Although an official announcement won’t occur until the Feb. 5 township council meeting, a movement has taken hold in Hamilton quietly over the last few months.
The township government and local community groups have paired with Habitat For Humanity both to build new homes on vacant lots and to improve already-existing homes that may need a bit of work. The end goal is to promote a sense of pride and togetherness in the community while also achieving the practical objective of cleaning up blighted, unsightly or otherwise rundown properties.
The Burlington County-Trenton/Princeton arm of Habitat hopes to achieve this in part through two new initiatives: the Neighborhood Revitalization Program and a Hamilton-centric event called Rock the Block.
The Neighborhood Revitalization Program is part of a new effort for Habitat that expands the organization’s scope beyond its familiar new construction model. Typically, Habitat For Humanity builds new homes and sells them to people for an affordable, income-based mortgage. The Neighborhood Revitalization Program changes the script by working on existing owner-occupied homes that need improvement.
Habitat tested the program this past fall with a home on Vincent Avenue in Mercerville. The opportunity presented itself when a resident went before township council to ask for guidance about an elderly neighbor whose property had fallen into disrepair. Poison ivy had overgrown the yard, and crept over the property line. The gutters had fallen off the house. Paint had started to chip off.
Habitat brought out teams of volunteers to the home for multiple days. With the assistance of a trained lead remediator, they removed lead paint from the structure’s exterior. Then, they repainted, built a new porch to replace the dilapidated existing one and did some landscaping.
Hamilton council president Jeff Martin said he recently talked to the resident who asked township council for help, and the man said he has seen a remarkable change since Habitat came. The woman who received the help has been outside more, taking better care of her property and is a much happier neighbor.
“A lot of these are situations where the town can fine her, but that’s not really helping anyone,” Martin said. “So, it’s great to have, from the town’s perspective, a partnership with Habitat because they went in and took care of a lot of these issues that were creeping into the neighbor’s property. And not only have you improved the look of the neighborhood, but you’ve improved the feel of the neighborhood because your neighbors are more cordial to each other.”
Habitat also did similar work to a house in Burlington City, where volunteers repaired the home’s porch, steps, railing, paint and landscaping. It returned a similar outcome to the Mercerville project.
Based on that success, Habitat has opened the Neighborhood Revitalization Program to everyone in Burlington and Mercer counties. The organization will accept applications twice a year, in the spring and in the fall. The deadline for the first round of applications is Feb. 28. Habitat will select up to six projects across its service area to complete in the spring.
The homeowner must pay for some of the project cost, with the amount determined by a sliding scale based on income. Homeowners also must be present while repairs are ongoing, and doing the work alongside Habitat volunteers, if they are physically able.
The whole idea is to teach homeowners skills while also empowering them, said Ashley Griffiths, director of family and volunteer services at Habitat for Humanity of Burlington County and Greater Trenton-Princeton.
The goal for the second program—called Rock the Block—is to take the spirit of the Neighborhood Revitalization Program, and empower not only individual homeowners but an entire community. Hamilton will be the proving grounds for Rock the Block, and Habitat officials hope it becomes a community tradition.
Scheduled for April 27, Rock the Block will take scores of volunteers from across Hamilton, and send them to 10 properties in a three-block area near Hamilton High School West. There, the volunteers will be working on owner-occupied houses that need minor exterior repairs or beautification projects, such as fixing chipped paint or removing dead trees and trash. The work done during Rock the Block will be at no cost to the homeowners.
But the day is not limited just to the chosen properties. Dumpsters will be placed throughout the neighborhood so residents not having work done can clean up their yard and homes, as well. Habitat also plans to hold a community resource fair of local organizations and businesses at a to-be-determined location nearby.
The idea for Rock the Block came in part from connections Habitat made when it obtained two empty lots on Parkinson Avenue, not far from Hamilton High School West and Saint Phillips Baptist Church.
Habitat officials called a meeting with Joseph Woods, pastor of Saint Phillips, to get to know the neighborhood better and to discuss forming a partnership of some kind. Rock the Block came up.
Woods already had explored doing some sort of neighborhood revitalization day near the church, so he couldn’t help but think it wasn’t a coincidence Habitat and Saint Phillips had been lead to each other. He called it a match made in Heaven.
Woods presented the program to his congregation shortly thereafter, asking those who lived nearby to volunteer their homes. The buzz started right away with people wanting to volunteer, even though Woods had few details or specifics.
“People are so excited about it, including wanting to volunteer,” said Deborah McKenzie, a member of Saint Phillips. “It’s about our community. Even though I don’t live [in Hamilton], the church is part of my community. Everyone’s excited about doing something to help their community.”
The excitement extends to the folks at Habitat, who couldn’t believe how perfect the fit was between their organization and Hamilton.
“It was like a movie magic moment,” Griffiths said. “It just all fell into place. Hamilton has been so incredible to work with.”
Habitat has fully jumped into its work in the township, providing even in ways people normally wouldn’t expect from Habitat For Humanity. When the daughters of Tika Justice found a new apartment after losing their mother and their home in a tragedy last July, they received help from Habitat furnishing it. Habitat identified a need for financial literacy courses locally, and will be running a nine-week, Biblically based program called Financial Peace University at Saint Phillips Baptist Church. The program starts in April.
Add in Rock the Block and the Neighborhood Revitalization Program, and Habitat clearly has a lot of things going at once in Hamilton.
It all started with those two empty lots on Parkinson Avenue, where Habitat will start construction on new homes later this year. (Deadline to purchase either of the homes is Feb. 28.) The whole process will take up to 18 months. This accounts for having a home built entirely by volunteers as well as allowing for the buyers to complete Habitat’s home-ownership education and sweat equity requirement, said Annie Fox, resource development director at Habitat For Humanity of Burlington County and Greater Trenton-Princeton,
The lots, though privately owned, also led to another type of partnership between the municipal government and Habitat. On Feb. 5, officials from Habitat For Humanity will be at the township council meeting to speak about working with Hamilton Township to identify empty township-owned properties where Habitat could build new homes. While the township offloads land, it also gets new structures that could go to fulfill some of the its court-mandated affordable housing obligations. Habitat officials did not have specifics, including which properties Habitat was interested in obtaining, when interviewed in January.
While at the council meeting, the officials will also present Rock the Block and the Neighborhood Revitalization Program. Their goal is to unveil officially the range of programs they have spent months laying groundwork for in Hamilton. They hope, at the same time, they inspire people to join in their movement.
“When we say ‘Neighborhood Revitalization,’ it’s not just repairs,” Fox said. “It is relationships. It is bringing people together. It’s not just this physical thing. When we build a house or take an abandoned home and flip it and make it beautiful, we see the neighbors also want to do it to their homes. It spreads.”
For more information about Habitat For Humanity, including the application for the Neighborhood Revitalization Program, go online to habitatbcgtp.org.