RACINE — Ground was broken Monday for a housing project that is the first new residence in a west-side neighborhood in 50 years.
The project at 1432 Illinois St. is part of an ongoing collaboration between government and community organizations to convert foreclosed houses into renovated or rebuilt homes to go out on the market while training future construction workers in the skills they’ll need.
Ready to rebuild
The house was foreclosed on by the county. Racine County Treasurer Jane Nikolai said her office works hard to help homeowners stay in their homes.
“It is absolutely heartbreaking to foreclose on somebody’s property for not paying taxes,” said Nikolai. “It’s a last resort. You don’t want to take it if you don’t have to.”
However, Nikolai said that since she knows the houses are donated to a program where young people can learn skills on the job she can “sleep better at night.”
“We didn’t do it in vain,” she said. “We’re not making neighborhoods worse with foreclosing; we’re improving them.”
Chris Litzau, president of Great Lakes Community Conservation Corps, one of the collaborators on the project, said the house on Illinois Street is one of six properties in the greater Racine area that GLCCC has recently worked on. GLCCC’s mission is to to train and educate disadvantaged populations that close the skills gap, improve water quality and build habitat.
Project manager Ryan Douglas from LandQuest, a Kenosha-based contractor that will help construct the home and train corps members, said the plan for the lot is a single-story, 1,218 square-foot single-family home with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a two-car garage.
“If you drive up and down the street, you see this is the worst home in the neighborhood,” said Douglas. “In a few months, you’ll see it’s the best in the neighborhood.”
Douglas said that due to the training component, these projects take longer than they would normally. They expect the house to be completed by about May and then will be put on the market. Douglas estimated its value will be somewhere around $160,000.
“We don’t want to out-price the market,” said Douglas. “The most important thing is that the people who want to live here can afford to live here and they get more for their money.”
Douglas said they are currently working on two similar projects in the city, three elsewhere in the county and have three more they’re in the process of arranging.
“We’re willing to do as many as the county will give us,” he said.
Litzau said that with Racine’s hot housing market, GLCCC’s projects are quickly sold and added to the tax rolls.
“Thank you,” Mayor Cory Mason said, adding that the project emphasized the value of collaboration on a big issue such as housing.
“We have some big challenges and we can’t do it alone,” Mason said. “This is about changing a neighborhood and new housing but also changing the lives of these young people.”
Mason, Nikolai, Litzau, Douglas, Racine County interim Deputy Human Services Director Brenda Danculovich and Alderman Jason Meekma of the 14th District put on construction helmets and shovels and dug into the front yard for a ceremonial groundbreaking for the project.
But once the crowd was safely moved off the lot, the project was kicked off in earnest by an excavator who tore down the garage.
Changing neighborhoods and lives
Litzau said this past year, GLCCC worked with 63 young people from the ages of 16 to 24. They work 40 hours a week and receive a stipend from AmeriCorps, a network of national service programs geared to improving lives and fostering civic engagement.
Some of the young GLCCC members who will be working on the house on Illinois Street attended the groundbreaking and come from Racine.
One of the newest members, Quantrell Davidson, 21, had been involved with GLCCC for one month and the project on Illinois Street will be his first time working on a house.
Up until now, Davidson, who splits his time between GLCCC and studying for his GRE, has been working on ecological projects, planting rain gardens and removing invasive species from public parks.
“It’s right up my alley — I’m a nature boy,” said Davidson. “You feel important ... we get to say we help out the neighborhood.”
The group also includes recent college graduates like Haley Avery, 23, who learned about GLCCC when she went on a field trip with her 7th-grade niece.
Avery graduated with a degree in biology and environmental studies from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and said she enjoys working on conservation projects such as water testing.
Keonte Edwards, 22, has been a member since 2013. What started as a summer job turned into a full-time job after he graduated high school. He’s now a crew specialist, which is a supervisory position.
Recently, Edwards worked on one of GLCCC’s housing projects on Kinzie Avenue, which has been completed and sold.
“I was the first to break down a wall in that house and it feels good that now someone lives there and calls it home,” said Edwards. “It’s a good feeling, a feeling of giving back.”
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