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Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2007 06:58 am

Not in my black yard

Why Habitat for Humanity got a frosty reception in Eastview Estates

Untitled Document Anybody who knows what NIMBY means can recognize this classic tale: Residents of an upscale subdivision discover that a nonprofit organization is purchasing vacant lots in their neighborhood with the intention of building affordable houses for “needy families.” Officers of the homeowners’ association try to block these plans by creating more stringent requirements for the construction of new houses, suddenly mandating sodded front yards; backyard fences of a certain quality, style, and height; particular floor plans; and even basements that conform to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Both sides retain attorneys in preparation for a legal fight. The fact that the needy families have a different skin color is merely a coincidence; it has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with these additional restrictions, the upscale homeowners say. “It’s not about race, it’s about property values,” they insist. But this not-in-my-back-yard tale has a twist. The upscale homeowners trying to halt the nonprofit’s plans are all black; the needy families that they fear will lower their property values happen to be white. The discord between them has layers of gray. Oh, and one other difference: This conflict has a happy ending.
Eastview Estates, just north of South Grand behind JC Penney, was developed beginning in 2000 by Mike Pittman and Kevin Gamble, two African-American pro athletes turned businessmen. The homes they built featured amenities in short supply on Springfield’s East Side — attached garages, wood-burning fireplaces, backyard decks and fences, a minimum of two full baths, even Jacuzzi tubs. “I’d put those houses up with any house that’s built anywhere in this city. We didn’t skimp on anything,” Pittman says.
From the beginning, though, Eastview Estates had trouble attracting white families. Pittman says every potential buyer he talked to who sounded Anglo turned out to be calling from another state, so far away that they were unaware that these homes were on the darker side of Springfield’s racial geographic divide. “I was perplexed, because I knew it was a good value, and I knew all the people out there were good people,” Pittman says. “Therefore, I knew the only reason [whites] didn’t want to move out there was race. It had to be. It couldn’t have been anything else.”
Instead of developing into a diverse community, Eastview Estates became a magnet for Springfield’s minority leaders, home to law enforcement officers, government workers, and other upwardly mobile professionals. For example, the acting president of Eastview’s homeowners’ association is Linda Shanklin, an administrator at Springfield Housing Authority and mother of a well-known professional basketball player. She’s filling the remainder of term of the previous president, Ralph Harris, a retired Springfield police officer who has long been a leader in the Black Guardians Association and plaintiff in several race discrimination lawsuits. The combination of nice homes and powerful people earned the neighborhood the nickname Black Panther Creek, a double entendre mixing activist implications with a reference to the tony far-southwest subdivision of Panther Creek, where Pittman himself lives. He never meant for Eastview Estates to become an African-American enclave, but once it did, Pittman took a certain pride in its power to contradict the negative stereotypes normally associated with the term “black neighborhood.”
“These are all good people out there,” he told Illinois Times in a previous cover story [see Dusty Rhodes, “The Color of Money” Nov. 13, 2003]. “They’re making believers out of a lot of people; making liars out of a lot of people. They’re changing lives and changing mindsets. That makes the city better for everybody.”
Even then, though, Pittman recognized that such a niche had economic limitations: The number of black families who could afford homes in Eastview Estates was finite and small, and those who could were, of course, free to buy elsewhere if they so chose. Eventually, this reality — coupled with the continued lack of white buyers — tapped out the market, and Eastview Estates hit a plateau.
A few years ago, Pittman and Gamble dissolved PitGam Enterprises, and allowed most of the unsold lots in Eastview Estates to be reclaimed for taxes. During the past three years, the most significant new growth in the neighborhood has been weeds on the seven or so vacant lots, the prices on which dropped from the original asking price of $18,000 down to $4,500 or less. These clearance-sale rates soon attracted the attention of a nonprofit agency that’s always looking for bargain residential lots. Late last year, Habitat for Humanity of Sangamon County (the local affiliate of the international nonprofit organization) bought three lots in Eastview Estates. Within a few months, the controversy began. Joe Clennon has been involved with Habitat for about 10 years, including five on the local board of directors, and three years on the statewide Habitat board. Over this time, he has seen his share of homeowners who believe the arrival of Habitat’s “needy families” signals the ruination of their nice neighborhoods. Sometimes these resistant neighbors approach him at the building site, and he has casual conversations with them one-on-one. Other times, the opposing neighbors organize a more formal meeting. “Those meetings are never full of kumbayah and love. People are very concerned about their neighborhoods and their property values,” he says. “But generally, what happens is you talk to the people and they get to understand what Habitat’s about. . . . They figure it out — that this is not a bad deal for anyone involved.”
