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Habitat expanding its local vision

Wednesday, March 27, 2013 - 7:26 am

Fort Wayne Habitat for Humanity is one of the groups partnering with the new Healthy Neighborhood Initiative.

Fort Wayne Habitat for Humanity is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, ecumenical Christian housing ministry. It uses volunteer labor to build affordable homes for qualified families living in Allen County. According to its website it built its first home in 1987 and has constructed 160 homes to date.

The Healthy Neighborhood Initiative was the idea of Allen County Healthy Homes Program Director Amy Hesting and Fort Wayne-Allen County Health Commissioner Dr. Deborah McMahan.

McMahan said she first got the idea from looking at the approach Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is taking toward community health. Frieden is focusing on the social determinants of health instead of just looking at immunization and prevention. He has expanded the focus to include important elements of life that ultimately impact health.

The department would like to determine the root causes of some of the health issues in the community and sees this as one way to approach it. The ideal neighborhood would have healthy and safe houses, and that's where Habitat comes in.

“The great thing about the initiative," said Justin Berger, Habitat's executive director, "is it is about utilizing the assets a neighborhood already has and building upon those assets to strengthen communities even more. We want to make sure they know what resources are available to them should they need anything, and that's where we come in.”

In the past year Berger said Fort Wayne Habitat for Humanity has changed its model a bit. It now focuses on whole communities, not just building single homes. Starting in April it will be launching a new product called the Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative, or NRI. This still encompasses building homes or rehabbing exiting homes but also includes a program called “Brush with Kindness.” This new program includes exterior remodeling, such as painting, porch repair and aesthetic things. This can lead to more critical home repair. Berger said other Habitat agencies across the nation have done this on a block by block basis and it has been very successful.

“It's not something we are going to go in and do without the approval of the homeowners, or homeowner associations,” Berger said.

The agency wants to let the community know this resource is available to them. Just like its home ownership program, homeowners can set up a small loan with Habitat to pay for the cost of the materials. Habitat volunteers will come out and do the labor. As with building a house, a certain amount of sweat equity is expected from the homeowners. The homeowners will also take four classes: two on financial literacy and another two on maintaining their homes. The repair program will be for homeowners only, because of the transitive nature of rental properties.

“It's really all about education and sustainability, which is something Dr. McMahan hopes we can do within the community as well,” Berger said.

Berger said they got on board with the initiative early because housing issues are at the forefront of everything in a community. They are hoping to be a good resource whether it's in the initiative area or some other part of the community that is looking to do a block renovation.

Over time Berger is hopeful if they work with homeowners and improve block appearance it will encourage landlords to step up and improve their properties.

They are launching the new program in the Neighborhood initiative area. The project boundaries are Lindenwood Avenue, West State Boulevard, Wells Street and Main Street. It includes several schools, a Kroger, a couple of food banks, a branch library, Hamilton Park and the University of Saint Francis.

McMahan said they had chosen that area because it is already one that has a lot to offer its residents. The idea was to try it out in an area that has a number of pluses before taking it to one with greater needs.

In the past year Habitat has moved into a new location, 2020 E Washington Blvd., tripling its size. It now has more warehouse space, and more space for learning and offices.

There is space for its families to use its Internet access to pay bills, do banking or work on a paper. It has opened some of the meeting spaces to other nonprofits in the community. It really wants to make the offices a resource for its families.

“We needed more space for proper training. We only had one meeting space at our old office; now we have three,” Berger said.

The new office is in the old Falstaff brewing company building, which offers high ceilings and large windows. The new classroom has harnessed technology and function. With two large wall-mounted monitors and a whiteboard. It has revamped its education programs. Class participants are now tested. If someone fails the test three times in a row he or she is out of the program.

In the 27 years the agency has only had seven foreclosures and currently more than 90 percent of its clients are current on their mortgages.

“Due to the education and sweat equity (that) families put in there is a lot of pride in their ownership and they stay current on their mortgages” Berger said, adding, “If you don't pay, you don't stay.”

It wouldn't serve its clients or the community Berger said, to let them stay in a home without paying their mortgage.

There are plans in the works for a whole Habitat for Humanity-built subdivision. Once the plans are approved by the city, Berger said they hope to break ground this summer and start building in the fall.