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VOL. 130 | NO. 229 | Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Habitat for Humanity to Build 21-Home Community in Uptown

By Bill Dries

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The open field between Third and Seventh streets, south of Cedar Avenue in north Memphis, is surrounded by homes – some that have seen better days and others that are newly built.

Memphis Habitat for Humanity president and CEO Dwayne Spencer speaks at the Bearwater Park announcement. Habitat is developing the 21-home subdivision in the Uptown community.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Now after more than a decade of building homes on scattered sites one or two at a time, the local Habitat for Humanity chapter this summer will build its first Uptown subdivision. And the community will take the name of a section of North Memphis remembered by long-time residents.

The collective project – which includes the 21-home Bearwater Park, 33 surrounding beautification projects and 45 Aging in Place programs – is a $5 million undertaking. That total doesn’t include infrastructure.

The Habitat effort is the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project; the former president and first lady said earlier this month they would return to Memphis in August to do more work there.

“There’s nothing wrong with infill,” said Memphis Habitat president and CEO Dwayne Spencer. “But when we realized we had an opportunity to have a greater impact in a smaller designated area, we selected Uptown.”

Spencer said Habitat International officials also were a part of the push to do more than single-site projects.

“Habitat International did say, ‘If you are going to do neighborhood revitalization and you are going to do it right, you’ve got to pick one neighborhood,’” Spencer remembered.

Developer Henry Turley partnered with Belz Properties on private residential development in Uptown, but those efforts hadn’t gone north of Chelsea Avenue. Bearwater Park will rise further north of Turley and Belz’s existing projects.

Turley said a drive through the area initially convinced him to go further based on the presence of Caldwell Elementary School and volunteers at the school from Oasis of Hope church. But then Caldwell was closed and merged with Guthrie Elementary School on Chelsea.

“The Hope volunteers were in the back of the room crying,” Turley remembered of the school closing at the Thursday, Nov. 19, formal announcement of Bearwater Park. “I knew you all were serious and then you came back in this form.”

The Caldwell school building is now the site of the KIPP charter school.

“It will be bristling with activity and families who are developing indigenous leaders for the next generation.”

–Rufus Smith
Oasis of Hope Inc. 

Oasis of Hope Inc. bought the Bearwater Park land in 2010 from Gateway Investment Development LLC for $63,500 and is donating it to Habitat’s effort.

Rev. Rufus Smith of Oasis of Hope refers to it as “gentrification with justice” – a term others are using in the national debate.

“You are not displacing those who have been in the community,” Smith said. “We are giving them an opportunity to participate in the renewal as well. … It will be bristling with activity and families who are developing indigenous leaders for the next generation.”

Spencer is keenly aware that there are concerns that Uptown is a form of gentrification that will push out existing homeowners.

“I think it’s hard to completely fight against that when you have many millennials and young professionals who want to live in the Downtown corridor,” he said. “But it’s still the opportunity for Habitat as a unique entity creating affordable housing to be able to do it at the scale and level that we are doing. … It doesn’t have to be all one or the other and it can’t be all one or the other.”

And the Bearwater Park effort is $1 million closer to its fundraising goal of $5 million with a matching challenge grant announced last week by the Tennessee Housing Development Agency. The THDA funding comes from fees generated from single-family home loans the THDA makes to middle-moderate income homeowners.

THDA executive director Ralph M. Perrey said the agency will probably be involved with financing some of the homes in Bearwater Park.

“We do have a program that we run through the Habitat chapter,” he said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if a number of those homebuyers don’t actually end up with a THDA mortgage when they buy the home.”

Perrey said the challenge grant is “likely to be one of a kind” because the Bearwater Park effort is unique.

“There just aren’t many organizations like Habitat that are coming in and saying, ‘We are going to do one specific high-impact project somewhere in the world and we are going to put it in Tenneseee,’” he said. “If someone else does that then I think we’ll be happy to help. But for now, it’s a one of a kind.”

The build effort, scheduled for Aug. 21-27, will involve volunteers to help with construction and on the beautification projects ranging from minor home repairs to painting existing houses. The Aging in Place projects will help with repairs, making homes more accessible for the elderly.

PROPERTY SALES 21 82 6,474
MORTGAGES 7 53 4,088
BUILDING PERMITS 240 353 15,714
BANKRUPTCIES 38 58 3,328