‘4 on 15’ project built new houses at Ann and 15th streets
WILMINGTON — A few months ago, what’s now the backyard at Bob and Susie Medugno’s house was a pile of felled trees.
Part of an empty lot on Ann Street owned by Habitat for Humanity, the property bore the scars of Hurricane Florence. Today, it’s home to a neat bungalow, with grass seedlings coming up in the cleared yard.
Bob Medugno points from the back porch of his newly built home to a spot near the fence where he plans to put in a horseshoes game, and another corner where he wants a fire pit.
The most exciting part: as homeowners mortgaging through a Habitat program, Medugno estimates his family is saving $300 each month, now that they’re not paying Wilmington rents.
The Medugnos are one of the families living in a quartet of homes built this year at the intersection of Ann and 15th streets. Spearheaded by St. Andrews-Covenant Presbyterian Church, the project was dubbed “4 on 15.”
“It’s a beautiful home, it’s an affordable home that we could have never gotten without Habitat and the church,” Medugno said. “What they did for my family — I don’t even know what to call it. I’m in awe.”
Rev. Derek Macleod, pastor at St. Andrews-Covenant, had been in Wilmington less than a year when he decided to approach Habitat about the empty lots, which sat two blocks from the church in the heart of Wilmington’s The Bottom neighborhood.
Florence struck just weeks later on Sept. 14, 2018. When the rain cleared, Macleod watched the city’s affordable housing shortage grow worse as low-cost apartments shuttered around town.
“Florence didn’t cause affordable housing issues,” Macleod said. “It just shone a light on it.”
“People asked me, ‘How do you do this?’,” he said of 4 on 15. “The answer is, you just have to want to.”
Steve Spain, executive director of Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity, said two of the 4 on 15 homes are occupied, while work is wrapping up on the others.
“We purchased those lots a couple of years ago, and at that time it was two lots and they were very oddly shaped,” he said. “We were able to work with the city to subdivide them into four more regularly shaped lots.
“From there, the story really started with meeting with Pastor Derek.”
A full-house sponsorship for a Habitat home is generally $50,000, with Habitat covering the remaining costs. Spain said Macleod pounded the pavement in search of donors, finding them in congregation members, local families and the St. Luke AME Zion Church on nearby Church Street.
Spain estimated the project’s total cost at about $500,000.
Groups like the NCAA helped the effort, encouraging University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) athletes to help build the homes. Spain said the city helped pay for water and sewer connections. On several workdays, New Hanover County Commissioner Woody White and his family, members of the St. Andrews-Covenant congregation, could be found working at the site.
“It really is an example of the entire community coming together to try and address a problem,” Spain said. “It’s often a lot easier to identify the problem then to come up with any solutions. And it is just four houses, but it’s four more than it would have been.”
Among the contributors was annual Habitat partner New Hanover Regional Medical Center, which gave $50,000 to build one of the houses, where a hospital employee now lives.
“Our Habitat for Humanity builds are among the most meaningful volunteer opportunities we have,” NHRMC President and CEO John Gizdic wrote in a statement. “Employees from across our organization join together on Saturdays until they complete a house for a coworker. We are proud to partner with Habitat to support housing in our community.”
The city and county have grappled with the region’s affordable home shortage for years.
In June, local leaders approved a permanent city-county Workforce Housing Advisory Committee. The interlocal agreement also authorized $100,000 for a workforce housing study, public opinion survey and awareness campaign.
Habitat’s policy is to sell homes to buyers at appraised value, and offer mortgages at zero-percent interest. Spain said that means monthly costs to Habitat homeowners can be significantly lower than for Wilmington renters.
“You’d be really lucky to find a two-bedroom you wanted to live in for $675 in Wilmington,” he said. “It’s not just about building an affordable house, but allowing people to continue to live affordably.”
Spain and Macleod both said they’re heartened by the steps local leaders are taking on affordable housing, but they’d encourage other nonprofits, churches and leaders to look at what they can do to help solve the problem in their neighborhoods.
Macleod thinks of the Bible verse, Jeremiah 29: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
“We have all benefited from some kindness, from some advantage based on who we are,” Macleod said. “Affordable housing is kind of letting others in on those advantages.”
On Sept. 14, the one-year anniversary of Florence, the groups will host a dedication ceremony at 4 on 15, an event Macleod hopes is as much motivation as celebration. Spain said 4 on 15 will not be the last collaboration with St. Andrews-Covenant, and the groups hope to be able to announce their next step by the ceremony.
This month, Macleod spoke at Wilmington City Council, inviting members to attend, and urging them to keep pursuing affordable housing.
“If you lead,” he told the council, “we’ll follow.”
Reporter Cammie Bellamy can be reached at 910-343-2339 or Cammie.Bellamy@StarNewsOnline.com.