One block at a time: Restoring Central Dover project enters second phase

From left, NCALL executive director Karen Speakman, director of Delaware State Housing Authority Anas Ben Addi, executive director of Central Delaware Habitat for Humanity Tim Bailey and Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen talk in front of four new affordable houses on North Kirkwood Street that were built by Camden-based Lessard Builders as part of NCALL’s Restoring Central Dover effort in August 2019. Delaware State News file photo/Marc Clery

DOVER — The power of homeownership is easily evident to Karen Speakman, director of NCALL, which is the driving force behind the Restoring Central Dover initiative to revitalize neighborhoods and businesses in downtown Dover.

When she drives down North New Street nowadays, she sees children’s toys on the lawns, flowers, flags and “Dover Strong” signs in the front yards. The area is no longer dominated by vacant lots and run-down houses.

Success stories like that one is why the National Council on Agricultural Life & Labor Research Fund is excited to begin Phase Two of its Restoring Central Dover program, which looks to spread its housing revitalization down to South New Street, an area that is often viewed as dangerous, violent and crime-ridden, over the next five years.

Ms. Speakman and other members of NCALL presented a blueprint of their new plan to Dover City Council on Monday night.

“The initial five years (of Restoring Central Dover) have resulted in a solid and accomplished foundation on which to build, taking our visions and strategies further and deeper towards the goal of transformational change,” Ms. Speakman said. “It is with excitement that this plan for Phase Two is presented as a blueprint going forward.

“We recently received word that our second implementation grant of $500,000 for operations from the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation was approved and a fourth Strong Neighborhoods Housing Fund Grant from the Delaware State Housing Authority of $800,000 was awarded towards the development costs of 15 new houses that will be developed by NCALL and Central Delaware Habitat (for Humanity).”

During Phase One of the Restoring Central Dover initiative, 38 new houses were constructed in the downtown area, including eight by NCALL, 20 by Central Delaware Habitat for Humanity, two by Milford Housing and eight by Mautiste.

In addition, eight existing owner-occupied homes were rehabilitated, and several blocks were transformed by demolishing blighted properties.

Perhaps the most important thing that occurred was that the homeownership rate in the area went from 25% to 30%, and NCALL is looking to expand that to 40% by 2025. The rest of Dover and the state of Delaware’s homeownership rate is around 60%.

“When the (Restoring Central Dover) plan began, the homeownership rate in central Dover was about 20%, which is very low, and an indicator of a community in distress,” said Patricia Kelleher, real estate development director for NCALL. “So, with Habitat, we worked very hard to build single-family homes, and we felt by the time that we had finished, we had about 38 new homes built, and it brought (the homeownership rate) up somewhere near 30%.

“We expect to build at least 20 (new homes) in the next five years, for a total of 58, and that will make a significant impact on the actual homeownership rate in the community. We hope to bring it up to at least 32.5%, but again, we’re working very hard to bring new homeowners into the area.”

Stephen Johns cuts the ribbon of his new home with children Aaliyah, 8, and Mekell, 4, during a Central Delaware Habitat for Humanity celebration in Dover in December of 2017.

She added that while Central Delaware Habitat for Humanity and NCALL have served as the major developers for central Dover, they would be interested in bringing in some additional private developers to build houses.

“One of the interesting numbers that we were able to compute was that when the program began we had zero dollars, except for the money that Wells Fargo gave us over the five years, but we were able to leverage a total of $9.2 million over the five years of the initial phase of Restoring Central Dover — and that (figure) was from a back-of-an-envelope calculation, but we believe it was probably significantly more than that,” Ms. Kelleher said.

“We also projected for the future another $7.6 million to be leveraged over the next five years, for a total of $16.8 million, and those numbers are very conservative. The plan brings a lot of new investment into the community.”

The power of pride

Having people become homeowners often instills pride in neighborhoods and on streets, which can lead to stability and reduced crime numbers.

Chanda Jackson, NCALL’s community engagement coordinator, said Restoring Central Dover Phase Two will kick into high gear in September, as CDHFH will begin construction on four homes at 35 and 39 N. New St. and 16 and 18 S. Queen St. By the end of the year, Habitat plans to build four more houses at 117, 67, 127 and 133 S. Queen St.

“Together, we’re transforming whole blocks,” Ms. Jackson said. “To give an example, the block on North New Street between Division and Fulton (streets) is now more than 70% owner-occupied. Just a couple of years ago, it was just a run-down and perceived dangerous area.

