Organization ‘turns back the block’ one house, one homeowner at a time

(Featured image – Ashley Brown, executive director of Turn Back the Block stands at a vacant lot owned by the organization. Charmain Z. Brackett/Augusta Good News)

Change often doesn’t come overnight.

And at Turn Back the Block, the approach to transforming one neighborhood district has been a long term one.

“What we do is to revitalize Harrisburg through home ownership and quality of housing,” said Ashley Brown, the organization’s executive director. Turn Back the Block is a nonprofit and relies on donations and volunteer support.

Brown considers Harrisburg the “heart of the city” bridging its downtown, medical community and canal district.

“If we strengthen this part of the community, we strengthen all of Augusta,” she said.

The decline of the mills and the loss of those jobs as well as the suburban sprawl that began in the 1970s and 1980s led to a downturn in Harrisburg and a rise of absentee landlords. Over time, homes fell into disrepair; lots became vacant. People who had invested in the well-being of the community were gone.

Currently, about 80% of those living in Harrisburg are renters.

“We’d like to change that. Homeownership brings a sense of pride,” she said.

And helping people transition from renting to owning is something the organization does as well.

Since 2010, the organization has renovated eight homes and overseen seven new construction homes.  A thrust of the redevelopment has been along Battle Row, where Brown’s offices are located in a former pinball machine repair shop.

But the process of change takes time.

Turn Back the Block’s current building project is a couple of blocks from Brown’s office at 2017 Battle Row. It’s different from previous ones.

It’s two single-family homes with a shared wall.

“This project began in the summer of 2021 in the office of Augusta’s planning and zoning,” she said. “We had a lot that was large. We wanted to subdivide the lot, but we couldn’t do it under current zoning.”

With the architects from Studio3 and Augusta officials, they worked out a plan that included a special exception, two variances and finally a subdivision before it was approved.

A new dwelling is being built at 2017 Battle Row. Charmain Z. Bracket/Augusta Good News

A groundbreaking ceremony was held in April, and Brown hopes it will be completed by year’s end.

The home is being built according to the Craftsman style that is prevalent among the other homes in the neighborhood. They aren’t cookie cutter, she said, and contain elements such as a large porch, which is conducive to meeting your neighbors.

Building a sense of community through relationships is another goal of Turn Back the Block. Each month, there’s a Saturday get together to forge friendships among neighbors.

Friends look out for one another, said Brown, who considers the residents to be her friends. She knows this because someone hit her car outside her office once. The neighbors knew about it, and they came to check on her and her vehicle.

One of the neighborhood’s biggest events is its annual Halloween party which is a hit with the children and adults. They look forward to it, she said.

Besides the new construction, another home is undergoing extensive renovations. The home at 1980 Battle Row has been taken back to its studs, but not all homes in the area can be saved. Sometimes, the best and safest course is to tear them down and start over.

“The reality of it is a lot of times when we get them, they are in such bad disarray we have no choice,” she said. “We just purchased a burnout.”

That is another home that will have to be torn down rather than be renovated.

Improving the quality of the homes is important, but there’s another element to Turn Back the Block’s mission – turning renters into homeowners.

 Turn Back the Block works with the CSRA Economic Opportunity Authority to help people make the transition through education such as individual finance 101 and homeowner classes.

Each case is individualized, and it sometimes takes a while to make the transition.

The shortest has been six months, but it’s taken some Turn Back the Block homeowners as long as three years.

Once they become homeowners, they continue to receive support.

One resource for those living in the neighborhood is the unusual lending library at the Turn Back the Block offices. It’s an area where people can borrow lawn equipment and other types of tools to help maintain their homes.

“We have generous board members who love to be the ones to show them how to use them,” she said.

 Turn Back the Block has 24 lots that one day will have homes with families living in them.

 “Everybody wants it fast. It just takes time,” she said.

Charmain Z. Brackett, the publisher of Augusta Good News, has covered Augusta’s news for 35 years. Reach her at Sign up for the newsletter here.

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