A decade after blaze, York Habitat for Humanity rebuilds a block

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch

York Habitat for Humanity volunteers toiled on a rainy Tuesday morning inside a four-home complex on the 700 block of Chestnut Street in York City. 

Beside them sat piles of dirt and debris.

Construction Manager Brad Anderson looks at the plans for the third floor of the Habitat for Humanity property at 701 Chestnut Street in York City, Tuesday, March 10, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

"This week, we're hanging drywall," said Brad Anderson, construction manager for York Habitat for Humanity.

More than a decade ago, on July 8, 2009, two York City firefighters arrived at the same location.

The entire block was ablaze.

"We arrived with heavy smoke coming out of the roof area of all of the homes," York City Fire Chief Chad Deardorff said. "We were on another incident, so we had two people show up. It was a well-advanced fire ... We were behind the eight ball at the start."

The fires moved from house to house, gutting the attics as it went. It destroyed 16 row houses and displaced more than 50 residents.

For years, the site has remained little more than a field. 

Fire spreads through a city block of homes on Chestnut Street, Wednesday, July 8, 2009. Fifteen structures were severely damaged and dozens of people were left homeless in the row house blaze.
John Pavoncello photo

Now, however, volunteers have taken on a $3 million project that will rebuild the gutted homes and provide housing for 14 low-income families.

Donors have committed nearly $1 million for the project, said Mark Mattern, associate director of York habitat for Humanity.

"This is by far the largest project we've ever undertaken," Mattern said. "There's not anything close to this."

On Tuesday, eight student volunteers from Providence College in Rhode Island worked alongside Anderson. 

The new homes will include firewalls in the attics aimed at reducing the spread of fire, should another one occur. 

Not only will it improve the lives of those who eventually will own the homes, but it also will increase property values in the area, he added.

Nearly 41% of residents living in the area of the project fall below the federal poverty line, according to a 2019 study commissioned by Habitat.

That's well above the city's overall poverty rate, which is just more than 35%, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

Habitat for Humanity has had volunteers working at the site since August. The organization plans to have 14 brand new homes completed by June 2022.

The project is expected to be done in three phases; it's now in its first phase, which entails building four homes. The second phase will include six homes, and the last phase will construct another four.

Habitat will also perform "critical home repairs" at 10 to 15 other homes as a part of the project, Mattern said.

The project is funded by donations and grants. Habitat is specifically banking on a yet-to-be-announced $500,000 grant from the state Department of Community and Economic Development.

"This is ground that has sat bare for 10 years, a place where people lived and played here in York," said York City Mayor Michael Helfrich. "It's amazing that Habitat is able to come in and not only rebuild an entire block but also provide individuals with homes."

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.