Wrestling with how to keep urban communities intact

By Crystal Kang

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Sometimes it takes sweat equity and faith to rebuild a community.

Bridgeport and Cincinnati may be 700 miles apart, but each share high percentages of residents living below the poverty level — 24 and 29 percent, respectively. They also have in common organizations committed to restoring balance in economies made lopsided by urban renewal.

The flight of the urban poor from redeveloped areas is a growing problem nationwide. Urban renewal projects, which often promise to bring a diverse group of people together, can create an exodus of the urban poor. For community leaders, it has been a struggle to keep their neighborhoods intact.

The president of a Fairfield County nonprofit based in Bridgeport and a Korean missionary couple who started a church in Cincinnati have dedicated themselves to what they believe are cornerstones to building a community: One focuses on providing low-income families with homes and the other is establishing a church that serves not just its members but its surrounding neighborhood.

For years, urban renewal has been used by municipalities as an economic engine that revitalizes central business districts as well as residential neighborhoods.

But often, the people who have lived in these neighborhoods have been forced to leave as rents rise.

Bruce Berzin, president of Habitat for Humanity of Coastal Fairfield County, sees value in getting the urban poor back in the labor force by motivating them to find jobs. His projects are specifically geared toward low-income families and individuals who are working but are in need of affordable housing. The idea is to provide a next step for people who are actively trying to break the cycle of poverty and empower them to serve in volunteer projects throughout their neighborhood, he said.

“In order for a family to get a Habitat house, they have to be living in housing that’s unacceptable in one form or another — whether it be affordability, the conditions of the house or overcrowding,” Berzin said. “The other criteria are that they have to be able to pay off the mortgage we provide and be willing to partner with us in providing 500 hours of sweat equity.”

Habitat for Humanity covers all towns on the Connecticut coast between Greenwich and Stratford, but the vast majority of homes are in Bridgeport, Berzin said. Most recently, it has been buying city-owned lots and turning them into single-family homes and duplexes in Bridgeport, which is a major focus for urban renewal.

“The city has been selling us empty lots for $1, and they can be sure within a year of selling us a lot, there will be a house and a family paying for it,” Berzin said. “It’s such a great deal for the city. These vacant lots cost the city a lot of money. They attract garbage and crime and that costs the city money to deal with them. To have that transformed into a home with people who will create a community and pay taxes is a win-win.”

Another city, another take

In Cincinnati, Pastor Johann Kim and his wife, Sister Grace — a physics professor and children’s hospital nurse, respectively — have a long-term vision for urban renewal in their city. Their idea is to create a church in the heart of Over-the-Rhine, a neighborhood known for high crime, gun violence and drug deals. The church would serve as a place that fulfills basic needs such as shelter, food and a place to worship.

The couple, who has lived in Cincinnati since the late 1990s, was uncertain about where their church would meet for the past seven months. It had outgrown its rented space inside Prince of Peace Church, which had asked them to relocate because it wanted to renovate and expand. Kim said he kept searching for available spaces without any clear leads on a permanent church building. But he said the ultimate peace and comfort came when he heard of a deal that was too good to refuse.

The pastor ended up buying an abandoned church building at a lower-than-expected price last month, and for the first time in nearly two decades, Living Water Ministry finally has a permanent meeting space to host Sunday services, church activities and Bible studies.

When I met the Kims this summer on a missions trip with Remnant Westside Church in Manhattan, I saw they were passionate about two things: sharing their ministry on the streets of Cincinnati and gutting an abandoned, derelict property to build a house of worship. My team of church volunteers had the chance to help with demolition and construction on the church site for about a week. Many of the neighbors we met were African-American single mothers and children who said that Living Water Ministry has been a vital organ in the community. The common thread in their stories is that if it weren’t for this church showing them hospitality and compassion, they would be in a much different place.

Despite the reality that gentrification may push out the urban poor, the Kims bought the church building in faith that it will provide a wellspring of resources in the Over-the-Rhine community for generations to come. The church is in the heart of the city around the corner from the couple’s home, which has a vineyard painted on the outer wall with a Bible verse that reads: “I am the vine, you are the branches… apart from me you can do nothing. John 15:5.”

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About the author

Crystal Kang
Crystal Kang, a Chicago native, is former a reporter for the Fairfield and Westchester business journals. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and her work has appeared in news outlets including CNBC.com, Allstate Corporation’s investor relations website, and an NPR-based radio station in Urbana, Ill.

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