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‘Here for the long term’

Project Homecoming continues recovery in Gulf, transitions to independent nonprofit

March 23, 2011

A wooden sign with a graffiti dedication hanging from the wooden frame of a house.

Project Homecoming volunteers leave a message to encourage workers who will come after them to complete the building project. —Photos by Pam Marino

NEW ORLEANS

More than five years after Hurricane Katrina, a number of rebuilding organizations have shuttered operations and moved on, despite the fact that this city still has nearly 50,000 blighted homes and numerous near-empty neighborhoods.

For one Presbyterian ministry, there’s still more work to do.

Project Homecoming has helped struggling homeowners rebuild more than 125 homes since its creation in 2007 as a ministry of the Presbytery of South Louisiana and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA). As efforts to rebuild New Orleans continue and needs shift, Project Homecoming is going through a sort of rebirth, as it transitions to its own 501(c) (3) nonprofit by the end of this year.

“There’s a lot of faith-based groups that have left New Orleans; Presbyterians are some of the ones that remain because of PDA’s planning for a long-term commitment,” said Executive Director Jean Marie Peacock. “We’re thankful for the financial support they provided and the partnership that initiated Project Homecoming’s commitment to the long-term recovery in New Orleans.”

PDA closed the last of its Gulf Coast volunteer villages recently, but it remains involved in rebuilding efforts through a $500,000 grant it awarded to Project Homecoming for 2011.

When PDA began transitioning out of the Gulf, Project Homecoming took steps toward continuing in New Orleans by seeking and winning a $500,000 grant from the city and recently acquiring a contractor’s license to tackle major blight through building and selling new homes to low-income families.

“It’s really an extension of what we have been doing with hurricane recovery,” Peacock said. “We’ll still continue to work with individuals, but we’re now branching into recovery work of neighborhoods.”

When Project Homecoming came together as a partnership of South Louisiana churches, the focus was on helping low-income, elderly and disabled homeowners lacking enough funds to rebuild after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Many of its clients were previously taken advantage of by unscrupulous contractors, leaving them unable to finance further reconstruction.

Then and now, Project Homecoming case managers help clients navigate the rebuilding process, while construction and onsite managers marshal teams of volunteers to do construction on the homes at about a third of the cost of using contractors. Volunteers do everything minus plumbing, electrical, and heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems; the organization hires trusted licensed professionals for that work.

Most of the nearly 10,000 volunteers who have worked through Project Homecoming over the years have come from Presbyterian churches all over the country. Vann Joines, director of public relations and marketing, said 2010 was the organization’s biggest volunteer year ever; it experienced a 15 percent increase in volunteers over 2009.

In the fall of last year, the organization started construction on its first house without a homeowner. The more than 120-year-old house on North Rampart Street in the Lower Ninth Ward was gived by an overwhelmed owner who had inherited the property — along with blight liens, taxes, and looming construction costs.

“It was in worse than zero shape,” said construction manager Noelle Marinello. Twelve feet of water invaded the house when the levees broke after Katrina; a large hole in the roof from wind damage had let in five years of rain, wind and pests.

Teams of volunteers have rotated in every week to clear out the once overgrown lot and completely rebuild the classic New Orleans shotgun house structure.

Joines said the home will be priced to make it accessible for a low-income family, without negatively affecting home prices in the surrounding neighborhood. Low-income is defined as making 80 percent or less of the area’s median income. One report puts the city’s median income for a family of four at $66,000 a year.

Volunteers wearing mask removing paint from a slab of wood for a house.

Volunteers from Crossroads Community Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania strip paint from siding that will be used on a home being rehabilitated by Project Homecoming in New Orleans.

The North Rampart Street house is in essence a test case for Project Homecoming, as it prepares to tackle rebuilding efforts through the city grant. The group will be using the $500,000 to purchase 13 lots from the state, which acquired the properties in a buy-out program after the disaster. Project Homecoming officials plan to build 11 new homes and rehabilitate two existing homes over the next two years.

The 3-bedroom, 2-bath 1,200-square-foot homes will be energy efficient, using green building materials, Joines said. The houses will be raised high enough to escape future flooding, and be able to withstand hurricane-force winds. And Project Homecoming will work with neighborhood associations to ensure that each home fits the architectural character of the community.

Each home is expected to cost between $190,000 and $200,000 to build, but will be sold for approximately $150,000. Project Homecoming officials, working in partnership with other nonprofits, will help low-income homebuyers secure mortgages of between $85,000 and $90,000, as well as “soft second” grants to cover the remaining cost.

Qualified homebuyers will also be counseled and trained in how to save money and manage finances so they can meet future mortgage, tax and maintenance responsibilities.

Peacock and Joines said other “holistic” efforts to help neighborhoods Project Homecoming is undertaking include partnering with neighborhood associations and other agencies to build community gardens, clear lots and identify blighted properties for future rehabilitation. They are working with one school to teach students about urban farming.

While most of the strenuous rebuilding work in the past has necessitated using mostly adult volunteers, the new focus on helping neighborhoods will allow more youth involvement. This summer marks the first time Project Homecoming is hosting youth mission trips to New Orleans during the month of July.

The need for volunteers and donations remains strong, Peacock said. As they have in the past, they will encourage Presbyterian churches to contribute to rebuilding efforts, which could take another 10 years. Project Homecoming will remain affiliated with the Presbytery of South Louisiana; the presbytery nominates the majority of the group’s board members.

And as always, Project Homecoming will remain committed to New Orleans.

As volunteers preparing for a new week of work were told recently by operations director Kevin Krejci: “We are here for the long term to make sure that community-wide recovery happens.”

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