- Associated Press - Sunday, June 22, 2014

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - A few miles north of downtown - past the 24th Street Native Omahans Club, Thomas Funeral Home and a right turn from Fuzzy’s lounge - a new street has appeared in one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods.

Ten newly constructed houses and two completely rehabilitated ones deliver a $1.5 million investment to what one neighbor said was for years a “naked block.”

Built largely in a seven-day period that culminated in a Sunday dedication, the new housing that lines North 23rd Street between Laird and Sprague provides a glimpse into how Habitat for Humanity has become one of the Omaha area’s most prolific and recognized homebuilders.

Not the typical commercial builder, the not-for-profit Habitat chapter in each of the last four years has consistently been in the top 10 among local entities with the highest number of permits to construct single-family homes, according to a review of Omaha planning records.

At an average cost of $125,000, Habitat houses, filled by families meeting certain income criteria, provide a homeownership opportunity for a slice of the first-time buyer market that overall has concerned economists with its sluggish pace since the housing collapse.

Tim Underwood of MarketGraphics Nebraska, which tracks homebuilding trends, doesn’t view Habitat as competition for top producers such as Celebrity, Pine Crest or Charleston Homes, which are driven by profit. Rather, he said, charitable organizations like Habitat and Holy Name Housing, which in some recent years also has risen toward the top in permits, are pieces of the homeownership puzzle that pump an economy.

“They’re putting people in a position to hopefully build some equity,” Underwood said. “Somewhere down the line, those people will be homeowners of that second house.”

This year, Habitat expects to add 14 more newly constructed houses to the 10 that were part of the 2014 Home Builders Blitz that wrapped up Sunday when keys were turned over to new residents.

That will bring to 306 the number of newly constructed Habitat homes since the chapter was started in 1984. On top of that, Habitat by year’s end will have rehabilitated or renovated 117 homes in that same time period.

While the bulk of Habitat’s work is in aging north and South Omaha neighborhoods, about 25 foreclosed homes throughout the city were donated, most of them last year, by banks. That helped boost Habitat’s workload to its highest point ever, said development director Sarah Lopez.

Today’s total valuation of Habitat Omaha’s homeowner properties is about $22 million.

Amanda Brewer, executive director, said Habitat is proud to be among the area’s busiest construction companies, as that means more access to first-time homebuyers who otherwise wouldn’t qualify for a conventional loan. Habitat families pay full value for their property, she noted, but are jump-started with zero-interest mortgages.

“The best thing is that homeownership helps end the cycle of poverty,” Brewer said. “It creates a stable place to raise a family, and that stability extends to the neighborhood.”

Habitat’s recent blitz focused on part of North 23rd Street after an analysis revealed an opportune mix there: low homeownership rates and high renovation and demolition needs; yet close proximity to a large elementary school and employer.

Over the next few years the organization’s reach will extend farther into the Kountze Park area, with continued renovation and roof repair projects, coalition-building efforts and construction on abandoned lots.

“So when we leave, we truly are leaving a better neighborhood,” said Habitat spokeswoman Tracie McPherson.

James Phelps, 65, lives a stone’s throw away from the cluster of just-built residences and is thrilled.

“I’m lovin’ it,” said Phelps, a retired packinghouse worker. “They started tearing things down over there about 10 years ago; it became a naked block.”

Phelps even cut down some overgrown bushes on the side of his yard so he could better see the resurrection of the block where he grew up. In just a matter of days, a new house rose on the empty lot where his childhood home stood decades ago.

Last week’s blitz also allowed a timeout of sorts where competing builders worked together toward a common goal.

Josh Steele of Kiewit said the annual blitzes have become team-building events for his company and a way co-workers can give back to their community.

“Not only are we helping one family, we’re transforming an entire neighborhood,” he said.

Besides Kiewit, volunteer participants in this year’s blitz included Build Omaha, JE Dunn Construction, Lueder Construction, the M Group, MCL Construction, SL Jensen Construction, Charleston Homes and the Weitz Co. Those companies also tap subcontractors who volunteer time and materials. And other partners pitch in, including the City of Omaha, area neighborhood groups and schools.

Habitat families such as Amina Khamis, Abdikadir Osman and their six kids invest labor and take homeownership classes before moving in.

Habitat and its partners are expected to invest $4 million and 65,000 volunteer hours into the broader north Omaha neighborhood over the next few years through the new builds, demolitions and beautification projects, McPherson said. In three years, Habitat will do a follow-up analysis to measure the impact.

Already Phelps said he’s seen a ripple effect. A nearby landlord installed new windows; another neighbor mowed his knee-high lawn. Phelps, who rents, can’t help but feel a tinge of envy, though, looking toward the rows of new houses.

“As a matter of fact I’m straight-up jealous,” he said, leaning back on his porch chair. “But I’m still happy because I feel part of it.”

___

Information from: Omaha World-Herald, http://www.omaha.com

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