May 30, 2014

‘Rock the Block’ to fight blight by building Habitat homes on vacant lots

The front for the city’s battle against blight has shifted.

The front for the city’s battle against blight has shifted.

Wichita’s Habitat for Humanity affiliate will unveil “Rock the Block” on Friday, the first salvo in a new focus on residential infill development – putting new homes on vacant lots – in a blighted area of the city.

The affiliate – whose motto is “A hand up, not a handout” – has purchased six lots in the 1000 to 1200 blocks of North Poplar and plans to build five homes between June and November. The homes are sold to qualifying owners on a 20-year, interest-free deal if the owners invest sweat equity in the construction of their house and others, and if they attend home ownership classes.

Another part of the Habitat plan is utilizing its contractors for home rehabilitation work, primarily in the winter.

Construction on the first new house, sponsored and built by Koch Industries, will begin June 17 at 1232 N. Poplar. Cessna Aircraft is sponsoring the second home on the block.

The program is the equivalent of planting new grass – Habitat officials hope they can generate enough enthusiasm with the new housing that the project spreads. The affiliate continues to look for land in the area.

“We’re hoping to create areas of sustainable change that will eventually roll over onto each other,” said Ann Fox, executive director of the Wichita affiliate.

“As one block experiences that kind of change with the housing, we’ll move on until we revitalize the entire neighborhood. Our goal is to energize the cycle of home ownership.”

Janet Wilson, a community activist in the project’s A. Price Woodard neighborhood, said Fox is right.

“I think that as we build in new houses, that will encourage some of the people in the blighted houses to fix them up,” she said. “The neighborhood association will do whatever it can to make that happen.”

It marks the seventh Koch Industries house for Habitat, said community affairs director Laura Hands. More than 400 employees will participate.

“The teamwork and the opportunity to contribute hands-on to a cause that helps people transform their lives – it’s something we really enjoy and look forward to,” Hands said.

“Just as important, though, is that Habitat aligns so well with Koch’s community affairs vision of helping people improve their own lives. … It’s a win-win-win for everybody – for the homeowner, for Habitat, and for those of us at Koch who get the chance to pitch in and help.”

The Habitat project targets urban blight, which city officials define as decaying neighborhoods struggling with substandard housing, vacant lots, transient residents and crime. The city’s goal – and Habitat’s – is to rebuild those neighborhoods by pulling longtime residents, or new families, out of housing trouble and into new homes.

Why? Because new housing solidifies neighborhoods, according to the broken window theory, Fox said. The broken window theory is the belief that the decay of urban structures encourages crime and anti-social behavior.

Two City Council members on the front lines of the battle against blight say the Habitat program will be a valuable tool.

“I can’t tell you how excited I am about this,” council member Lavonta Williams said. “It’s going to make a tremendous difference to that neighborhood.

“This kind of targeted development, along with the sewer work the city is doing in the area, is going to definitely change the dynamic in that neighborhood. And this is just the start.”

Council member Janet Miller praised the corporate support of Habitat’s project from Koch and Cessna.

“I think that anyone who’s willing to step up and invest in a neighborhood to help people invest in themselves is doing a great thing for our city,” she said.

The neighborhood is almost half rentals, Habitat officials said – 49 percent. Only 28 percent of the homes in the neighborhood are owner-occupied, and vacancies are high – about 108 homes and lots out of 607 total.

Wilson said the Habitat program is a key first step.

“It means we are being revitalized,” she said. “Habitat gets a lot of credit for believing. Councilwoman Williams gets a lot of credit, too.

“And I think our neighborhood gets some credit because we laid the foundation for them to come in.”


Potential Habitat house owners must live in some kind of dilapidated housing – substandard, overcrowded, temporary or unsafe – or must be paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing and utility costs and are unable to obtain a conventional housing loan, according to Habitat officials.

They must have a steady income as well, enough to make payments on the 20-year, interest-free mortgage plus monthly living expenses. And the potential owners must put in between 250 and 400 hours helping build Habitat homes – theirs and others – while attending home ownership classes and saving the money to cover closing costs.

Habitat operates three villages in Wichita, the affiliate’s original building model before shifting its focus to infill:

• Edgebrook Village, 42 homes with a pocket park on North Jackson Court.
• Stewart Village, now home to 36 families on nine acres just west of 44th Street South and Hydraulic.
• Cottonwood Corner, 27th Street North and Fairview, now home to eight families.

Wilson said the Habitat project infuses the Woodard neighborhood “with a lot of positive energy at one time.”

“It’s a continuation of our story,” she said. “We’re going from blighted to beautiful.”

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