Habitat for Humanity kicks off ‘Rock the Block’ project in empty lot on Poplar

05/30/2014 11:56 AM

05/31/2014 7:57 AM

Six shovels adorned with ribbons stood embedded in the dirt at the empty lot at 1232 N. Poplar.

The shovels symbolize the lot’s pending transformation into the first home that Phunglai Nguyen and her husband, Hoat, will own since emigrating to Texas from Vietnam in 1975 and coming to Kansas two years later. The house is part of Wichita Habitat for Humanity’s new initiative.

“Cooking will be the first thing I do in the house,” said Phunglai, speaking through the family’s budget coach, Linda Nguyen, who translated for the couple. Phunglai plans to make a variety of traditional Vietnamese dishes, especially egg rolls and fried rice because they’ll be popular with neighbors and friends, she said.

These same neighbors and friends may volunteer to help build her house when construction starts June 17. Hoat will be there too, despite suffering from paralysis in his left hand.

“I’m happy to do it,” Hoat said. “I don’t mind helping one another out. We are very thankful.”

The work is investment in “sweat equity,” part of the agreement the Nguyens made with Wichita’s Habitat for Humanity affiliate for its “Rock the Block” initiative, which will see five new houses built in the 1100 to 1200 blocks of North Poplar. Four of the houses will be occupied; the fifth will serve as a model for future applicants to preview.

“We’re sitting in their dining room, I believe,” Ann Fox, executive director of the Wichita Habitat affiliate, said as she announced the initiative Friday to a crowd of about 30 people, including City Council member Lavonta Williams, who gathered at the empty lot.

“Four families will call this home by the end of the year and have Christmas dinner right here on the block, and that is exciting,” Fox said.

The initiative is a new direction for Habitat, which helps build houses for families who are currently living in unsafe living conditions or are unable to obtain conventional bank loans or pay more than 30 percent of income on housing and utility costs. The organization owns three villages in Wichita but will now focus on infill development, targeting vacant lots in decaying neighborhoods struggling with blight. The North Poplar neighborhood contains about 108 vacant homes and lots out of 607 total.

To qualify for the program, families like the Nguyens must have a steady income sufficient enough to repay a 20-year, interest-free mortgage and monthly living expenses. Families who agree to partner with Habitat for Humanity work between 250 and 400 hours of “sweat equity” building homes and attending home ownership classes.

“We give nothing away,” Fox said. “We give a hand up, not a handout.”

It’s a hand up the Nguyens said they appreciate as they look forward to the stability that home ownership will bring for their 11-, 14- and 17-year-old sons.

“We want a good home for our kids to live in,” Phunglai said. “It’s about stability more than anything else. We see a bright future.”

The neighborhood the Nguyens are joining is becoming what it used to be – a vibrant, stable community where residents care for one another, said Janet Wilson, a community activist in the project’s A. Price Woodard neighborhood and longtime resident of the area. “Rock the Block” will have a dynamic impact, she said.

“This is what I’ve hoped and wished for,” Wilson said as she hugged a neighbor.

The North Poplar neighborhood was chosen for the initiative in part because of the community involvement of the people who live there, Williams said during her formal remarks.

Home ownership contributes to life-enhancing change, Williams said, as she cited statistics showing that children of homeowners are more likely to graduate from high school and college.

“Rock the Block” reflects Habitat’s hope of creating a “world where everyone has a safe and affordable place to live,” she said.

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