It’s been more than 20 years since plans were first devised to improve the Buttonwood Gateway in Reading.

The venture, managed by Habitat for Humanity of Berks County and Delaware Valley Development Co., a private development firm, was supposed to address a need for affordable housing and create a sustainable neighborhood in a highly visible access point to the city. But finding the funding needed for the project has proved to be a difficult obstacle to overcome.

That has changed.

The project has been accepted into the Pennsylvania Neighborhood Assistance Program, which gives tax credits to businesses that invest in community projects in economically distressed areas. For the Buttonwood Gateway Project companies are eligible to receive up to $100,000 in tax credits.

Leaders of the Buttonwood Gateway Project are hopeful its inclusion in the program will finally push it toward completion.

Originally approved by City Council in 1998, the $7 million development initiative will offer 18 homes and 48 rental units, a community center, a park and a vegetable garden in an area that is roughly bordered by Buttonwood Street to the south, Tulpehocken Street to the west, Lafayette Street to the north and Miltimore Street to the east.

The goal of the project is to rebuild a neighborhood that will have a foundation in affordable homeownership combined with access to employment, health care and educational resources.

Local officials and business leaders gathered Tuesday to celebrate this latest development at the site of one of the homes Habitat is rebuilding as part of the bigger project.

They were joined by Department of Community and Economic Development Secretary Dennis Davin and Deputy Secretary for Community Affairs and Development Rick Vilello who said they were delighted and energized to see how the Neighborhood Assistance Program was making a difference.

“When we invest in community development efforts like this one, we are investing in the people who call those communities home, and we can’t truly invest in our communities without also being invested in them,” Davin said. “The public-private partnerships on display here demonstrate that by working together we can ensure all Pennsylvanians have access to affordable homes and thriving neighborhoods.”

Vilello lauded the program for its ability to bring together nonprofit organizations and local businesses.

He highlighted how the vacant land for the Buttonwood Gateway Project was donated to Habitat by Our City of Reading Foundation with no overhead cost for the land — allowing project dollars to go directly toward construction costs.

He applauded representatives from Customers Bank and UPMC Health Plan for signing up to be annual business partners for the project. And he commended local philanthropists Jerry and Carolyn Holleran for making the initial investment that got the project rolling.

“As a former mayor myself, I know the value an investment like this can have on the whole community,” he said. “The benefits of a housing project like this goes beyond just helping the individual families that will live in these houses. The goodwill from an investment like this can be contagious.”

Vilello said neighborhoods struggling with physical decline and high crime often become safer simply when local residents work together to fix up their neighborhood. He noted that research from cities across the country shows how small changes to urban environments like planting flowers or adding benches can reduce violence.

Tim Daley, Habitat executive director, echoed those sentiments.

Daley said he adheres to the belief that the four pillars of a healthy community start with affordable home ownership. He said once affordable home ownership is established, statistics show education improves with better student test scores and increased graduation rates. That leads to improved employment rates and increased health care opportunities through medical benefits.

“It’s been a struggle at times to try to get the community to believe in Reading and to buy into that message,” he acknowledged. “But forging these partnership is the beginning of that process. It’s about a lot more than putting a roof over the heads of one family. It’s about changing the culture.”

Read the original article on The Reading Eagle.

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