Rebuilding the Inner City, One Home at a Time

New housing scheme in Wichita givves addicts and ex-convicts skills and fosters a work ethic

FOR Charles McAfee, the rapping hammers and buzzing drills at his new modular homes factory beat a rhythm of both profit and social progress.

Mr. McAfee, an award-winning architect, is pioneering a housing project in Wichita's inner city that combines the manufacture of high-quality, affordable homes with job creation for unskilled workers (often drug addicts and ex-convicts), and support for neighborhood businesses.

His project, which builds single-family homes for placement on vacant urban lots, represents what officials call an unusual response to the nation's severe shortage of low-cost housing.

``I don't know of a city of any size at all in America that doesn't have a pressing need for affordable housing,'' says Bob Knight, Kansas housing secretary and a former Wichita mayor.

An outspoken civil-rights advocate, McAfee's chief aim is to help revitalize the decayed core of many American cities by enabling poor city dwellers to own their own homes.

``We can't keep putting people in high-rise apartments and not allow them to build up some equity,'' McAfee says as he leads a visitor through his 1,200-sq.-ft. showcase modular home on Wichita's North Ohio Street.

The three-bedroom townhouse, including carpeting and appliances, would sell for between $35,000 and $45,000 in Wichita depending on the land price.

``The place where you begin to develop a family anchor is in something you own,'' says the architect, who grew up in this predominantly black northeastern section of Wichita.

More than 5.3 million low-income American households face ``worst case'' housing needs, meaning their housing costs more than half their income or is seriously substandard, according to a recent government report.

These unsubsidized households already exceed the total number - around 5 million - of those that occupy federally subsidized, low-cost dwellings, says Cushing Dolbeare, president of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition in Washington.

Overall, some 30 percent of US households have difficulty affording adequate accomodations, Ms. Dolbeare says, citing 1990 census data.

The majority of those spend more than the recommended one-third of income for housing and many suffer from overcrowding.

Strong houses

Three main factors make McAfee's Wichita project an attractive model for solving the low-cost housing dilemma, officials contend:

* The homes are affordable and of high quality. Assembly-line manufacturing of units of the homes helps reduce costs.

From the factory, the units are transported on flatbed trailers and lifted by crane onto the housing site.

Once bolted together, the house is structurally stronger than ``stick-built'' homes, because its units are made to withstand the tension of the move, says McAfee.

McAfee's houses are all composed from six basic, building-block units that can be assembled dozens of different ways to suit individual families and lot dimensions.

Since the units are standard, families can easily add rooms if needed.

* The services, materials, and supplies for the houses come mainly from local and minority-owned businesses, thereby stimulating the stagnant economy of northeast Wichita.

* Unskilled workers, including former drug addicts, ex-convicts, and welfare recipients, are hired and trained to build the homes. Most of the 40 employees of McAfee Manufacturing have no construction work experience.

But under a contract McAfee negotiated with the AFL-CIO's carpenters' union, the workers are trained by experienced craftsmen, earn union wages of $7.50 an hour, and receive health-care and other benefits.

``This is the best job I've ever had,'' says Diana King, a former welfare recipient who is now the breadwinner for her family of five.

``They knew I didn't have the skills but were willing to teach me,'' says Ms. King, recently trained as a factory electrician.

``My kids are thrilled, and it has helped my self-esteem. I can pay the bills now,'' she says.

Plant manager Gary Fields concedes that even with hundreds of applicants to chose from it isn't easy to build a labor force ``from scratch.''

``First we have to teach these people how to work. For a lot of them, just getting here every day is an accomplishment,'' he says.

``But this whole thing is about giving people an opportunity and helping each other out.''

Outside interest

Since McAfee launched his venture, McAfee Manufacturing Co., eight months ago, it has sparked a barrage of inquiries and visits by officials from Chicago, Fort Worth, Texas, Richmond, Va., and several other US cities, as well as from South Africa and Mexico.

``I am very impressed by his [McAfee's] operation in Wichita,'' says Libby Watson, deputy city manager of Fort Worth, who has toured the project. Fort Worth is actively considering asking McAfee to set up a factory to build affordable housing for some of the 780 available lots in the city, Watson says.

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