Junked cars, broken furniture, used tires — they all found their way into the overgrown, weed-choked field near a senior center on the township’s economically disadvantaged north side.
Today, about 40 children play on the newly paved stretch of road called Howard Street. There’s a basketball goal that’s very popular when the weather is nice. Kids rollerskate or cruise around on skateboards. Twenty well-maintained Habitat for Humanity houses line the street, with neighbors who look out for one another. Ten more Habitat homes are being planned.
Howard Street the dump is now Howard Street the community.
“When somebody graduates from high school, the family will put a sign in the yard and have a graduation party and invite the whole neighborhood. We’ll all go over to celebrate,” says Michelle Anderson, one of the first people to move into a home on Howard Street. “Or if someone is going to prom, we all go over and take pictures.”
No one wanted to take pictures of the area in 2006, when the municipality of Clinton Township deeded the land to Macomb County Habitat for Humanity.
“We had a lot of clean-up days just to get all the garbage out of there,” recalls Karan Bates-Gasior, Macomb Habitat’s program director. “It was just a non-stop parade of dumpsters. We took four 30-foot dumpsters of just tires out. We took out old cars, enough furniture to furnish a house, shingles, asphalt, tons of trash.
“Then we cleaned out the trees and did the land balancing,” she explains. “We extended Howard Street, which had previously stopped at the edge of the land, had water and sewer put in, and the sidewalks.”
Soon after, Michelle Anderson, a family advocate for Head Start, and her husband, Robert, a bus driver, joined three other families to start the new Howard Street community. The families worked on one another’s houses, took Habitat’s required money management classes together and got to know one another.
“It wasn’t even a neighborhood yet, but even then we were sort of coming together in a community,” says Anderson. “Each year we’ve gotten more houses, and our kids have made lots of new friends, but the families in those first houses are still our closest friends.”
“They’re a pretty tight group over there,” says Bates-Gasior. When a new homeowner family starts their sweat equity, the neighbors who are already settled frequently offer to babysit their kids while they work. Howard Street families run an unofficial neighborhood watch program, get together for community clean-ups, and tend a communal garden of vegetables and flowers.
Joel Silbernagel, assistant director of planning for Clinton Township, praises the Habitat project. “It’s been positive all the way around in a lot of ways,” he says, “and has had a ripple effect on surrounding areas.”
Bates-Gasior explains where that ripple effect can be seen: “The land had been vacant, and now there are people contributing property taxes. The families shop in the area, so there is a benefit to a wide range of businesses. These families really care about a better life for their children, so it’s great to have them in our schools.”
The school system has been involved in the community project as well. Four of the 20 homes built so far have been built by high school students in the Chippewa Valley Schools Building Trades Program, which includes students from two nearby high schools. The students, supervised by high school staff, build the homes at Dakota High School. When the homes are done they are moved to Howard Street, where contractors and volunteers add finishing touches and connect them to utilities. In 2012, Clinton Township awarded more than $100,000 of a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant to the school program to help build the school’s annual house.
“Habitat has found that providing families with stable shelter is very important, especially to children,” says Bates-Gasior. “When children grow up in a Habitat home, they are generally healthier and more likely to graduate from high school and to go to college. We see these trends playing out in the families of Howard Street.”