Wednesday morning saw a bittersweet moment for residents in the 1200 block of North Green as the dilapidated house of an old friend was demolished to make way for the construction of a new Habitat for Humanity house.
The structure itself – with rotting window sills, chipping paint and several “keep out” signs – had been vacant since the 2014 death of its last resident, an elderly woman the neighbors lovingly refer to as “Miss Helen.”
Lavonta Williams, District 1 City Council member and a Wichita Habitat board member, said Miss Helen was an important part of the community that was so important to her.
“She was a good, strong … woman who took pride in where she was,” Williams said.
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Janet Wilson, president of the A. Price Woodard Neighborhood Association, said the neighbors cared for Miss Helen, often delivering groceries or her favorite, Popeyes fried chicken.
One hot summer day in 2014, Miss Helen was sent to the hospital after suffering with heatstroke, Wilson said. She died two months later.
Miss Helen’s house was one of many properties in the area near 13th and Grove deemed unsuitable for living. Since June 2014, the neighborhood has been the focus of a Habitat for Humanity campaign called Rock the Block, which focuses on removing blight, or substandard living conditions.
Although some houses are candidates for rehabilitation, others – like the home of Miss Helen – are razed to make room for new housing.
Over the past year and a half, Rock the Block has moved 13 new families into safe, affordable housing in the area. Wilson said the change she has seen among her neighbors has been “drastic.”
“I now have a neighborhood, whereas before our neighborhood was kind of on auto-destruct,” Wilson said. “We actually have a neighborhood now.”
Removing blight is essential for boosting morale in neighborhoods that are often the targets of crime, illegal dumping and vandalism, Williams said.
Ann Fox, director of Wichita Habitat for Humanity, said the organization plans to dig into blight over the upcoming year with the construction of 15 new houses and 15 rehabilitation projects in the neighborhood.
Wilson said it’s the kids in the neighborhood who have seen the greatest impact from the efforts of Habitat for Humanity.
“The children are more settled, they’re more stable, and they really like the fact that they have a place they can call home,” Wilson said.
Kathy Lefler, spokeswoman for Wichita Habitat, said before moving into the new houses, families are often shuffled between rentals. Many of the children have never had a room to themselves.
“They talk about how this is a new life for them because they don’t have to move schools all the time,” Lefler said. “They have stability now.”
Construction of the new house is expected to start in fall 2016, but no plans have been formally made.
Williams said although it’s sad to see the home of Miss Helen go, she hopes the demolition will mean new life for the neighborhood.
“It’s a brand new day, and we’re ready to start a brand new year,” Williams said.