Revitalizing a community, one house at a time

 

DOVER — The key to revitalizing an area is to take it one house and one family at a time, said Jonathan Gallo, executive director for the Central Delaware Habitat for Humanity.

Mr. Gallo and the Central Delaware Habitat for Humanity began the process of providing renewed hope for residents of North New Street by razing the first of three condemned, boarded-up houses along the block on Monday morning.

The event brought out dignitaries such as Gov. Jack Markell, state Sens. Brian Bushweller and David Lawson, and Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen.

It also brought out optimistic neighbors of the condemned house at 20 N. New Street, which was the first to begin the demolition process.

A neighboring property at 19 N. New Street, as well as another at 53 S. New Street, will also be demolished to make way for the creation of new affordable housing.

“What we’re doing here, I cannot begin to say how excited the neighbors are of what we are going to do here as well,” Mr. Gallo said. “Everybody just comes together and it makes a difference.

“The one thing that I do not want to do is to come out here and do a little bit of work. I want to do a lot of work to make this a better place and make this a revitalized downtown Dover area.”

With Habitat, housing opportunities become more affordable through partnerships with local businesses, materials either donated or purchased with donated funds and volunteer labor.

Habitat homeowners are required to contribute 250 volunteer hours to the construction of their home and in return, they get a 30-year interest-free mortgage.

Grace Turner owns the house at 22 N. New Street, the one immediately to the right of the one being demolished. She has lived on North New Street since she was 12 years-old and her mother still lives next door.

“I’m happy,” she said. “You know, it brings some pride to the community and it’s better than [people] being in here using it as a trap house. Now, somebody is going to own the home.”

Ms. Turner said she works at night and often gets home around midnight and is afraid to get out of her car due to people milling about the area, so she calls her husband to make sure he’s waiting at the front door.

She hopes the new homes will be the start of a neighborhood transformation in an area that has seen more than its share of violence and drug activity over several years.

“I’m glad with what’s going on,” Ms. Turner said. “It’s going to bring some pride to the community, to the street, and I wish [Habitat for Humanity] all the success in the world.”

Mr. Gallo and Central Delaware Habitat for Humanity is building each home in the city of Dover’s Downtown Development District, which helps with funding the projects.

“Over the last year we’ve completed or had under construction 10 new houses [in downtown Dover],” he said. “We’ve had South Kirkwood and South Queen Street, and now we’re focusing on North New Street.”

Stephen Walker became the first Habitat homeowner on Kirkwood Street last summer. He has witnessed first-hand how pride in owning a home can help transform a family’s outlook on life.

“The challenge that Habitat’s facing in these communities is hard and these old houses are eyesores and they are low self-esteem builders,” Mr. Walker said. “When you walk through these communities and you see these bad homes, you don’t feel any sense of pride or hope or feel like you want to live here.

“Just seeing my kids’ faces when they saw our new home really brought tears to my eyes, so Habitat’s doing great things … bringing stability to a family is great because unstable families end up being broken homes at the end of the day.”

The Delaware State Housing Authority (DSHA) is partnering with the Central Delaware Habitat for Humanity in trying to turn troubled neighborhoods around.

The DSHA received around $5.5 million from various financial mortgage settlements to maintain the Strong Neighborhoods Housing Fund, which is set up as a revolving fund to be used for the acquisition, renovation, and sale of vacant, abandoned, foreclosed or blighted property throughout the state.

Anas Ben Addi, director of the DSHA, really likes the way Central Delaware Habitat approaches its projects.

“With Central Habitat [in Kent County] what I’ve found is that they go beyond,” he said. “They don’t just worry about the house that they’re working on, but also the broader community and how can we change the community as a whole?”

Mayor Christiansen gave a brief history of the North New Street area to those gathered at Monday’s event.

He said the majority of the homes in the area were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s by the Rev. Thomas Bradford, and named streets in the neighborhood after his children.

“[Rev. Bradford] built these houses for the people who worked in the mills, the foundries, the orchards and the farms in and around the city of Dover, so that they would have affordable housing,” Mayor Christiansen said.

He believes the work being done by Mr. Gallo and his team of volunteers will eventually lead to another renaissance in the downtown area.

“I’m very excited to be here because this is part of the vision that the city has for its future,” Mayor Christiansen said. “This is our future here, and as soon as we tear these houses down and Jonathan [Gallo] takes over, Dover has a bright future – and not just for downtown Dover, but for the entire city.”

Gov. Markell agrees with Mr. Gallo that to revitalize a city, smaller steps have to be taken.

“This is a block-by-block issue,” the governor said. “It’s house-by-house, block-by-block. When you transform a block and what neighbors see, is by doing a couple of homes like this – this demolition and what’s to follow – is people then get the confidence to invest back in their house.

“The other thing is just from the perspective of quality of life, and one of the neighbors here already [told me] they’ve already seen a real transformation in the quality of life, which is so important for the stability of the community.”

With Mr. Gallo and Co. razing the first of three abandoned houses on Monday morning, the first step towards revitalizing North New Street was realized.

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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