CAYCE, S.C. (AP) — Eddie Summers, 58, has spent most of his life on the same street in Cayce’s Broad Acres neighborhood. He and his wife, Shirley, live next door to his childhood home in a house that his father built.

As the years passed and the families he grew up with moved away, he noticed a change in the neighborhood. The houses started looking shabbier and crime went up. Still, Summers took pride in his home and did his best to maintain it.

Then the roof started to leak.

When it rained, he set out pots to collect the water. He stopped trimming the trees out front to hide the damage from passersby.

He said he tried everything he could think of to get help, and approached several people for assistance. “We even tried to borrow money to do it but we weren’t able to do it. We prayed about it. I would come home and say ‘lord you have to do something.’”

His prayers were answered in 2015 when someone from Central South Carolina Habitat for Humanity knocked on his door. The group fixed his roof and, soon after, began making repairs for other neighbors.

Habitat for Humanity has traditionally built homes from scratch for low income families. But for the past five years, the Central South Carolina chapter has shifted toward revitalizing neighborhoods by rebuilding condemned properties and rehabilitating aging homes like Summers’.

“It’s community reinvestment,” said Mary Louise Resch director of philanthropy for the local Habitat chapter. “If we can make these properties worth more, then the neighborhood improves overall and people start coming back.”

City of Cayce officials are looking to the work Habitat has done as a model for their own revitalization efforts. Officials hope this will help increase the available housing to meet the demands of Cayce’s growing population while preserving affordability.

A recent housing study released by the city found that Cayce’s vacancy rate, which is the number of units listed for rent or sale, was 1.8% in 2018. According to the study, a healthy vacancy rate is somewhere between 3% and 5%.

Roy Kramer, CEO of the local Habitat chapter, said out of those vacant units, “there’s probably very few homes that are actually habitable. And while there’s lots of building going on, none of it is accessible for working people,” because the cost is too high.

Broad Acres — which is bordered by 12th Street Extension, Fink Street and Taylor Road — has one of the highest concentrations of blighted and foreclosed buildings in Cayce, according to the housing study. Habitat buys those neglected properties and turns them into homes for low income families, veterans and first responders. To qualify for the reduced mortgages Habitat offers, families must perform community service hours, attend life skills classes and go through financial training.

Since Habitat began working in Broad Acres, property values have risen, with some homes seeing as much as a $74,000 increase, according to Resch.

Byron Snellgrove, director of the Cayce Department of Public Safety, said Habitat’s efforts have also helped make the neighborhood safer.

“The residents of these communities have expressed that this gives them pride in their properties but most importantly hope,” he said. “As a result, the Cayce Department of Public Safety has seen a significant decrease in calls for service in this area and have established even stronger bonds with the members of these communities.”

But those changes didn’t happen overnight, Kramer said.

“At first people didn’t want to open the door,” he said. “They didn’t know who we were or what we were all about.”

Eventually, they earned residents’ trust by partnering with community leaders who acted as a liaison between Habitat staff and families in the neighborhood. Over time, existing residents got on board and new families started moving in.

Tara Pierce, 37, and her two teenagers moved to the neighborhood last summer after Habitat built them a house on the site of an old abandoned building.

Pierce is legally blind. After she began losing her vision a decade ago, she thought that home ownership would never be a possibility for her.

When she got connected with Habitat and began working her way through the program, Pierce said it gave her a new outlook on life and helped her feel self sufficient again.

“Standing in the house I’ll have these moments where I’m like ‘wow this is really mine,’” she said. “It makes you feel good because you have something to pass on to your children.”

Pierce said she hopes to see more families like hers move to Broad Acres.

“I think we all have a part to play,” she said. “We’re making a difference by moving here because it’s helping it become a better place to live.”

Following Habitat’s lead, the City of Cayce is now taking steps to encourage revitalization.

In 2015, city officials set out to identify the city’s most dangerous blighted structures. They worked with the owners to either bring the buildings up to code or have them demolished.

So far, 21 of those buildings have been torn down, City Manager Tracy Hegler said. But the city’s efforts are ongoing and the list will be updated as needed.

“By and large people do take pride in their homes and where they live,” she said. “But in many cases there will be a bad situation that people get caught in and the home will deteriorate. So we need to intercede to make sure things don’t fall further into disrepair.”

To improve their outreach efforts, in 2016 the city stopped using police officers for code enforcement and designated employees from the Office of Planning and Development to do the job instead.

Planning Director Carroll Williamson said the new code enforcement officers have more time to attend neighborhood meetings and get to know residents on a personal level. “They try and work with people to get issues resolved instead of just riding by, seeing a violation and writing up a ticket.”

The housing study the city published last month identified several strategies for promoting neighborhood revitalization. Suggestions included forming a housing rehabilitation program that could provide grants for home improvement projects and sponsoring neighborhood cleanups.

“Every city that has been around for a while has lovely neighborhoods that have declined over the years,” said Hegler. “We recognize that and we’re trying to be part of the solution.”

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