On a recent Friday morning, a houseful of dignitaries and well-wishers gathered at 33 Sargeant St. in Hartford's Asylum Hill neighborhood for the ceremonial "handing over of the keys" to a brand new, yet older-looking house to its new owners, the Hercule family, a working couple with two kids.
It is a truly beautiful home, Victorian grandeur and style on the exterior with a free and open interior and lots of attention to detail. The house was built to replace one that due to many years of neglect was allowed to deteriorate to a point of no return. The celebration included representatives of the nonprofit development corporation Northside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance, or NINA, that organized the building of the home; the bank that donated the land; The Hartford, whose employees donated hundreds of hours as volunteer builders; and the young people and mentors at YouthBuild Hartford and ServCorps, who also contributed much of the labor.
NINA is attempting to stabilize the Asylum Hill neighborhood by restoring its housing and increasing homeownership. Homeownership brings stability because it attracts people who care about the neighborhood, are concerned about such things as public safety and better schools, and are in for the long haul.
The problem is that the value of homes in the neighborhood is so low that most new construction or improvement can't be done profitably on the open market. These projects need a subsidy. For example, the Sargeant Street home sold for $185,000; in other parts of the region it would have gone for two or three times that amount.
It is going to take some number, a critical mass, of such desirable homes in the neighborhood before values go up and the free market can work its magic. Can we get to that point?
Asylum Hill is the home to the Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe houses, as well as dozens of other brick Victorian homes from the Golden Age of Hartford. NINA has been working for years to purchase some of these properties — usually those in dire need of repair — and through a combination of government and private assistance to rehabilitate them into affordable homeownership opportunities.
The house at 33 Sargeant St. was NINA's new construction project. As someone involved in the building trades, I can appreciate quality construction and also a real bargain. This home is both. I was hearing a voice of cynicism in my head as I thought about how far from "fair market" this house was and what a gift these lucky new owners were receiving. Usually a builder buys everything needed to build a house — land, material and labor — builds the house, and for his efforts sells it for a profit.
In this case, hundreds of people from the neighborhood and beyond — volunteers, mentors, students, city officials, professionals and even a few contractors — were given the opportunity to contribute to this effort, to be involved in something really extraordinary and to feel good about it. When most new homes are built, all the countless decisions that determine the final outcome are made with two thoughts in mind: How much can it be sold for and how much profit can be made how quickly?
With 33 Sargeant Street, the questions were: What would be a fitting addition to a neighborhood of 19th-century homes and how do we marshal the resources necessary to bring it about? As a result, a new house was built that the market could never build, a brand new home will stand next to its older neighbors like a fresh recruit brought into the battle against urban decay.
With all the effort it took, it's hard to imagine that this is a project model that could be replicated in any real numbers, but imagination is often the hardest part. If more of these homes are begun and more are completed, then more young people, retirees, office workers and volunteers will, in addition to restoring Hartford's most intact Victorian neighborhood, experience the all-too-rare satisfaction of knowing they worked on something of such enduring quality and beauty that it may well outlive our grandchildren.
Bernie Michel is chairman of the Asylum Hill Neighborhood Association.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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