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State housing grants sowing seeds of hope in tough communities

State officials are trying to revitalize some of Delaware’s most dilapidated or abandoned neighborhoods.

And as Delaware Public Media’s James Dawson reports, they’re trying to do it a few homes at a tim

31-year-old Myesha Bowman rents a four-bedroom home on Queen Street in Dover with her husband and their seven kids.

It’s a tight squeeze for the family of nine -- made even more cramped because Bowman doesn’t want her children playing outside.

“I found this guy peeing on my gate. If my kids was out there playing – I was already upset – but right now, I don’t feel comfortable with them going outside at all,” Bowman said.

In January she learned that Central Delaware Habitat for Humanity was looking for people to help build and own homes in the neighborhood.

Bowman was approved for the program by February.

Her home on Queen Street sits just off of Dover’s downtown core.

People smoke marijuana in nearby alleyways, she says, with her kids blaming skunks for the smell. One day, bullets peppered her home while her family was inside.

“They found three bullets in the house, but everything was fine. So we’ve been through the worst of the worst when it come down so that’s why we said, ‘Why move? We ain’t doing nothing about moving.’ So we stay, get other homeowners and make a difference in the neighborhood.”

That’s the hope of state officials who are partially bankrolling these efforts across Delaware.

In 2014, lawmakers set aside about $2.7 million to help revitalize neighborhoods that had been scarred by the 2008 financial crisis, or properties in need of scrubbing that had become havens for crime.

The Strong Neighborhoods Housing Fund eventually dolled out that money to two projects in Wilmington, one in New Castle and Central Habitat’s downtown Dover initiative.

Jonathan Gallo, Central Habitat’s executive director, shows off a similar home a block over from the one the Bowmans will build.

Volunteers are cutting and installing bamboo flooring on the ground level, with much of the heavy work already done.

Gallo says homeownership projects like these are vital to help build a neighborhood that won’t tolerate crime.

“It really is the answer to a lot of additional problems that are out here in this community, that it really does start at home,” he said.

“It starts with the foundation of your house and it starts with the foundation of your family and once you get that solidified then things start to make progress.”

It’s the feeling that Bowman wants to instill in the area where 84 percent of her neighbors are renters.

“Everybody will feel like family because they’re watching out for each other. Even with strange activity – if you see strange activity, of course you call them up and say, ‘Hey, this don’t look right.,’” Bowman said.

About 45 miles north, New Castle County’s housing office used their $500,000 grant to buy and renovate eight homes in the Garfield Park neighborhood.

Two of them sold immediately after being put on the market. Three are nearly ready for sale and another three will be finished in the next six months.

“The Strong Neighborhood Housing Funds allow us to go after the most blighted property on the block that even an investor wouldn’t want and make that house homeownership ready and require a 15-year deed restriction. Without that money we wouldn’t have been able to [rehab] those properties. 100 percent,” said Carrie Casey, who directs the county’s Community Development and Housing division.

Casey says 90 percent of home sales in the Garfield Park area came from foreclosures in recent years – something she wants changed.

That’s why upper middle class buyers still qualify to buy these houses. The cutoff for a family of four is a little over $97,000 a year, while a single person can earn about $68,000.

“You want people from different income levels to be in your communities,” she said. “You don’t want it to just remain a consistently moderate to low-income area. You want to incentivize others to buy in those neighborhoods.”

Steven Peuque, director of University of Delaware’s Center for Community Research & Service, agrees.

Having neighbors of different income levels can boost diversity, but he says that’s only one ingredient that goes into reshaping a neighborhood.

Despite the $8.4 million lawmakers have invested over the past two years, Peuque says that number needs to be 10-times higher at both the state and federal level to make lasting changes in these areas.

“I think the funding has been woefully inadequate. Across the communities in the United States, we have allowed communities to deteriorate and the public sector has not intervened, I think, oftentimes in a timely manner,” he said.

Back on Queen Street, Bowman says her seven kids are restless about moving into their new home. They’re most excited about sharing fewer rooms.

Bowman herself just wants to rebuild her neighborhood’s reputation and make it a safer place for everyone in the community.

“People say what they say about Queen Street. We’re trying to clean it up. Why move away from it? It’ll get better.”