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Housing Group Helps Rebuild at Michigan Riot Site

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Every year Habitat for Humanity picks one place in the world as a focus for its Jimmy Carter Work Project. Named to honor the former president, it brings together thousands of volunteers to build new, affordable housing for families in need. This year, Habitat for Humanity picked the state of Michigan. Dozens of new homes will go up this week in various cities around the state, but the main work sites are in Detroit and Benton Harbor, a small impoverished city in southwest Michigan. There, two years ago this week, more than 20 homes burned to the ground during two nights of rioting. NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER reporting:

Lou Ann Smith(ph) can hardly contain herself.

Ms. LOU ANN SMITH: Whoo!

SCHAPER: She can't wait to move out of this dingy Benton Harbor apartment.

Ms. SMITH: Oh, Lord. See, only Jesus know how fast I'm gonna run. We been packing. Whoo! I'm waiting to say bye.

SCHAPER: This 40-year-old gestures so excitedly, she's almost dancing. She says the explosion of colors of the tie-died T-shirt she's wearing matches her bubbly mood as she exposes the flaws in a two-room apartment so tiny it takes just a few steps to get across. The only closet also has the shower in it, so clothes are stacked on the floor. The heat is always on and Smith can never tell what the weather's like outside because this converted storefront is windowless. She can't wait for a change.

Ms. SMITH: You know, just windows. You know? And just being able to go into one single room outside a bathroom to actually shut a door--yeah. I'm ready.

SCHAPER: Smith and her 13-year-old daughter, Brittany(ph), are among 20 Benton Harbor families helping build their own new homes this week.

(Soundbite of construction)

SCHAPER: A handful of early Habitat for Humanity volunteers are putting the finishing touches on the preliminary work. Joyce Doherty(ph), a retired dietician from Jacksonville, Florida, is on her fourth Jimmy Carter Work Project. She's been in Benton Harbor since April to help prepare for the build week, and isn't surprised to see housing conditions nearly as bad as those she's seen in the Third World countries.

Ms. JOYCE DOHERTY: Well, if you look across the street down here you'll find there are houses that are boarded up. And to see houses boarded up without people living in them, to live in houses that are falling apart, that are in desperate need of repair, it just makes one sad.

SCHAPER: Benton Harbor is a once-thriving industrial town that lost its manufacturing base decades ago. Unemployment is near 30 percent. Its population, which peaked at nearly 20,000 40 years ago, has dropped to just over half that. Ninety-two percent are black. Mike Green is executive director of Harbor Habitat for Humanity, the local branch of the international non-profit group.

Mr. MIKE GREEN (Executive Director, Harbor Habitat for Humanity): When we took out our building permit back in 1996, it was the first time in 25 years that a building permit had been taken out for new construction for single-family housing in Benton Harbor.

SCHAPER: Green says land values are so low the materials to build a new house cost more than the home would be worth. On the other side of the fence from where the Habitat homes are being built is a local public housing development called The Vineyards.

Unidentified Woman #1: You still--why you say that?

SCHAPER: Three young women lean on the hood of an old Cadillac outside of the aging, dilapidated low-rise buildings.

Ms. TAMIKA MADDEN: Look at it. Like a whole bunch of rats living (unintelligible).

SCHAPER: Tamika Madden(ph) says she and her friends like what they see in the Habitat homes and hope to get on the waiting list for a house themselves. That waiting list is already at least 150 families long. But 22-year-old Yolanda Williams(ph) says better housing isn't the only thing that's sorely needed in Benton Harbor.

Ms. YOLANDA WILLIAMS: Where's the jobs? That's what I want are just some good jobs around here. That's what we need. Maybe people wouldn't act the way they do if they get some good jobs around here for us to go to work.

SCHAPER: And that lack of opportunity, along with the poor housing conditions, helped fuel riots here two years ago this week. The death of a black motorcyclist who was being chased by white police officers from a neighboring jurisdiction sparked the unrest. And many residents say relations with police are still tense at times. Champagne McKinney(ph) says so are relations with the towns on the other side of the St. Joseph River, where 95 percent of residents are white and unemployment is nearly non-existent.

Unidentified Woman #2: The cut-off.

Ms. CHAMPAGNE McKINNEY: That's what the bridge is there for. You know? The bridge separates us, you know? It's, like--if you look over there, you can go stand on the bridge and just look at both towns and it's a big difference between the two.

SCHAPER: Fran Plack(ph) lives on that other side of the river in the town of Stevensville. She admits racism does exist. But she's one of several people trying to use the Habitat project to cross the bridge, in hopes of building more than floors, walls and roofs with Benton Harbor families.

Ms. FRAN PLACK: What you hope changes long term is that kids have homes and stability and the basic home foundation that'll give them a--one place to sit and study every night.

Mr. GREEN: There's a lot of positive energy going on here and a lot of hope.

SCHAPER: Again, Harbor Habitat for Humanity's Mike Green.

Mr. GREEN: Something that I think the community has not seen in a long time and that's `OK, maybe things can be better in the future now.'

Ms. SMITH: This is my house, 17.

SCHAPER: Lou Ann Smith sees that future in her new house.

Ms. SMITH: Oh, yeah, let's go inside.

SCHAPER: Even though right now there's just a foundation, subbasement and floor on an otherwise vacant lot...

Ms. SMITH: We are entering the porch. That is the house.

SCHAPER: ...she can see what her home will look like inside.

Ms. SMITH: When you first come in, you're in the living room. And to your right is the kitchen and then on side of the kitchen is the dining room.

SCHAPER: By the end of the year, Smith's and nearly two dozen other Habitat homes will be on Benton Harbor's tax rolls. That means a little more money to boost city services and improve schools, two ingredients needed to spark economic development and bring in new jobs. Still, there may be years of struggle ahead to rebuild what has taken decades to decay in Benton Harbor. David Schaper, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.