Housing upgrades foster pride in Aiken communities

AIKEN --- Community buy-in brought the city of Aiken's Toole Hill back to life, and Crosland Park residents hope the same vision can revamp their fledgling neighborhood.

In 2003, the city embarked on a 10-year north-side revitalization to bring affordable ownership to neighborhoods that were overgrown and included abandoned and vacant lots. Last week, the city closed on the last home in the community of Toole Hill, a 15-block area in northwest Aiken.

Though the project has been seven years in the making, neighborhood association President Betty Myers said she knew the idea of bringing families back to the area worked after the first home sold.

"After 25 years here, there were no kids; they were all gone," she said. "The first day they got the house completed and approved, I was up and heard some kids in the yard hollering. I called about eight of my neighbors to go outside and listen to the kids."

Myers said finding such little successes encouraged her and other seniors in the area to keep pushing new homeowners and renters to want more than a neighborhood that was considered less than stellar by many Aiken residents.

It's those little things, such as new medians and drainage, that Crosland Park association President Gary Yount wants his community to see as the city rounds out the first year in the neighborhood.

Toole Hill's successes are small compared with what city leaders will have to accomplish in Crosland Park, which has more than 550 homes. The city has committed $1.5 million to buying and renovating homes for resale in the $90,000-and-up range.

A year into that project, Yount says, the association's 35 members don't see community acceptance of the project just yet.

"It's a real transient neighborhood because most of the original homeowners are deceased or they've gotten out and sold it to landlords. It's really easy to rent a house and not take a buy-in to the neighborhood," he said. "We've dug our heart and soul into this thing to do what we can to make it work."

Crosland Park, which sits parallel to U.S. Highway 1 and Wire Road, was built in the 1950s as housing for Savannah River Plant employees, but about 60 percent of the homes are rentals today.

"A lot of cohesiveness isn't there that was in Toole Hill, which had residents that had been there for decades," said Leasa Segura, the neighborhood and development services supervisor. "Just due to the physical immensity, you can't know all of your neighbors, and that impacts the ability to find a feeling of belonging."

Contractors have also hit snags in the form of asbestos and lead paint.

The same problems didn't exist in Toole Hill, where many homes were new.

"It's great to make all kinds of promises, but to follow through on those promises doesn't happen immediately," said City Manager Roger LeDuc. "It took about a year and a half to two years to see changes in Toole Hill. It will take three to five years to see a major difference in Crosland Park. It didn't get like this overnight, and it's not going to be fixed overnight."

Segura said required eight-session home-ownership classes will also build pride in the community for new residents.

Segura said many of the renters come into the program thinking they can't afford a home but quickly learn that the renovations offer energy-efficient features that can lower their bills enough to make homebuying possible. The classes also teach financial planning.

Responsibility will have to replace skepticism before Crosland Park can experience the successes of Toole Hill, Yount said.

"I think people are going to have to understand they're adults and they're responsible for what they do and how they live," he said.

"It goes to changing the mind-set," Yount said.

Aiken initiatives

In 2003, the city of Aiken initiated a $40 million 10-year revitalization project to bring home ownership to abandoned and vacant areas.

Toole Hill Project:  50 homes built or remodeled

Homes are two- and three-bedroom houses of 1,300 to 1,400 square feet. They have appliances, vinyl siding, two bathrooms and paved driveways.

Income-eligible homebuyers could qualify for a $20,000 forgivable deferred loan.

Crosland Park: 100 to 150 homes built and remodeled

Homes are similar to Toole Hill, but are renovated instead of new constructions. Homes will cost $90,000 and up.

Sources: City of Aiken, Augusta Chronicle archives

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