brooklyn. But recently, she said, more people are coming to community meetings and helping with cleanups.

"The people are nice, and they really do care, but they've been run-down for so long," she said. "Now we're trying to turn that around and say, `You have to be the one that cares and brings it back.'"

Arundel Habitat's strategy in Brooklyn is to replicate on a smaller scale what the Sandtown Habitat for Humanity has accomplished on Baltimore's west side. During the past 18 years, that group has rehabbed 250 vacant homes in a 15-square-block area.

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