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'Sweat equity' helps realize dream Habitat unit in Falls is revitalization key for neighborhood

Tim Gray couldn't help but daydream as he gazed at a house under construction earlier this year in the Echota neighborhood, a spot on the south side of the city surrounded by old factories.

It was a point in time that wouldn't last long.

"Did you come to work or look?" bellowed Bill Lewis, building chairman of the Niagara Area Habitat for Humanity, who was unimpressed by Gray's wonderment.

Gray came to work, and work hard. He has logged more than 300 hours of labor so that -- with the help of Habitat -- he and his girlfriend, Rosemary Francis, would have a place to call their own.

The local Habitat chapter, founded in 1993, has helped build 19 homes in the city and two in North Tonawanda.

Recent efforts have focused on Echota, a historical area off Hyde Park Boulevard designed by famed 19th century architect Stanford White as an ideal working-class community.

The neighborhood -- which Habitat officials say was the first in the world with indoor electricity -- drew crowds from the Pan-American Exposition in 1901 because of its underground utility lines, its wastewater-treatment plant and its aesthetic design, which contrasted with the small, crowded tenements of New York City.

Factory workers lived in the homes during the city's industrial heyday, but the neighborhood sank into disrepair until DuPont donated 40 parcels to Habitat in 2003.

"One of the things we try to bring is revitalization, and hope that the neighborhood is worthy, and worth something, and people are willing to invest their time and money in their neighborhood," said Claudia Folsom, board president of Niagara Area Habitat for Humanity.

What followed the DuPont donation was an effort by the city to repave streets and install sidewalks. A utility company planted trees. A local block club continued its revitalization work. And a historic sign was added to the neighborhood's entrance.

The Echota West Block Club, formed about five years ago, secured grant money to put in a gazebo along a nearby creek and arranged for a sign to be erected in front of a historic home designed by White at 31 Hyde Park Blvd.

"As a block club, you seem to get a better response from city officials if you're having problems," said Kathy Russell, the block club's president.

Mary Ann Rolland, the owner of the historic home, said Habitat's presence has been a positive, though she said none of the new homeowners has yet to attend monthly block club meetings.

The homes have brought new families and children to the neighborhood, but Rolland said she wishes that they were built as two-story homes in keeping with the historic character of the neighborhood and that Habitat would renovate more homes in the area.

Folsom said Habitat is increasingly focusing on using historic elements in its homes, though she said the cost of building the homes continues to increase. Much of the funding for the homes has been secured through grants and donations. Those grants, coupled with volunteer labor, lessens the average home cost from $123,000 to about $73,000, Folsom said.

She said initial concerns about new construction in the neighborhood have largely subsided.

"Part of the apprehension was [they] had been so isolated for so long, and the city had basically forgotten about them," Folsom said. "Well, the city has finally rediscovered [them]."

Seven beige Habitat homes have popped up, and some nearby landlords began slowly improving their rental properties. Quality of life has steadily improved.

"Everyone seemed to just [embrace it]," said Lewis, the building chairman. "The grass is always cut now."

Enter Francis and Gray, two struggling renters with a 5-year-old daughter, Olivia, and a 2-year-old son, Timothy. Francis read about the program in a newspaper, and the couple applied for a Habitat home. They were interviewed and eventually chosen.

Francis persuaded Gray, recently laid off from his job with a Falls call center, to work full time building a different Habitat home so that he would have building experience when it came time to work on their home.

"He gets more excited as we go. He's like a kid on Christmas," Lewis said of Gray's penchant for focusing on each step of construction.

"He's showing me the first time," Gray said. "The next time's on me. Working here and learning about the house, it's soothing."

Francis works as a customer service representative as Gray toils in the heat. They both say the house means more than a shelter to them, and they've taken pictures of each step of construction so their children will know what they went through to build the structure.

"We want to have something to leave to our children," Francis said. "I've never had anything in my life [to pass] down."

Each family must complete 500 hours of "sweat equity" before they can move into their home. Though the foundation was only recently poured on Gray's home, he already has logged more than 300 hours. Francis has helped prepare pasta and lasagna for the workers. Those efforts will be passed down, too, Francis said.

"I want people to see this as a different alternative," Francis said. "You see a lot of people want stuff done for them instead of working for it. I want to show my children, if you work hard with determination, you can do anything."

When the house is finished, Gray said, the feeling will be pure relief, mixed with a measure of excitement.

"I can't wait to put the first piece of furniture in the house," he said. "I really can't. I've been waiting a long time."

Such was the case for John Hill and Annette Williams, who moved in last weekend next door to where Gray and Francis will soon live. Doctors, lawyers, laborers, Niagara University students and a dedicated contingent of senior citizens have turned out to work on the home.

"I don't know what brings them out, but they come, and they like to keep busy," Lewis said.

Williams said she almost didn't believe that her new three-bedroom home -- complete with modern paint shades, fresh carpet and a roomy basement -- was real. A rental administrator for a neighborhood development company, she said she never pictured owning her own home at 26.

"It feels great right now," Williams said as she readied to move into the home. "It feels awesome. It still feels too good to be true."

Williams said her children had no room to play in their apartment on Rainbow Boulevard. The new home will give her the same kind of space that architect White originally intended for residents more than a century ago.

"My son will be able to ride his bike down the street," she said, "without me being afraid of him being hit by a car."

e-mail: cspecht@buffnews.com

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