The major misperception Clennon confronts is that Habitat gives new houses to needy families whose only contribution is a few hours of labor. The reality is that Habitat homeowners have to come up with a $500 downpayment and a monthly mortgage payment that’s usually in the $350 to $400 range (the purchase price of the home is based on the cost of the materials, financed by a zero-interest loan) in addition to 250 to 500 hours of manual labor, which Habitat calls “sweat equity.”
Furthermore, to qualify for a Habitat home, families have to endure a rigorous screening process that involves credit checks through three different agencies, submission of past tax returns, monthly bills and pay stubs, and a nosy six-page questionnaire that forces applicants to divulge every embarrassing detail of how they spend their money, including how much they pay for intra-family loans, payday loans, court fines, cell phones, and furniture rental. Applicants who survive this step in the process then get a home visit and personal interview conducted by Habitat’s family selection committee, which makes a recommendation to the board of directors. If the board approves the application, the would-be homeowners then have to attend a series of classes on homeownership — everything from budgeting and buying insurance to home repair. At one class, the applicants are given a set of tools and taught how to perform minor maintenance. Steve Rambach, chairman of Habitat’s family selection committee, says this entire process helps ensure that Habitat homeowners will be good neighbors. “We are looking for someone we feel is going to be responsible. . . . You’ve got to be good to be able to qualify,” he says. “We try to make sure that all the people who get [Habitat] houses are successful, and I think we’ve got a 99.9 percent success rate.”
The catch, though, is Habitat’s standard buzz phrase: “Simple, decent housing.” Over the past two and a half decades, this international organization has specialized in creating sturdy but Spartan homes, not luxury abodes. The terms “wood-burning fireplace” and “Jacuzzi tub” don’t exist in the Habitat lexicon. Yet these amenities are standard equipment in Eastview Estates. When Habitat submitted blueprints for its first house, the homeowners’ association’s architectural standards committee rejected it, citing restrictive covenant 3.3, requiring “harmony of external design,” and 3.5, requiring floor plans to equal a minimum of 1,400 square feet. Habitat submitted revised plans, which were also rejected. Finally, the two sides scheduled a meeting at Pittman’s office, in the hope that a face-to-face conversation would resolve the conflict. Clennon and Habitat executive director Dana Plummer took with them the Habitat client who hoped to build her home in Eastview. Her name is Lisa Reeves, and she is the human equivalent of an ace up Habitat’s sleeve.

Reeves was a Habitat volunteer. She occasionally showed up on Saturdays to work on various construction projects, but — barely five feet tall with a petite build, and almost 50 years old — she soon realized that she was more useful managing Habitat’s ink cartridge recycling program. That task dovetailed neatly with her job coordinating activities for two Catholic churches (St. Peter in Petersburg and Holy Family in Athens). She had been volunteering with Habitat for several years when her youngest child fell ill. In June 2006, Nick, then 19, spent a weekend at Six Flags and seemed to have a tough time getting up the following Monday. When Reeves got home from work, she scolded her son for having spent the day lying on the floor watching television. He told his mom he felt sick. She finally believed him when he started vomiting and having trouble breathing. When he said his arm hurt, she drove him to the hospital. Nick suffered a massive heart attack and had to be taken by helicopter to Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. Reeves’ daughter, Megan, then 22, stood vigil with her mother for several weeks while Nick was on life support. When Nick graduated to a regular hospital room, Megan — engaged and planning a September wedding — decided to go spend a weekend with her fiancО at their home in Beardstown. She had been gone only two days when her fiancО called Reeves to report that Megan had collapsed and was being taken to the hospital in Rushville, Ill.
