GARY | This summer, volunteers from across the country will bring hammers, paint rollers and hand saws to a Gary neighborhood, where they will renovate abandoned homes and build new houses on vacant lots.
Gary is partnering with The Fuller Center for Housing, a Georgia-based nonprofit that was started by a Habitat for Humanity founder, Millard Fuller, to redevelop a few blocks in a yet-to-be-announced neighborhood. Volunteers will rehabilitate older homes, tear down houses that are beyond repair, and build new ones to provide affordable housing for low-income people, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said.
"It means there's yet another neighborhood we're investing in," Freeman-Wilson said. "Through the partnership, we are instilling pride in current residents and bringing in new residents who have a sense of ownership because the houses will be offered for sale with zero-interest loans. So that's a big deal."
The five-day blitz of home building will be the second The Fuller Center has done in Indiana. A dozen houses will be sold at no profit with no interest to people who will be selected by the board of The Fuller Center for Housing of Gary, IN Inc. They should be able to buy the homes for about $50,000 and pay them off in 10 years, said board president Pastor Chet J. Johnson Sr.
Gov. Mike Pence's office helped launch the initiative to address the problem of abandoned homes in Gary, said Jeff Cardwell, special assistant to the governor on community affairs. The Indiana Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives helped establish the local chapter of the Fuller Center, which Johnson agreed to found in September. An office has been set up on Broadway.
"With the governor's office, we are looking all across the state for how we can help with housing, hunger and health initiatives," Cardwell said. "Here in Gary, there are housing issues we would like to turn around, so we're here to assist. We're looking to rebuild and provide hope here in the city."
The Fuller Center for Housing helps lifts up distressed neighborhoods in cities across the country, including Indianapolis and Shreveport, La. The nonprofit rebuilt a Hurricane Katrina-ravaged section of Shreveport and transformed a troubled street in the Fountain Square neighborhood of Indianapolis, building seven new homes and renovating 15 others in a project known as "The Miracle on St. Paul Street."
Founded in 2005, The Fuller Center is a faith-based group that works just like Habitat for Humanity, but with more of a focus on renovation and restoration of existing homes. Fuller, who died in 2009, wanted to address the abandoned housing problems that afflict cities throughout the country, Cardwell said.
"This is not a giveaway program. This is not a handout program," he said. "Houses will be sold to the participants at no interest and for no profit, but they pay for the property."
The goal is to lift property values in a neighborhood, and to spur existing residents to invest more in maintaining their homes.
"This isn't just about building houses," he said. "This is about rebuilding communities."
Johnson, pastor of the New Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church, is a lifelong Gary resident who was excited to learn about The Fuller Center's work in communities across the country and helped line up other local pastors to back a local chapter. The nonprofit does not just build brick-and-mortar houses, but also families, he said.
Families who might not be able to otherwise get mortgages can become homeowners through the program, Johnson said. In addition to paying off zero-interest loans, they will be required to perform about 350 hours of "sweat equity," by helping The Fuller Center build or renovate other homes in the community.
"This will be the first of many builds," Johnson said. "The intent is to keep it alive to affect as many communities and neighborhoods as we can."
He calls their mission Operation Pride, an acronym that stands for People Restoring Integrity by Developing their Environment.
NIPSCO and the Indiana Department of Correction agreed to provide funds and volunteers. Johnson hopes to build up a citywide volunteer base, and is looking at a community cleanup sometime around Earth Day in April and then the Millard Fuller Legacy Build in August.
Anyone who is interested in volunteering can call Johnson at (219) 614-2529.