Beverly Bellinger has seen a lot of changes in her 25 years as a resident of Cuyler-Brownsville.
Never before has Bellinger been so happy to live there. She recently moved into an apartment in a new Mercy Housing development.
“This is my neighborhood,” Bellinger says delightedly. “I’m now living in Heritage Corner and I love it. I’m a nature lover. I see the birds flying and the squirrels picking up pecans from my back porch.”
Bellinger originally lived on Cline Lane — now Cline Street — when she moved to Cuyler-Brownsville. She moved into Mercy Housing’s Florence School apartments in 2002, then to Heritage Corner last October.
“The grounds are beautifully maintained,” Bellinger says. “I look to even more positive changes that will come to Mercy Housing and eventually Cuyler-Brownsville.”
For 20 years, Bellinger has worked at Myers Middle School. Upstairs, a wall is decorated with awards and tributes from students. Bellinger is proud to say that all the furnishings came from garage and yard sales and thrift shops. “You can always find bargains if you try,” she says.
All the units in Heritage Corner and nearby Heritage Row are leased. A dedication ceremony was held April 12 amidst a jubilant atmosphere.
“This is a celebration, right?” asked Michael Beatty, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Community Affairs during the ceremony.
“Cuyler-Brownsville has had both challenges and periods of prosperity. Gone are the dilapidated buildings, gone are the feelings of being alone. People here care about each other. You’ve become a role model for the entire state.
Because of you, Cuyler-Brownsville is better, Savannah is better and Georgia is a better place to live.”
Robin Haddock is Regional Director of Housing Developments for Mercy Housing. She was praised for her commitment to the project.
“I’m amazed at Robin Haddock,” said William Broker of Georgia Legal Services. “She can look at a row of dilapidated houses and see what it will look like. Then she’s able to make it come into being.”
Haddock in turn praised the team that helped her. “We’re celebrating a very tremendous accomplishment,” she said.
Architects, contractors, bankers, local and state officials and others who participated in the project were awarded framed photographs of the transformed buildings.
“Heritage Corner and Heritage Row are a mixture of both historic rehabilitation and new construction,” Haddock said. “In the end, we were able to put together a lot of different resources to make the project work. We transformed 10 existing structures and developed 11 previously vacant lots.”
The new development adds 70 units of affordable housing. It joins an earlier development, Heritage Place, that transformed the former Charity Hospital and Florance Street School into housing units.
Most of the existing buildings that were rehabilitated were multi-family housing built in the early 1900s. In addition to residential units, Mercy Housing now has a permanent office at 1826 Florance St. in what was once one of the most dilapidated buildings on the block.
The new office allowed Mercy Housing to move from the Riley Building on the St. Joseph’s Hospital campus. St. Joseph’s/Candler is sharing the building to provide health services to local residents.
Mercy Housing is celebrating 10 years in Savannah, Haddock said. The mission came in 1996 through the Sisters of Mercy.
“From the first, Sister Betty Walsh took an active role,” Haddock said. “Sister Betty is a native of Savannah. She is fighting cancer, but she continues to be an inspiration.”
Because of Walsh’s dedication and diligence to the housing mission, a learning center at the new office will be named in her honor.,
Mercy Housing Chief Administrative Officer Patricia O’Roark said Mercy Housing now has developments from coast to coast, in Savannah, San Francisco, Seattle and San Antonio.
“In the past 25 years, we’ve developed 17,500 units of housing for 55,000 people,” O’Roark says. “The redevelopment of blighted, abandoned buildings is one of the most important tools we can have.”
Housing is just the beginning, O’Roark says. “Mercy Housing understands housing alone does not reshape the entire community,” she says.
However, housing rehabilitation and construction can spark major changes in the community and lead to further improvement and development.
There is not one county in America that provides housing that is affordable to a single person who makes minimum wage, O’Roark said. “That is a travesty,” she said. “The need for affordable housing is so great, it is perchance the greatest societal need in America today.”
Paul Hinchey, president and CEO of the St. Joseph’s/Candler Health System, said the change in the Cuyler-Brownsville community is dramatic.
“I’m astounded at what has happened in this neighborhood in the last 10 years,” Hinchey said. “There’s a sense of energy, vitality, resurgence.”
Mayor Otis Johnson said the relationship between the city and Mercy Housing is truly collaborative.
“Collaboration is a very tough, tough, tough process,” said the mayor. “You are asking someone to give up something of themselves for the greater good.”
The transformation of the dilapidated buildings and vacant lots is just the beginning, Johnson says.
“We are systematically marching through Savannah,” he said. “We are determined to rehabilitate as many neighborhoods as we can. People in Savannah deserve quality housing and affordable housing. If we believe in humanity and believe we are all God’s children, then why can’t we live together? We who profess to be Christians have the responsibility to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and house the homeless.”
Noting that Cuyler-Brownsville stretches south to Victory Drive, Johnson said rehabilitation of the community will continue.
“We’ve just got to keep marching to Victory Drive,” he said. w
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