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Neighborhood rebirth 8 years in the making

Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Builders announced Friday they are ready to hand over the keys to the final home, at 2133 Weisser Park Ave., in the 66-house Renaissance Pointe Neighborhood building project.

– Anthony Ridley looked over the room packed with city officials, neighbors, agency staff, builders and the press and reflected on the long road his neighborhood has traveled.

“We had our ups and downs,” Ridley said. “It’s a lot of work to rebuild a neighborhood that’s had a lot taken out of it.”

The Renaissance Pointe Neighborhood, where Ridley is association president, has indeed had a lot taken out of it. But Friday, Ridley and dozens of others were celebrating a milestone: Builders are ready to hand over the keys to the final home in a 66-house rent-to-own building project.

Biggs TC Development began construction on the new homes in the neighborhood once known as Hanna-Creighton just over a year ago. Friday, they cut the ribbon on the last one and announced every one had been rented.

“In a short time we’ll have 66 brand-new home owners, which is something we’ve been working for for a long time,” Mayor Tom Henry said. “This is something we’ve been working on for years.”

Almost eight years, actually.

In March 2005, then-Mayor Graham Richard announced what was then called the Synergy project, a broad-visioned project meant to transform a dying neighborhood.

At the time, 50 percent of residents there were in poverty, the highest rate in the city. Almost 70 percent of the housing units there had renters instead of homeowners, and one in every three of the houses still standing was vacant, also the highest rate in the city. There were 80 vacant lots, many of which were trash-strewn or overgrown. Half of the families were headed by a single mother, and one in four adults was unemployed.

Because the plan was much bigger and much broader than new houses – health care, education, job training were all in the mix – new houses seemed, at the time, to be the easy part of the equation. By the time of the ceremonial groundbreaking in 2007, more than two years of work and planning had already gone into what was now being called Renaissance Pointe. But just as the new streets, sidewalks and streetlights were finished, the housing market collapsed.

By 2009, city officials were going back to the drawing board.

The next proposal – rent-to-own homes – was roundly criticized by neighbors who feared the grand plan would be replaced by a neighborhood of rental homes.

“There was some arguing, there was some fighting. There was some disagreeing,” Ridley said.

Those days appear to be over, mainly because the developer insists the homes are rent-to-own, not just houses for rent. The first question applicants face is whether they want to be homeowners. If not, they’re immediately rejected.

Biggs TC Development president Kevan Biggs said the application process to qualify for one of the homes along John Street, Gay Street and Weisser Park Avenue is “strenuous.”

Neighbors also seem to have decided that 66 new homes are better than 66 empty lots.

“People have really embraced it,” said Lewis King, who owns King’s Barbershop nearby and takes an active interest in the neighborhood. “They have really taken to it as a vehicle for homeownership.”

Heather Presley-Cowan, the city’s director of the Office of Housing and Neighborhood Services, said the project built 66 new houses at a time when new-home construction is a rarity.

“They were able to address demand at a time when there was a market, but the economy couldn’t deliver,” Presley-Cowan said. “It’s choice housing stock in a neighborhood people wanted to get into but couldn’t.”

According to Home Builders Association of Fort Wayne statistics, there was an average of 60 building permits issued per month for new, single-family homes in Allen County the last two years, making the 66 homes in this project a significant part of the market.

Officials said that as the housing market slowly returns, they are seeing interest in the 150 other lots in the neighborhood that are ready to build on.

“It’s only just begun,” Henry said. “You’re gonna see some great things happening in an area of the city that really deserves it.”

City officials are looking forward to two more major apartment building projects in the area, but each is dependent upon state tax credits that won’t be announced until February.