East Side Makeover

Habitat for Humanity is building houses and creating pride in ownership for some first-time Wilmington homeowners

Antonia Burruss won’t be moving into her new house until 12 months from now, but she already knows—and likes—her new neighbors.

“They’re great ladies,” she says. “They have small families. We work together. We partner with each other. We’re going to keep our neighborhood safe and protect one another.”

Burruss, 39, has been chosen as one of the residents of Amala Way, a group of five townhouses to be built by Habitat for Humanity of New Castle County in the 800 block of Bennett Street on Wilmington’s East Side.

Following a groundbreaking ceremony in December, construction should begin this month. With Burruss and her new neighbors providing plenty of sweat equity, plus hundreds of volunteers wielding hammers and saws, the five new homes should be ready for occupancy by the end of the year.

And that’s not the only transformation under way on the block. Across the street from Amala Way stands a row of seven partially-built townhouses started in 2015 by the Wilmington Housing Partnership. Construction of these townhouses, and other Partnership projects, stalled following disclosures that the Partnership was facing significant financial challenges. The Partnership’s board of directors has since been reconstituted and the city government is working with the Partnership to transfer title for the properties to Habitat for Humanity, which will complete the work.

Bill Freeborn, a Habitat board member and director of the Wilmington Land Bank, which is helping with the title transfer, says he expects work on the seven started townhouses to be completed by September.

Marlese Carr, a Habitat for Humanity of New Castle County prospective homeowner, sheds a few happy tears while embraced by her long-time friend Michelle Reaves as they take a tour inside one of several homes under construction on Bennett Street. Photo by Butch Comegys

The two projects on Bennett Street are just part of Habitat’s efforts to improve housing opportunities—and the overall appearance of neighborhoods—on the East Side. Just a block and a half away, in the 900 block of Church Street, sits Hope Run, a group of four townhouses completed last June that includes the 250th home that the county’s Habitat organization has completed since its launch in 1986. The homes in Amala Way will closely resemble those in Hope Run, but they will be framed with 2X6-inch studs, permitting better insulation, and the two three-bedroom units will also have front porches, says Kevin Smith, Habitat executive director.

Smith says that Habitat, whose work in the county has focused on Wilmington, the Route 9 corridor between Wilmington and New Castle, and Middletown, does more than build homes and find qualified buyers to live in them. “We aim to change neighborhoods, to create and sustain home ownership,” he says.

Through a grant from JPMorgan Chase, he says, Habitat has been able to expand its home repair services, helping to fix up 20 to 25 homes a year in the city, many of them owned by senior citizens or individuals with limited means.

Rock the Block

Neighborhoods in which at least half the homes are owner-occupied are the best candidates for stabilization and revitalization, and helping homeowners make needed repairs is an effective means of achieving and maintaining that ratio, Smith says.

In addition, Habitat works to engage residents in beautification projects. Through its Rock the Block initiative, Habitat helps homeowners with exterior and façade repairs as well as with planting shrubs and installing fencing to create pocket parks or mini-gardens in a neighborhood’s common areas.

“Unkempt lots create negative feelings about a neighborhood,” Smith says. “If you clean them out and fence them in, it gives the impression that people care.”

Habitat has “created a lot of stability” in the neighborhoods where it concentrates its efforts, he says.

The international Habitat organization, founded in 1976 and propelled into the national limelight through the support of former President Jimmy Carter, now operates in all 50 states and more than 70 countries and has helped some 29 million people achieve strength, stability and independence through safe, decent and affordable shelter.

The prospective residents of Amala Way—Burruss, Nema Bass, Marlise Carr, and Ursula Gonzalez and her partner Westley Scott, hope to be among the next to achieve those goals.

“Next to my baby, this is the most important thing that has ever happened to me,” says Bass, a 37-year-old budget analyst for Wilmington University who will be moving into Amala Way with her 15-year-old daughter, Nevaeh. “I’m going from renter to homeowner, a major change. Life is good,” she says.

Qualifying for Habitat Help

Life may be good, but the path to homeownership is not necessarily easy.

