By Melanie Ave
ST. LOUIS – As the shovels sank into the dirt of a vacant block in the College Hill neighborhood here March 20, shouts of joy rose from those participating in the groundbreaking for “Nazareth Homes.”
LCMS National Housing Support Corp. (Lutheran Housing Support), the housing ministry of The Lutheran Church— Missouri Synod, broke ground for two model homes that will be part of a 20-home development in one of St. Louis’ most impoverished neighborhoods, four miles north of downtown. About 200 residents, volunteers,
city leaders and others attended the groundbreaking.
A frequent word uttered by those at the groundbreaking was “finally” — referring to various revitalization efforts that have been promised but have failed in College Hill over the years.
Before the groundbreaking, LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison dedicated the property and the future homes in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and prayed that the homes serve as a place for goodness, citizenship and faith. He asked that the homes be the first of “many, many more” for College Hill.
The development was given the name “Nazareth,” the hometown of Jesus, Harrison told those gathered on the chilly morning with extra police officers ringing the crowd. “In the Bible it says, speaking of Jesus, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ he said. “Well, the answer is yes!” he said, as the audience clapped and cheered.
Construction begins this month on the two-story, three-bedroom 1,300-square-foot model homes, which will be sold for $85,000 each. They should be completed by mid-July.
“It’s exciting,” said Katherine Goins, who has lived in the neighborhood for 43 years. “We’re actually going to see neighbors going in and out of these beautiful homes.”
College Hill residents and city officials said they hope the groundbreaking will help stabilize and revitalize the struggling neighborhood.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Carmen Gamble, who grew up in College Hill and built a new home there in 2002 after she and her husband, Eddie, retired from the Army. “In the end, we want this community to look like the rest of the city of St. Louis.”
Lutheran Housing Support began its work in College Hill in 2007, and with funds from the Lutheran Foundation of St. Louis created a revitalization plan with the help of consultants, residents and other supporters.
St. Louis Alderwoman Dionne Flowers, whose ward includes College Hill, said she was skeptical at first when the group — many of them parishioners from nearby St. Paul’s Lutheran Church — began discussing plans to help College Hill.
“As a politician, you’re always the one initiating things,” she said. “But in this neighborhood … it was the complete opposite. It was God working in the people from this little church.”
The groundbreaking came after many years of uncertainty and a lot of work on behalf of many people, Flowers said, wiping away tears.
“Now what the community needs to do is take ownership,” she said. “They need to protect these homes. This is their new community coming together. It’s an emotional day.”
Nicole Ridley, chief executive officer of Lutheran Housing Support, said the residents have led the vision for the neighborhood. Her agency, she said, “is just carrying out their vision.”
A television reporter asked Ridley why Lutheran Housing Support is focusing on College Hill, which police identified as a “hot spot” after several shootings and killings this year.
In February, about 80 police converged on College Hill for a 10-day effort that resulted in the arrest of 40 people and the recovery of five guns. Two weeks later the city sent in work crews to secure vacant houses, clear debris and fix broken street lights.
“Revitalization is always hard,” Ridley said. “If not this neighborhood, what neighborhood? We’re here. We’re ready for the challenge.”
Those speaking at the groundbreaking included Harrison, Ridley, Flowers, St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green, St. Louis Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed and Charles Bryson, special assistant to St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay.
“Considering some of the news that comes out of this neighborhood, the good stuff is not often reported,” Harrison said during the event. “The fact is, there are fantastic residents in this neighborhood who, no matter what, are going to push for a better place to live.”
Also attending was the Rev. Paul Kienker, whose wife, Marie, was the first executive director of Lutheran Housing Support, one of only a few faith-based housing organizations in the United States. Marie Kienker, who died of cancer in 2010, started the agency’s work in College Hill, which already has resulted in community gardens, home renovations and cleanup efforts. James Kienker, the Kienkers’ son, was at the groundbreaking and now works for Lutheran Housing Support as director of advancement.
“I think she would have been floored if she was here,” said Paul Kienker, who is vice-president of development for the LCMS Foundation and LCMS Joint Seminary Fund.
Lutheran Housing Support works with LCMS congregations, districts and LCMS Recognized Service Organizations and their community partners to provide expertise and financial resources to help revitalize neighborhoods and provide affordable housing. The agency, a separately incorporated nonprofit, has partnered with congregations and civic and business leaders to revitalize the Spring Creek Nehemiah area in New York City, the Ezra Housing project in Chicago and the Lutheran Community Outreach Center in Fort Wayne, Ind.
In fiscal years 2011 and 2012, Lutheran Housing Support provided grants totaling $350,745 to 24 organizations and project support to 38 organizations in 16 states.
For “Nazareth Homes,” Lutheran Housing Support is partnering with the Lutheran Church Extension Fund’s Laborers For Christ to construct the model homes and Capital Funding Services to finance the project. Other funding partners include Women On Mission, which provided a $54,000 grant, and Wells Fargo, which contributed a $50,000 grant through a special housing initiative for nonprofits.
“Isn’t this a great day?” Gail Olson, president of Women On Mission, said to resident Carol Crenshaw, as she gave her a hug. “Didn’t I tell you?”
Women On Mission is a faith-based group of women in St. Louis that has funded grants to agencies working in College Hill for years.
Because of the Women On Mission grant, Lutheran Housing Support is providing $2,500 toward the down payment or closing costs to eligible buyers for the model homes as well as providing grants to all prospective homebuyers to receive financial and/or homebuyer education.
Don Strohmeyer, lead organizer of the Campaign for College Hill, said he was thrilled to see the dirt turned and construction about to begin.
“Home ownership is an important thing,” he said. “A homeowner takes care of his or her property and makes sure the community is safe.”
Melanie Ave is senior writer and social media coordinator with LCMS Communications.