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Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Russ Garriott, left, Lacy DeWitt and Mitch Bieberich tour one of the refurbished homes.

Fort Wayne shows off West Washington rehabs

Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
People attend an open house for three homes in the 800 block of West Washington Boulevard that have been rehabbed using city dollars and private investments.

– Ric Zehr and Kurt Stark are proud of the work they've done in the 800 block of West Washington Boulevard, but what makes them proudest is a question people keep asking.

When people view the three houses for sale – two are new construction and one is rehabilitated – they have to ask which ones are which.

"They don't know whether it's new or it's been here a hundred years," Zehr said. And that's just the way Zehr wants it.

Ravaged by fire and decades of neglect, the city bought four houses in the 800 block of West Washington Boulevard in 2011; the first house, 825 W. Washington, was finished and sold in 2011.

Officials said 815 and 817 were so deteriorated they had to be torn down and rebuilt, but Belay Corp. and its general contractor, Preston Allen Homes, worked hard to make them match the character of the historic neighborhood. 823 W. Washington was rehabbed from top to bottom and maintains its historic character, from the original hardwood floors in the living room to the scalloped siding on the outside.

Preston Allen's Stark said the work is already paying off – Sunday he watched a neighbor sponging off the outside of his gutters.

"You're already seeing more pride of ownership in this block," he said.

Zehr, of Fort Wayne-based Belay Corp., said Tuesday's celebration of the other three being listed for sale was the culmination of the work of many partners working together. The homes were rehabbed and rebuilt through the federal HOME Investment Partnerships Program, which made up the difference between the cost of reconstruction and the sale price. The houses at 815 and 817 W. Washington are listed at $88,000; 825 W. Washington is listed for $85,000.

Heather Presley-Cowen, deputy director of the Office of Housing and Neighborhood Services, said the project could not have happened without the support of the West Central Neighborhood Association and the Historic Preservation Commission, which had to agree to tearing down two of the homes.

"They could have taken a hard line and said no," Presley-Cowen said. "This block would not have been restored and there would be two vacant lots here. But it wasn't easy: Tearing down houses in West Central is like, 'You're asking for something we just don't believe in.' "

Neighborhood President Susan Smethers said it wasn't easy, but neighbors were convinced that the project would not have happened otherwise, because no developer could afford to do the work without the extra funding. Now, neighbors are overjoyed at the results.

"The transformation that has taken place is phenomenal," Mayor Tom Henry said.

The city committed up to $500,000 for the project, but once the three houses sell, only about $160,000 will have been needed. The rest of the money will be available for other projects.

Presley-Cowen said 400 people went through the homes during recent open houses.

"When was the last time we had 400 people wanting to live downtown?" she asked.

Stark and Zehr said people touring the homes have been in tears when they find out that, because of the federal funds used, there are income restrictions on who can purchase them. Several people, they said, have asked if they can pay extra to buy the homes outside of the federal program.