“Our plan is to come together and to make the same impact on South New Street, Reed Street and Queen Street, (to the south) of Division (Street), but we will need collaboration from police to make that work happen with continuous patrolling in the area,” she said. “We’ve had at least two incidents that have occurred where robberies have taken place (at construction sites).”

Ms. Jackson said she looks forward to the day when crime finally declines down the South New Street corridor.

“In order for new homeowners to be engaged in the community and be contributing residents, they need to feel safe without fear of gunfire or crime,” she said. “With the city’s support, there could be children playing on the block, neighbors gathering on each other’s porches, and residents walking to the shops on Loockerman Street.

“Trash will not be strewn everywhere, including drug paraphernalia, and events can be held in public places.”

Will Grimes, the neighborhood revitalization coordinator for NCALL, believes another five-year rebuilding initiative will make downtown Dover even more attractive and safer. He said the efforts of the past five years prove that.

“A lot of time and effort with our partners contributed to this plan, and we’re very excited for what our collaborative efforts have not only accomplished in our first five years, but what we expect to accomplish together in the next five years with our new vision and our new goals,” Mr. Grimes said.

“Our new vision for Phase Two is a resilient and thriving central Dover community that continues to shape its own future,” he added. “Our three new project goals are going to be a strong community, positive development and quality of life.”

Tierea Chisholm cuts the ribbon with Central Delaware Habitat for Humanity board president Frank Daniels during a house dedication on North New Street just before Christmas in 2018.

Tim Bailey, executive director of CDHFH, said the nonprofit organization is excited to get back to the business of building affordable homes, especially after losing some valuable time due to the coronavirus pandemic earlier in the year.

“There’s so many different fingers to our hand,” said Mr. Bailey. “We’re impacting families, and it’s a multi-generational impact, because most families that we’re serving are first-time homebuyers, and they haven’t had homeownership in their family in generations.

“So we’re impacting the families but we’re also impacting neighborhoods. We’ve converted streets like North New Street in Dover from a sub-10% homeownership rate to upper 70% homeownership rate just by building the seven houses we’ve built on North New Street. That can really further expand once we talk about the community and how it impacts the whole sector of Delaware.”

More than just houses

The Restoring Central Dover initiative is much more than just building affordable homes in the downtown area. It is about establishing a community that people are proud to call home.

Mr. Grimes said that in NCALL’s new vision for Phase Two, they hope to form a strong community by building community capital, increasing public safety, engaging youth in the community and expanding adult and family services.

He said positive development can occur by strengthening existing housing, supporting new housing development, reinvesting in commercial corridors, building community facilities, improving infrastructure and advancing economic and workforce development.
Finally, Mr. Grimes said that an improved quality of life can take place by integrating the arts, improving health outcomes, offering recreation options, fostering open and green space and engaging in public policy.

Habitat for Humanity and NCALL have partnered to spur development in downtown Dover.

Besides building single-family homes, NCALL said it would also like to address the need for affordable apartments, especially for families and seniors, and advocate for enhanced blight remediation and code-enforcement policies and actions by the city of Dover, particularly for slumlord properties with ongoing violations that show no improvement.

Another goal is to assist Dover Interfaith Mission for Housing in securing an alternate location for its men’s homeless shelter when its lease expires in two years.

NCALL is certainly a busy organization — and it puts its money where its mouth is — as plans are moving forward for the construction of a new NCALL facility, a three-story multipurpose building at the corner of West Division and North New streets in downtown Dover.

Members of Dover City Council applauded the Restoring Central Dover initiative.

“I think this is what America’s supposed to be about,” Councilman Fred Neil said. “One of the reasons that I show up at Habitat (house openings) as much as I do is simply to make sure that they know, when my colleagues cannot attend, that I will be there as a member of the City Council along with the mayor (Robin Christiansen), to say, ‘Hey, this is great. We love you, and we want you to care about this community.’

“We continue to build this city along with the efforts that you bring with us.”

Councilman Ralph Taylor also offered his support to the revitalization efforts.

“Thank you so much for the outstanding work that you’ve done in our community,” he said. “You empower our citizens with your programs like the lighting (Lights On, Dover Strong1 program), the housing, the financial literacy. … Your involvement is unmatched by just about any other program that I’ve seen here in the city. It is an honor to be partnered with you.”