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Building something out of nothing: New housing opportunities spring from once-vacant lot in Uptown

Change can happen for many reasons. Sometimes, it’s the levers of government that spurs innovation or improvements to peoples’ lives. More often than not, it’s ordinary people who have finally had enough and take action.

The near completion of the Bearwater Park subdivision in Uptown shows how a motivated group of people can affect change. A partnership between Habitat for Humanity of Greater Memphis and Oasis of Hope raised up a new community of invested homeowners and renters in a much-needed area of Memphis.

The enclave of affordable homes, located at North 7th Street, is about to enter its final phase of development. The last five vacant lots are scheduled to be built by Habitat in the fall.

“Habitat seems to have a connection for the funding to complete it, and so we are planning to sell them the last five lots. They should be starting construction early in July,” said Terry Hoff, director of Oasis of Hope.

Memphis-based nonprofit Oasis of Hope partners with hundreds of volunteers, supporters and neighborhood families. Through revitalization and programming, the organization works to rebuild North Memphis and improve the quality of life for its residents.

They also manage a nonprofit appliance re-sell store, participate in several sports leagues, have a summer camp and a huge after-school program that sees nearly 80 kids daily. After school and literacy programs, a girls’ choir and bike repair programs are also offered.

A recent partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Greater Memphis has fruited in the development of new homes in the Bearwater Park area in Uptown.

Many of the children in the Oasis baseball program came from an area apartment complex on North 7th Street. Largely abandoned, Cedar Court operated one building. Several large buildings in the complex were shuttered.

Long an eyesore, it developed a reputation as a troubled area. In 2008, the complex came up for auction. Michael Timmons, the program’s baseball coach, worked in real estate and just happened to be at the county courthouse when the property went up for sale. He took a chance with a bid.

“He called me and said, ‘Terry, do you want the old Cedar Court Apartments?,’ and I said, ‘Of course, but we can’t afford that.’ And he said, ‘Well, you have 24 hours to come up with $270,000 and it’s yours, otherwise we’ll let it go back to the county,’” said Hoff.

Oasis of Hope secured an anonymous loan from a local foundation.

A view of the Bearwater Park subdivision in Uptown. (Brandon Dahlberg)

“We took the biggest leap of faith we have ever taken and acquired the complex,” said Hoff.

The original plan was to rehab the property but grants to fund the work were hard to come by. Eventually, Oasis secured a grant through the City of Memphis Division of Housing and Community. One caveat existed, however. The city wanted new construction on the seven acres. The HCD loan also called for affordable rentals.

“So, we swallowed hard because we couldn’t afford to rehab them, let alone demolish them and do all that. But the city provided the demolition and some seed money for phase one, and with that Bearwater Park began,” said Hoff.

Phase one consisted of adding ten newly-constructed units along 7th Street. There are three duplexes and four single-family homes facing 7th street, which covers ten units across seven properties. Four additional homes were built just behind those. They are currently occupied as rentals.

Much of the property’s seven acres remained empty as a green expanse after the first build.

“That was completed, and everything was wonderful. Even if it ended at that, that would have been a win in comparison,” said Hoff.

After completion of the next phase, the subdivision gained four new rentals, but with plenty of lot space remaining, it didn’t take long for a prospective builder to cast its sights on the property.

The Jimmy Carter Work Project for Habitat for Humanity announced that Memphis was on the schedule for 2016. Gathering an army of volunteers is one thing, but ready-to-build land is another.

“They had the Jimmy Carter Work Project coming, but they didn’t have the land. We had the land but didn’t have the funding for the homes,” said Hoff.

For decades, Habitat for Humanity – led by former President Carter – has been building and placing at-need families into homes throughout the nation.

Since 2012, Habitat has committed to building 50 new homes in addition to rehabbing 100 more. The Jimmy Carter Work Project in 2016 culminated in the fulfillment of Habitat’s commitment to Uptown.  

After several conversations between Oasis and Habitat for Memphis, Oasis donated the land to the Carter work project.

“Once we learned of it in the fall of 2015, we knew quickly we had to find a location to build the homes. A location that could handle five to six-hundred volunteers a day over a five-day period. As we started scouting locations someone mentioned the land owned by Hope Church and Oasis of Hope,” said Dwayne Spencer, president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Memphis.

Leading up to the work project, Habitat of Memphis stretched outside of its homebuilding mission and took on community revitalization projects. The nonprofit built bike racks, installed murals and made landscape improvements.

On August 21, 2016, volunteers descended on the property. Over the course of five days, they built 19 homes. Fifteen-hundred volunteered overall for the all-hands-on-deck project. Prior to the effort, the Community Redevelopment Agency stepped up and provided $500,000 of infrastructure work for plumbing, electrical, water and sewer lines.

After the build, phase two was complete with a new subdivision of renters and homeowners.

“It was a perfect win-win for us and the community. So, all of these other homes are Habitat homes that they built during the Jimmy Carter Work Project. Those are homeowners. So, there is a combination here that so far is working pretty good,” said Hoff.

In addition to building homes, the nonprofit also works to place families in them. Financial literacy is provided as well as home-ownership know-how.

“It takes about six to 12 months to find the family and then prep them for homeownership,” said Spencer.

Now, a mixture of homeowners and renters call the area home. People are invested in the neighborhood. They pay taxes, mow their lawns and – perhaps most importantly – look out for one another.

“We’re taking vacant land – and I think most people would agree that vacant land in a community that’s vulnerable, like Uptown – could go in a negative direction. Instead of allowing that to happen we make positive use of it by putting homes on it,” said Spencer.

While Habitat is all about placing owners in homes, the need for rental opportunities and what Oasis of Hope is doing isn’t lost on the organization. Some people are ready to own a home, others aren’t. Everyone needs a roof over their head, though.  Habitat recognizes that reality through its partnership with Oasis of Hope in Bearwater Park.

“Behind every house is a family. I think it’s really positive that we have a mix of both. Everyone is not ready for home ownership. While we advocate for home ownership we understand that there’s a place for renter-ship as well,” said Spencer. 

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