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Targeting crime – Inner-city housing

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By Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — After building half-a-dozen houses on a tough block in downtown Winston-Salem, Habitat for Humanity of Forsyth County and 58 United Methodist churches are geared to do more.

“An investment in an unstable, volatile neighborhood can dramatically change the whole environment,” says Sonja Murray, Habitat’s director of development.

That lesson did not come easily, though, and key players needed coaxing.

The catalyst was Centenary United Methodist Church on West Fifth Street. Worried about drugs, prostitutes, homeless people and “drink houses,” the church in 1994 offered to finance and build a Habitat house on 13th Street between Patterson and Ivy avenues.

Habitat previously had built houses only in relatively safe neighborhoods, Murray says, but the church “pushed us to go out of the box.”

Habitat agreed. It then had to find someone to buy the house and live in it, and asked Christine Jones, who lived with two young daughters in another rough neighborhood near 25th Street.

“I told them I was scared,” says Jones, an underwriter at Partners National Health Plans.

When Habitat promised to build more houses on the block, Jones signed on. Centenary built her house and, in December 1994, she moved in.

First Christian Church quickly built a second house for Habitat, which continued its neighborhood revival after all the Methodist churches in the Winston-Salem district offered to finance and build five more Habitat houses on the block.

“It’s better,” says Jones, who concedes the neighborhood still has problems. “We look out for each other. I consider us a family because we’re all Habitat homeowners.”

Starting in March, Habitat will build 10 houses on 14th Street — to which drugs, prostitution and other criminal activity have migrated from 13th Street.

The Methodist churches will raise $360,000 to finance seven of the houses, and 2,000 congregation volunteers will build them.

Habitat is looking for corporate or church sponsors for the other three.

The 15-year-old Forsyth chapter, which has built 141 houses, will build another four or five by the end of the year. It plans to build two-dozen next year, up from 20 this year, and another 30 in 2003.

Habitat’s partnership with the Methodists and the foothold it has established on 13th Street have led to projects in other crime-ridden neighborhoods in partnership with the city and private builders, said Murray.

Habitat built nine houses on 23rd, 24th and Cherry streets, and is building six more in Neil Place, a subdivision in the Boston-Thurmond area. It plans next year to build eight to 12 in the Happy Hill neighborhood near Old Salem.

The 13th Street project “totally changed Habitat’s perspective,” says former board member Max Morgan, who co-chaired the Methodists’ financing of the project. “Instead of only building houses for the working poor, we expanded the mission to also bringing about change in neighborhoods.”

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