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NeighborWorks still focusing on one house at a time, despite pair of projects
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NeighborWorks still focusing on one house at a time, despite pair of projects

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For years, NeighborWorks has been pulling rotten teeth from the city's oldest streets, filling the holes with new homes and first-time buyers.

While other builders stretch the city limits, the nonprofit sees promise in the remains of a burned-out hoarder home on Vine Street, or in a crumbling animal infestation near 29th and R, or beneath the collapsing ceiling of a two-story on South 16th.

Since 2007, it's built an average of 11 new homes a year, demolishing dilapidated houses or filling empty lots with new life.

“We’re looking to take the worst of the worst out of the neighborhoods,” said director Mike Renken. “We're about homeownership. We’re about making homeowners.”

But it's been building something bigger lately.

Along Ninth Street, between E and D, a bulldozer has been pushing dirt around, digging basements for the seven new homes that will be called Cooper Commons. And on Q Street, contractors are working on the first 10 of two dozen townhomes planned on the east side of Antelope Creek.

The larger-scale developments come just a few years after the organization's Antelope Creek Village -- 18 townhomes it built and sold east of downtown between P and Q streets.

But the latest two projects don't signal a shift in the 31-year-old agency's mission, Renken said. It will continue to focus on educating first-time homeowners, eliminating problem properties and helping neighborhoods grow stronger, one lot at a time.

“I’ve seen nothing from my board to say we have a shift in philosophy. We still do in-fills. We’re looking at vacant lots. We’re looking at properties that need to be demolished.”

Instead, the two developments were welcomed coincidences:

Cooper Commons: The east half of the block between Eighth and Ninth and E and D streets had been vacant for nearly 10 years, since Zion Church burned in June 2007.

NeighborWorks Lincoln liked the location, Renken said, and saw an opportunity for a bigger project -- ultimately proposing seven homes with porches in the front and garages in the rear. They would share a common green space and be sold to buyers who earn between 80 percent and 120 percent of the area median income.

Neighbors saw red flags. In their opposition to the Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Commission, they cited the density of the development, the tight spaces between the homes and the alley-only access.

But Renken said his office tried to communicate with its future neighbors, largely through a series of public meetings. “We really worked very hard to let everybody know what we were thinking.”

In the end, the Planning Commission approved the plans in August, and families should be calling Cooper Commons home by this fall, he said.

Antelope Square: For years, NeighborWorks operated out of a doublewide trailer, a former portable classroom, near 23rd and Q streets. Then it moved down the block and into a historic and spacious home in 2014.

“I always thought that when we moved out of our office, that would be a good place to do another large project,” Renken said.

NeighborWorks owned property in the area, and it met with representatives from nearby Assurity Life Insurance about collaborating on a development. The result? A $6 million plan to build 24 townhomes east of Antelope Creek on Q Street, with at least 10 units designated for low- to moderate-income first-time homebuyers.

The two-bedroom units will sell for $185,000; three-bedroom homes for $215,000. NeighborWorks already has sealed deals for five homes, and they won't be finished until September.

The entire project should be finished by fall 2018.

For now, NeighborWorks doesn't have any other large developments in the works. So it will continue to help individual buyers -- with education, down payment assistance and follow-through support -- move into their first homes, at an average of 100 per year.

It will also keep looking for the worst properties in Lincoln and giving them fresh futures. And that doesn’t just benefit the homebuyer, Renken said.

From the first-floor conference room at NeighborWorks, he pointed to a yellow home they built across the street.

“It’s pretty easy to look at that house and say, what a great thing we did for that homeowner,” he said. “But it’s a great thing for the Malone Neighborhood. And it’s a great thing for the city.”

Then he pointed to two more problem properties across the alley, vacant old homes with plywood on their windows to keep the squatters out.

NeighborWorks bought those last year, and the empty lot nearby, and will soon replace them, too.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter.

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