New Neighbors, via Habitat

Sunday, I went to the House Blessing for the latest Habitat for Humanity project. I volunteered on the site a few times early last year, and then got sucked into school. But for the past 18 months, I’ve often passed the house while running or biking, watching the transformation.

Pilar and her children, as Tammy (left) and Marlene look on.

This house, on Moseley Street in the SWAN neighborhood, was the first WomenBuild for Habitat of the Northern Fox Valley. From demolition to final detailing, every step was handled by women. Marlene Hensrud served as project director, and Tammy Guilinger as forewoman. Both taught me a lot about construction, rehab and community.

Sunday was especially special. At the blessing, the old house was filled to the gills with volunteers, family, friends, new neighbors, and well-wishers. A pastor led prayers for the home and the family, and Marlene and Tammy handed the keys to Pilar, the new owner. Pilar and her two children will move in next month and finish the final painting and landscaping in the spring.

The house had been vacant for years, an eyesore on an otherwise nice block. As with any vacant house, there’s always concern about its fate – and how it will impact the rest of the block. Will the house find a new family? Will it be bought by an unscrupulous landlord, bent on carving out as many apartments as possible? Or will it just remain vacant, owned  by nobody, crumbling bit by bit with every storm or stiff wind?

The house was built in 1863, making it one of the oldest houses in the neighborhood. The future did not look good. But with funding from the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program, the City purchased the house as a strategic rehab, turning it over to Habitat to conduct the work. The project finished below budget. (I’m not generally a fan of programs like NSP, but Habitat has handled its houses in a much more fiscally responsible manner.)

I know the neighbors are looking forward to welcoming the new family. And as construction sounds echo down my own street, I hope my nearby eyesores will find similar TLC in the months to come. The housing crisis has hurt so many, but maybe we’re finally starting to see some success stories.

On one side of me, an 1860s house left for dead and condemned has been fixed up and now is one of the nicest on the block. On the other side, the long-empty home now looks far worse than ever – but that’s because the new owner is busy replacing windows, the roof, the siding and all the innards. A few blocks away, a neighbor reported that the house next door to him – vacant for sixteen long, long years – was just bought by a new couple.

Are you seeing similar signs of hope in your neighborhood? I know things are still very bad – and so many good people lost their homes – but I wonder if prices have fallen far enough that people are willing to take a chance on some of these old homes with good bones.

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