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Wednesday, August 18,2010

Back to life

Restoring a former eyesore with the help of local homeless

by Andy Balaskovitz

When entering the Genesee Neighborhood near downtown Lansing from the south, a large two-story white house at the corner of Butler Boulevard and Ionia Street gives you a forbidding welcome. For about the past year, the property at 824 W. Ionia has been overgrown with weeds, its boarded-up windows hiding the charred remains of a fire. On May 26, it was a City Pulsecertified Eyesore of the Week.


The earth-tone walls and intricate woodwork carries a heavy camp-fire smell. Nearly everything inside is coated in a black soot.


But thanks to two Cooley Law School graduates with a “crazy” idea and help from the homeless, the house, circa 1915, at 824 W. Ionia is on a fast track back to its glory days.


For the past two weeks, a crew of five to 10 people have been toiling around the property, throwing charred wood and torn-down walls from the inside out to a dumpster. The grass is much shorter and the overgrown shrubbery less apparent.


“This has been a crazy project from the start,” Thelma Faith Viajar, an information technology specialist with the state and co-owner of the house, said. “This house has been rescued from the brink of destruction.”


Most people wouldn’t guess that a majority of the work crew is homeless, getting paid $50 per day for their service. The end goal for the new homeowners is to turn this hollowed-out residence into a foster care center for women.


On one July evening, Viajar noticed two men riding down Butler Boulevard on their bicycles, carrying a hefty load of belongings. When she asked what they were doing, the two said they had just been evicted and were moving to a camp by the Grand River.


“I asked, ‘What can I do to help you?’” Viajar said. “So I offered them work.”


Viajar and her friend, Joann Baumann, a studio painter from California and the other co-owner, now had two more helping hands. Within days, three more homeless people were recruited for help.


On top of the $50 per day salary, Viajar and Baumann also feed the crew a couple of meals a day and get them access to showers. Between helping the homeless and seeing them revel in the opportunity just to work and receiving technical support from the neighbors (some offer electricity, lawn care equipment and water), Viajar said there has been nothing but good vibes in the Genesee Neighborhood.


“It just tugs at your heartstrings,” she said.


Clyde Kingsbury has been homeless for about a month and started helping when his friends told him two women were hiring to fix up their fire-ravaged house. He said he spent about 15 years doing this type of work for a job, and got involved right away.


“I’m just so happy to be involved here. At first I thought they just wanted another house, but when I heard about the foster home, I got a lot of pride and joy out of helping,” he said. “Joann and Faith have very big hearts.”


He said that while there are shelters in Lansing that are helpful in offering food, he hasn’t had people reach out to him like this since he has been homeless.


“It makes you feel good someone is thinking of you. This gives me something to look forward to every day,” he said.


Baumann and Viajar are both Cooley Law School graduates (2003 and 2004, respectively), who call themselves “old Army buddies.” They met in California after divorcing their husbands and pledged to finish law school together once they finished active duty.


“We think of ourselves as Batman and Robin,” Viajar laughed.


If that’s the case, then this project is sort of a sequel. Viajar purchased 224 N. Butler, in the next block from their new renovation project, in 1999. “I got that as a dump too,” she said.


The prices paid over the past six years for 824 W. Ionia, though, have been on a steady decline.


Alice Hafelein was the primary caretaker of the house for a good portion of the 1900s. She spent a short time in an assisted living center in 2004 before dying that same year. Her family sold it for $115,000 in 2004 to the Pung family, who neighbors say also kept the house in good condition until 2009. The Blaha family purchased the home for $59,600 in 2009.


Shortly after the Blahas moved in, an accidental fire devastated the inside of the house to a point where they no longer wanted it. After sitting in limbo for about eight months with a dwindling value, the Blahas eventually donated the home to Viajar and Baumann for $1.


(Ironically, Viajar made a bid on the house in 2004 for a $104,000 direct sale. Her offer was turned down and it eventually sold for $115,000 later that year.)


“We had to look at it every day for eight months as an eyesore, but now we are doing our project,” Viajar said. “God wanted me to have it in a round-about way, I think.”


Baumann and Viajar intend to spend between $20,000 and $25,000 to renovate the house, which they plan to finish by winter. It will be more open inside (they already tore down a wall between the kitchen and dining area) thanks to new French doors and fresh coats of paint.


“I’m going to paint the walls all white to forget any memory of a fire,” Baumann said.


Viajar said support from the neighbors has been overwhelming. Across the street, Mary Rose Siebold, who has lived in the neighborhood for 25 years, was friends with previous owner Alice Hafelein and remembers the days when Genesee Neighborhood was plagued with “drug houses,” she said.


“I
have seen this neighborhood clean up like you wouldn’t believe,” she
said. Siebold had never heard of employing homeless people for personal
renovation jobs. “What they (Viajar and Baumann) are doing is
incredible.”


Viajar
said she reached an emotional tipping point after seeing the house
deteriorate for roughly eight months while living down the street. Now
she is casual about transforming a large, fire-damaged two-story home
into a foster care house for women.


“I
ran the Army, what’s a little renovation of a burned home?” she asked
jokingly. “It was time I put my money where my mouth is.”

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