Restoring home dreams

Thursday, June 9, 2005

Stephen Williams drives the streets in an unmarked city car, the shabby castaway of a police detective who didn't care much about maintaining it. Cape Girardeau's planning services office gets the leftovers, Williams says, but he doesn't seem to mind. He has bigger things to think about as he pauses at a stop sign on Good Hope Street, gazing at several houses with crisp new siding and sparkling windows.

"We did that one and that one, that one, that one," he says, pointing at nearly every residence on the row.

Williams is the housing assistance coordinator for the city of Cape Girardeau, but for many people living on the south side of town, he is also the restorer of dreams.

With the help of a Community Development Block Grant from the Missouri Department of Economic Development, Williams' city department has paid for renovations for 262 houses in nine low-to-moderate-income neighborhoods over the past 23 years, with $3.16 million spent.

Since 1997, some lower-income families also have received grant funding to purchase these homes through the city's down-payment assistance program, which provides money for half of a house's down payment and closing costs up to $5,000. State grant money has allowed workers to make infrastructure improvements to the streets, sidewalks, water and sewer lines and gutters.

Currently, the city is working on a neighborhood including 17 houses between Good Hope Street and Bloomfield Street, making renovations one house at a time for all those who fall in the low-to-moderate-income bracket and are willing to let construction workers tear things apart and put them back together in a new way. The $500,000 block grant has provided the city with $21,000 to rebuild each of the houses that qualified for renovations, and the East Missouri Action Agency's home grant program has kicked in an extra $15,000 per house.

Lower-income families have purchased six of these houses through the down-payment assistance program, and the city has plans to provide funding for at least three more before the block is finished. The remaining homes were already owner-occupied. Williams said usually about 90 percent of households in the neighborhoods the city has chosen to rebuild have annual incomes that meet the grant qualifications.

Cutting-edge changes

Williams parks the old city car in front of a house on the corner of Good Hope and Pacific streets, and as he walks up the sidewalk and through the front door, the sound of a buzz saw screams in his ears. Inside, the home has been transformed from a decaying, six-unit apartment to an attractive single-family residence. He strolls from one brightly painted room to the next, commenting on the walls knocked down and the bathrooms created from virtually nowhere.

"When we get done, it will be perfect, or as close to perfect as we can get it," Williams said.

As of Monday, workers had finished perfecting the house and were ready to turn it over to new homeowner Phyllis Adams, a retired Navy veteran and mother of two grown daughters. Adams used the down-payment assistance program to help buy the house, and she also received some money from the United Way of Southeast Missouri to supplement the remainder of her down-payment costs. However, Adams and all of the program's other new homeowners still have to make mortgage payments on their own.

"They have to be bankable," Williams said. "We do not provide money to finance, only to assist with down payments and closing costs. So some people, even though they meet our guidelines, don't qualify because they can't get a loan."

Families also are required to take classes on things like paying bills and maintaining a yard and join the local neighborhood watch as part of the program.

Adams said she was shopping at a yard sale in January 2004 when she first heard about the down-payment assistance program. Although she was living in St. Louis at the time and was only in Cape Girardeau to visit family, she decided to meet with Williams and applied for the program soon after. She was accepted for a loan from Wood and Huston Bank at the beginning of this year.

"On the fifth day of January, I got the keys to this house," Adams said. "And I thought, what an awesome way to start out the New Year."

Adams said she chose her new home out of the three empty houses on the block because it was the largest available. She said she had not seen the upstairs of the house until after the renovations began because so many rooms were boarded up that the house was "like a maze."

After months of extensive renovations, however, Adams has decided to name her house "Diamond."

"Folks are passing by about to have accidents because they're slowing down to look at it because of the transformation," Adams said.

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