ELKHART — What once was a ratty looking old industrial cement parking lot that gave life to weeds has been transformed.
Today, the block east of Conn Avenue between Erwin Street and Beardsley Avenue is sprouting a handful of new homes, and weeds have given way to hope.
Six houses have already been constructed by Habitat for Humanity of Elkhart County and the foundation for another is being prepared. Two more houses could be constructed within the next few months, according to a spokesman for the agency.
On top of that, just to the west, four more houses are planned. Two will be built on existing vacant lots and two more are destined where the old Bergerson Screw Products building is being demolished.
Together, the eventual 13-house development marks the biggest effort by Habitat in the city of Elkhart.
Jordan Kauffman, director of communications for the local organization, calls it a “huge rejuvenation project” that will yield $10,000 in annual taxes following nearly $1 million in investments.
In some ways, the project has brought the neighborhood together.
In addition to the swarm of volunteers who have worked on the houses over the past seven months, the endeavor known as the Beardsley Bulldog Crossing, has attracted support from area residents.
One man across the street provided electricity for work crews. An automotive shop on Beardsley opened its doors to volunteers for hot drinks last winter. And some of the neighbors have helped with construction, Habitat officials said.
While the project is far from complete, the change is evident.
“It’ll be great for the neighborhood,” said Lisa Foster, who lives across the street on Erwin with her husband, Josh.
“It’s better having houses across the street than an empty lot that who knows what was taking place sometimes. There were always cars over there just parking,” she said. “I don’t know what they were doing.”
“It’s definitely going to make the neighborhood look better,” Foster said.
Habitat officials say they are pleased with the progress and the reception from the neighborhood.
In February, officials hosted a meeting for neighbors, some of whom expressed concern about the plans. They wanted to know about the impact on property values and the long-term commitment the new residents would bring.
City Councilman Dave Osborne, who lives a few blocks away, attended that meeting and remembers hearing some of the comments.
“Overall I think the neighborhood is accepting and I think it’s a good thing.”
For the most part, the initial tension has subsided, he said.
Yet, a neighbor who identified himself only as Carlos, said Thursday he thinks the development could still hurt property values.
Others scoff at that suggestion.
“I think it’s a great use of the property,” added Debbie DeBoer, who lives nearby and was walking her dog, Sweetie, along Erwin.
“This is Habitat for Humanity,” she said in a remindful tone, referring to the legacy that has seen Habitat construct more than half a million homes worldwide in 37 years.
“That doesn’t mean they’re going to let it go,” she said of the new residents.
The houses, she said, “look a lot nicer than some of the homes out here.”
Officials view the development’s location as ideal because of its proximity to Beardsley Elementary.
On Tuesday, Sept. 24, the project reached a new milestone as a second family celebrated their arrival into a new home.
Tiara Peoples and her four young children moved in about a week ago and Habitat christened the transition with an open house that included prayer, appetizers and a great sense of appreciation.
Peoples shed tears of joy during the event as she talked about the opportunity to move from a crowded apartment complex to a home one block from where her children will eventually attend school.
Peoples, 25, said she was encouraged by a friend to call Habitat about signing up. By early 2012, She was accepted into the program and was impressed with how quickly the plans came together.
Peoples has worked at a plaza on the Indiana Toll Road for about seven years.
Juggling her job along with caring for her children while fulfilling the 250 hours of sweat equity for Habitat has been challenging, People said.
The sweat equity is built into the program to provide a sense of ownership and responsibility.
But there were the little things about being in the program that have meant a lot to her as well.
Little things like choices that don’t come with living in an apartment.
“I love the kitchen,” Peoples said. “I love everything about it, to be honest, because everything in here I hand-picked myself ... from the carpet to the flooring to the siding and shutters.”
“I’m very grateful,” Peoples said.