Candidates for Habitat homes must have an income that falls within 30 to 60 percent of the median for New Castle County, roughly $22,000 to $55,000, depending on family size, Smith says. Other requirements include having a credit score of 600 or higher, no more than $1,500 in delinquent debt and total debt that is less than or equal to 20 percent of gross income. Applicants who don’t meet those standards can receive credit counseling through the state-supported Stand By Me program and often are approved on their second or third try, he says.

Additional requirements for homeownership include putting in 300 hours of “sweat equity,” achieved through working on their own homes or others in the area; putting in time at ReStore, Habitat’s outlet for building supplies and used furniture; and participating at Habitat promotional and marketing events. An important part of those 300 hours is coaching and counseling, Smith says, designed to make sure that prospective homeowners understand their financial responsibilities, how to care for their properties and, perhaps most important, how to get along with their neighbors.

The houses being built in Amala Way will probably be valued at $130,000 to $140,000, but could be sold for $200,000 or more if they were located in a better neighborhood, Smith says. Homeowners receive an interest-free mortgage, but must promise to live in their new home for at least 10 years. (For a home valued at $140,000, monthly payments for mortgage, taxes and insurance would total about $550.)

The new homeowners won’t know final costs until the project is completed.

But that’s not a big concern for Ursula Gonzalez, a 55-year-old Wilmingtonian who works on a mushroom farm in Avondale, Pa. She’s just thrilled by the opportunity. “I never thought that I could own a house. I never thought that my credit would be good enough to even try,” she says.

Gonzalez learned about Habitat from a relative who entered the homeownership program but dropped out before qualifying for a home. “I’m surprised that I made it through,” she says.

Enrolling in Habitat’s program helped Carr, a 31-year-old research coordinator for AmeriHealth Caritas of Delaware, become more financially literate and set better priorities, an important consideration for the single mother of a teenaged boy and two younger girls. Owning a home will provide the stability that they have been seeking for years.

“The biggest thing is that this is for my children, to have a place they can really call home, where they can express themselves, and paint and decorate their own rooms,” she says.

The New Castle County Habitat unit runs on an operating budget of about $3.5 million, with about 70 percent of the revenue coming from corporate, foundation and government grants. The rest of the income is derived from mortgage payments, proceeds from ReStore sales and individual contributions.

Newly built homes from Habitat for Humanity of New Castle County located on the 900 block of Church Street in East Side of Wilmington. Photo by Butch Comegys

Habitat as a Contractor

Constructing a Habitat home involves a mix of professional and volunteer labor, Smith says. Building plans are available through Habitat’s headquarters in Atlanta, but are frequently modified to meet local conditions. Homeowners get to make some choices too—like picking the color of their carpeting or flooring, or the style of countertops in the kitchen and bath.

“We’re a small to mid-sized general contractor,” Smith says, explaining that Habitat hires professionals to pour the concrete footers and foundation, install the heating and cooling systems, the electrical wiring, the drywall and the roofing, and the external connections for sewer and water lines.

Construction supervisors on the Habitat staff oversee the work of both the professionals and the volunteers, who include not only prospective homeowners but also groups organized through businesses, schools, churches and other community organizations. The volunteers handle interior framing, insulation, painting, installation of vinyl siding, finishing carpentry and landscaping.

“Five houses will take us a year, working five days a week with 15 volunteers a day,” Smith says.

Habitat averages 20,000 volunteer hours a year in New Castle County. Some have construction experience, but many do not, but the organization’s supervisors provide on-site training and instruction and carefully monitor the work.

Volunteers come from all over the county and sometimes from out of state. Two years ago, a group of college students flew in from California to spend their one-week spring break working on Habitat houses in Wilmington and Middletown.

“We’re getting volunteers to come to parts of the community that they’ve never been to,” Smith says. “This has a positive effect. It helps change attitudes. They see that it’s not as bad or as scary as they might have believed.”

Homeownership itself can be a scary proposition, the prospective Amala Way residents acknowledge, and that’s why they’re glad they will have the opportunity to work together and get to know each other better before they move in.

“You get to know the area, you get to know your neighbors and develop the friendships,” Gonzalez says. “Everybody here is working for the same thing.”

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