Reeves didn’t feel like she could leave her son. But what if Megan was seriously ill? The staff at the Rushville hospital could send Megan to Peoria. Afraid she might find herself shuttling between St. Louis and Peoria, Reeves called the Rushville emergency room to try to check on Megan’s status. The answer she got was shocking: her 22-year-old daughter was dead. Megan, like Nick, had suffered a sudden and serious heart failure. The next month, Reeves’ oldest child, Jake, then 25, also suffered a heart attack. Though mild compared to Nick’s (he is now awaiting a heart transplant), it was serious enough that doctors implanted a pacemaker. Sometime during that incredible summer — when all three of her children suffered nearly simultaneous heart failure — Reeves went from being a Habitat volunteer to a potential homeowner. While Nick was in the hospital, Plummer and another Habitat employee stopped by to visit him and take Reeves out to lunch. Listening to Reeves fret about how Nick would manage the stairs leading to their third-floor apartment, and how to pay medical bills (Nick didn’t have health insurance), Plummer realized that Reeves, who is single, met Habitat’s definition of a family in need. “She said, ‘No, this is for people more needy than me!’ I really had to talk her into it. It took quite a bit of doing,” Plummer says.
Reeves eventually applied, and went through the same screening and classwork as other would-be Habitat homeowners. Even her years of volunteer work didn’t count; she started at zero on “sweat equity.”
When she had accumulated 75 hours, she was handed a list of available lots and told to choose where she wanted to live. She looked at several places, including Grandview, but nothing compared to Eastview Estates. “When I saw this subdivision, I loved it. I just knew I’d be very comfortable here,” she says.

Reeves had no idea that Eastview Estates was all black. That realization dawned on her when she arrived at Pittman’s office and noticed that the officers of the Eastview homeowners’ association are black. “Now, when I found out that it was, did I care? No,” she says emphatically. “I don’t have any prejudices that would make me care.”
Plummer had Reeves tell her story, the one that makes most folks reach for a box of tissues. But Eastview neighborhood leaders appeared unmoved. “They were focused on this house affecting their property values — not my personal life, not my personal story, not my personal problems,” Reeves says. They also weren’t focused on her race, Reeves says. “I don’t think that if I had been a black woman building a Habitat house here that they would have treated me any differently. That was not the issue,” she says. Instead, the issue was, as Linda Shanklin told her, her “contractor” — Habitat for Humanity. The association officers seemed particularly concerned that Reeves’ home wouldn’t have a basement, as all but two other Eastview homes do. Plummer told them Habitat traditionally doesn’t build basements, because many Habitat homes are designed for disabled people (like Reeves’ son Nick) who can’t maneuver stairs. The meeting resolved nothing. Over the next few weeks, association officers amended Eastview’s restrictive covenants, mandating a minimum size of 1,400 square feet, a sodded front yard, and a 6-foot dog-eared fence around the back yard. They also added a requirement to submit sealed plans, specs, and a letter of intent to the architectural standards committee. Habitat officials now question the legitimacy of these amendments, citing the fact that as owners of three lots, they should have had a chance to vote on any changes to the covenants. Nevertheless, they submitted the requested items along with a letter stating their intention to “do everything in our power to work with your association . . . and build only within the covenants created by you.”
The tension has still not dissipated. No one representing the Eastview homeowners’ association would speak on the record to Illinois Times. Shanklin declined to answer questions, citing her status as acting president and pointing out that most of this conflict was handled by Harris, her predecessor. Harris, the retired cop who has always been accessible to the media, wouldn’t return phone calls or requests for comments sent through an associate. The attorney copied by Eastview on several items of correspondence, Don Craven, said he wasn’t well-enough informed on the issues to comment.
Conflict apparently peaked on May 15, when a Habitat bulldozer began excavating the lot without getting the green light from the homeowners’ association. Habitat officials say they had a building permit in hand, volunteer workers scheduled, the knowledge that they had complied with all Eastview covenants, and a major financial grant about to expire. But the association officers took this move as a disrespectful violation of their authority.
In a letter to Plummer, Harris admitted that Habitat’s submission “appeared sufficient,” but said that the fact that Habitat broke ground without proper approval “created a new dilemma.”
“This clear violation of the Association’s restrictive covenants could result in a demand to cease and desist followed by a hearing and possible litigation,” Harris wrote. Plummer sees the situation differently. “At that point, it felt as though we would never get an OK from the committee,” she says. “If it ended up in a court of law, we felt like our position was an excellent one.”
