Forsyth Habitat expands renovation work

Sylvia Oberle
Sylvia Oberle

Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Habitat for Humanity of Forsyth County is working to provide more affordable housing by renovating foreclosed or abandoned properties in southeastern Winston-Salem and Forsyth County, and by building new housing in the historic Old Cherry Street neighborhood.

With a $2.1 million grant from the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program, Habitat has teamed up with Partners for Homeownership to buy and renovate up to 20 vacant foreclosed homes in southeastern Winston-Salem and Forsyth County over the next three years.

Habitat also is partnering with the city of Winston-Salem to buy land and dilapidated housing in the Old Cherry Street neighborhood and build up to 15 houses there this year and possibly early next year.

Founded in 1985, Habitat Forsyth has built 270 homes and typically builds 15 to 20 a year.

The affiliate, which operates with an annual budget of $3.1 million and a staff of 22 people, generated more unrestricted contributions in 2008 than the previous year, despite the onset of the recession.

“We’ve actually been very fortunate,” says Sylvia Oberle, executive director. “We’ve continued building.”

In fact, the affiliate last year was named 15th-busiest builder in the Triad by The Business Journal.

With the federal grant, part of the $700 billion stimulus package approved by Congress last fall, Habitat and Partners for Homeownership will focus on an area that has mainly minority and mixed-income neighborhoods and subdivisions less than 10 years old but that has highest rate of foreclosures in the city and county.

Habitat and Partners for Homeownership both have built houses in the area.

“The most troublesome foreclosure pattern in this part of the community are neighborhoods that have been built and destabilized by growing numbers of foreclosed or abandoned homes,” Oberle says. “We want to protect our investment as well.”

Under the partnership, Habitat will buy up to 20 vacant foreclosed houses in the area and, over two to three years, renovate just over half of them for sale to Habitat families, which typically have household income ranging from $14,000 to $35,000 for a family of four.

Partners for Homeownership, a developer and broker that serves families with slightly higher income and also helps them secure lower-rate bank financing, will renovate the remainder of the houses Habitat buys.

“We’re working together to serve a wider range of income levels,” Oberle says.

This year, Habitat will focus its production of new houses in the Old Cherry Street neighborhood.

Built in the 1930s and ‘40s, the area was home to working-class African Americans and still includes good housing stock despite having deteriorated over time, Oberle says.

Habitat negotiated with city and state historic planners to buy land and abandoned, boarded-up houses and tear down some others in the neighborhood, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Common to the neighborhood are historically-significant two-story, “Y-stairway” apartment buildings that were designed by an African-American architect and each includes four units, Oberle says.

For the $1.2 million project, Habitat has worked for 18 months to engage the neighborhood in the process, she says.

Habitat also has worked with Lafferty Architecture, a firm that specializes in historic design and has developed a comprehensive plan that aims to restore the original “streetscape” and blend with existing houses, she says.

While the neighborhood includes Kimberley Park Elementary School, a city park, four churches and a health center, Oberle says, it also is troubled with crime and other problems, including a lack of decent and stable housing.

“Nobody wanted to be the first in” to develop housing, she says.

With only 15 percent of students walking to school because of neighborhood conditions, even though most students at the school live in the neighborhood, the school is piloting a program to encourage kids to walk to school.

Habitat is working with Neighbors for Better Neighborhoods to help develop a new neighborhood association, and has begun talking with several garden clubs and the Cooperative Extension Service in Forsyth County about developing a community garden.

Habitat also is recruiting families with children in the elementary school to become Habitat homeowners, and is enlisting other neighborhood residents to help build new Habitat houses.

Keys goals, Oberle says, are to “help create the revitalization from within” and recruit private developers interested in historic renovation to develop homes in the neighborhood.

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