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Church members rescue teenager’s house from condemnation

by Amy Kingsley

The entrance to John G.’s house stands atop a flight of broad, sturdy stairs. Reaching it requires only a short climb up wooden steps, but since John moved out a couple of years ago, few people have made the trek.

Until Jan. 13, when about a dozen volunteers, most of them from Christ United Methodist Church, with hammers, screwdrivers and paintbrushes, descended on the house, which was badly in need of upkeep. Inside, a general contractor named David Millsaps primed the walls for paint. Other volunteers reinforced the framing around three new windows.

Their effort was another sally in an ongoing effort to save John’s house, which the teenager has been in danger of losing since the Guilford County Department of Social Services declined to pay the mortgage. When his father died, John inherited the house, a Habitat for Humanity structure with a $221 monthly mortgage payment, and Social Security survivor benefits. Instead of making the payments, the department used John’s checks to reimburse the agency for the cost of his care.

John fought back with the help of Legal Aid lawyer Lewis Pitts and won in district court. Judge Susan Bray ordered the agency to make house payments. The department has appealed her decision, but in the meantime has been dutifully making payments on John’s house.

Although the mortgage was taken care of, another problem arose when vandals knocked out three of the house’s windows, prompting the housing inspector to condemn the property. This time it was not lawyers who came to John’s rescue but church members. People like Charlie Atkinson, a longtime member who has helped out on previous Habitat for Humanity projects.

“Yes, we’ve been involved with Habitat for Humanity for a long time,” Atkinson said. “However, this is an unusual case because it was the house of a former sexton who died.”

John’s father worked as a custodian at Christ United Methodist Church, and the congregation built this house for him and his young son. It was John’s home for 13 years, during which time he developed a deep connection to the neighborhood.

“When John gets even close to this neighborhood he begins to open up,” said Lewis Pitts, his attorney at Legal Aid.

Old friends of John’s from the neighborhood trimmed his hair while the volunteers worked on his house. Their house stood directly opposite of his on the double cul-de-sac. Many of the residents of these dozen-odd frame houses come out to greet John whenever he returns to the neighborhood, Pitts said.

“I don’t know them but they’re doing a good job,” John said about the volunteers.

Volunteers removed the notice of condemnation from the front door and left it on the living room floor. Since 8:30 in the morning, they had been repairing the windows and lighting fixtures to remedy the worst of the code violations.

“The legal status of the house right now is that it’s condemned,” Pitts said. “This effort is to bring it up to code.”

Millsaps said repairing the house would take up to two months, with volunteers returning on subsequent Saturdays until the carpet was laid and the walls painted.

The projected length of the legal battle with social services is less clear. Either party can appeal the higher court’s decision, and a final decision may not be reached for some time.

What Pitts is fighting for is the guarantee that John will have a house to live in when he is no longer a ward of the state. His case has garnered national attention, and social service agencies in other states are awaiting the final ruling.

The volunteers, on the other hand, were working to insure the house did not succumb to neglect. They worked until 2 p.m., and will be back the next Saturday and the one after that.

“It’s just really heart-warming,” Pitts said.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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