At a meeting on May 21, the homeowners’ association voted to further amend Eastview’s restrictive covenants to require that any new homes have to be built using a floorplan identical to an existing Eastview home and include a basement that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Habitat officials say there is no such thing as the ADA doesn’t apply to single-family dwellings, nor offer any regulations concerning residential basements. In the same meeting, the association officers also decided that the architectural standards committee — a two-person committee appointed by the association — will meet only once ever three months, and take as long as 45 days to render decisions on any proposed building plans. To Plummer, this amendment just made Eastview’s already-tedious approval process even more so. On June 15, as construction progressed on Reeves’ house, Habitat submitted plans to build a virtually identical structure on its second lot, located two doors down from Reeves. The association again rejected Habitat’s plans, pointing to Eastview’s recent requirements that new houses match existing floor plans and include an ADA-compliant basement. On Sept. 11, Habitat’s attorney, Timothy Rigby, sent Shanklin a certified letter rejecting Eastview’s amendments as “unenforceable,” because they weren’t adopted via the written approval of at least three-quarters of the property owners, as required by the same set of covenants.
“Habitat has obtained all necessary building permits and intends to commence construction on Sept. 13, 2007, as planned, with or without the Association’s final approval of its construction plans,” Rigby wrote.  As soon as the bulldozer showed up on the lot, Plummer says, she received a message from Harris ordering her to “cease and desist.” Habitat instead continued construction. Lisa Reeves and her son Nick moved into their home Aug. 25. Giving a visitor the grand tour, she points out the spacious closets with the nifty shelving units, the handicap-accessible bathroom, big enough to hold a ping-pong table, the handy pantry, the pale blue paint on her bedroom walls chosen to coordinate a quilt created with snapshot after snapshot of her darling Megan. “She was a doll. Big dimples, big smile. She’d do anything for anybody,” Reeves says. She apologizes for the one room that’s not yet perfectly organized — the room that will serve as a home office and guestroom when her grandchildren from Iowa come to visit. As we sit down to chat, she also apologizes for the big, bare living room windows, saying she hasn’t gotten around to finding curtains. It’s clear that she isn’t concerned about screening out the neighborhood. “Part of my excitement about living here is the neighborhood. I love it!” she says. The tension she experienced at that initial meeting was the only negativity she has felt in Eastview. She talks about neighbors who helped build her house, neighbors who let Habitat use water from their outdoor faucets to mix cement, and especially three neighbors who knocked on her door and offered to take care of her flowerbeds, collect her mail, and watch over her house whenever she might be out of town.
“Those women who came over here and welcomed me will never know how much that meant to me, because that’s what I’m after — a neighborhood,” Reeves says. “If Nick goes into the hospital, they’ll do anything for me. They told me, and they’re genuine. I hope they know I would do the same for them. But how nice is that? That’s all I wanted, and I received that.”
Valarie, who asked that her last name not be used, was one of the neighbors who came to Reeves’ house. She says she makes a point of welcoming every new neighbor, and she wasn’t about to skip Reeves. “We love the people in the neighborhood, period. We all get along,” she says. The controversy between Habitat and the association officials was purely about property values, Valarie says. “We were concerned that the house would not have the same value. But it looks good. She gave us a tour and we all complimented her on her dОcor.”
Pittman, the original developer of Eastview, has driven by to see the first Habitat house himself. “I think it looks real nice, me personally. I don’t think they skimped on anything,” he says. “It’s definitely got curb appeal.”
Habitat didn’t do everything the association wanted, but Clennon, the construction manager, added extra touches in an effort to help the house blend with the surroundings. For example, he used “fake shake” siding on the gables, put a “fancy banister” around the front porch, and a nice curved sidewalk around the house. He even built the wheelchair ramp — which Nick will need when he’s recuperating from his heart transplant — inside the garage, instead of plastering it to the front of the house. “I just did it. I was worried. We’re going to do that with all the houses we build out there,” Clennon says. So far, the association’s concerns about property values have not been proven. An appraiser hired by Habitat calculated Reeves’ house to be worth $102,000 — significantly more than the recent selling price of two other Eastview homes.
Habitat owns a third lot in Eastview and is negotiating to buy several more. Next month, the neighborhood association will elect a new slate of officers. Their actions will set the tone for the relationship with Habitat. Reeves, however, already feels comfortably at home. “The only negative reaction I received was during that [April] meeting,” she says. “If there’s other people in the subdivision who feel that way, they haven’t gone out of their way to express it. I have not seen it. If they don’t want me here, I’m not getting the message.”

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.
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