New Topeka Habitat homeowner on racial slurs painted in grass: ‘I wanted to cry’

Sadness, then anger, then prayer was the process Shavonn Smith said she went through when she found out that racial slurs were spray-painted in the grass on the lot where she will soon move into her own Habitat for Humanity home later this fall.

 

“I wanted to cry,” said Smith, who is black. “We’ve worked really hard to get to where we are.”

On the same day protests and violence occurred last month at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., the slurs were found at the site of a Habitat for Humanity project to build three homes in southeast Topeka, said Janice Watkins, executive director for Topeka Habitat.

Topeka’s city government stands against messages like those left at the site in the Rolling Meadows neighborhood, Topeka Councilwoman Michelle De La Isla said at Tuesday evening’s council meeting.

De La Isla is the former executive director of Topeka Habitat, a nonprofit, Christian housing ministry that has been in the capital city since 1984, building affordable housing in partnership with those in need.

Smith said that after Watkins told her about the slurs, she became more angry for four of her children, ranging in age from 9 to 16 years old, who will be moving into the home with her and her husband, likely sometime during the holidays.

“My kids deserve this,” she said. “This house wasn’t given to us. They’re not just bringing random people to the neighborhood.”

Watkins told council members and Mayor Larry Wolgast in an email Tuesday that the site at 3331, 3335 and 3339 S.E. Powell — where Habitat broke ground for the construction of three homes early last month — was “spray painted with racial slurs on the same day that protests and violence were filling the streets of Charlottesville on a national level.”

The slurs were spray painted on the grass, but not on any structures, at the site in Rolling Meadows, Watkins told The Capital-Journal on Wednesday.

Several messages left for Fred Martinez, president of the Rolling Meadows neighborhood association, weren’t returned on Wednesday.

Watkins said a neighboring property owner “essentially weed-whacked it off,” referring to the spray painted words, before contacting her. She said the property owner chose not to help Habitat file a police report, fearing retaliation.

Councilman Tony Emerson, who represents District 4, where the lots are located, said he is denouncing the slurs and doesn’t know who the perpetrators could be.

“This racial thing, that’s not what these people are about,” he said. “The neighborhood was shocked and disgusted. They welcome all people over there. We don’t know who did that.”

Emerson did say, however, that several residents of the neighborhood expressed concerns several weeks ago that there were three foundations constructed next to each other and no identification of what kinds of homes were going to be there or who was building them.

“There were no signs, just basements,” he said. “They were concerned if these were going to be manufactured homes. People get nervous when something comes to their neighborhood and they don’t know what it is.”

“This is a great, close-knit neighborhood,” Emerson continued. “They wanted to make sure the homes will fit into the neighborhood.”

The organization has built 102 homes for partner families and rehabilitated more than 25 homes this year alone for some of Topeka’s most vulnerable citizens and neighborhoods, Watkins wrote.

But she indicated Habitat has encountered opposition to its construction of the three houses in the 3300 block of S.E. Powell and has sought unsuccessfully to make a presentation at a neighborhood meeting about value its program brings to the community.

“Conversations with neighborhood leaders have been filled with undertones of the impoverished bringing a ‘criminal element’ to the neighborhood and overt commentary of Habitat homes and families bringing down the overall quality and value of the neighborhood,” Watkins wrote.

Watkins told Wolgast and council members, “We ask that you stand for these future homeowners and that our resounding echo of support drowns out the hateful opposition of a few.”

“When something hateful happens, it’s our duty to stand up and say that’s not OK,” Emerson added. “It doesn’t have a place in Topeka or anyplace else for that matter.”

Earlier this year, Watkins explained that while a family may not get traditional financing to own a Habitat home, they go through an intensive 11-month process to own their own home. She said they receive financial education and credit counseling and must put in several hundred hours of “sweat equity” as part of their Habitat housing contract. She said each adult family member has to complete 300 hours of work on the home, while a child 12 years of age and older has to complete 50 hours of sweat equity for a maximum of 650 hours.

“They have to complete half of that before we even start working on their house,” Watkins said in March. “They’re investing in our program and getting to know us. That is also a time when we get to know them, when they’re volunteering with us and we’re seeing what struggles they may have and how we can partner with them successfully to provide support throughout the duration of their build.”

People involved with Habitat will convene at their build site at 3331 S.E. Powell at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 13 to meet neighbors, offer resources and provide information about its programs, Watkins said.

Smith said she plans to be part of the group that will go door-to-door, introducing herself and informing her future neighbors about the rigorous process she and the other two Habitat homeowners had to go through to buy their houses.

“We hope they’ll get some education and understand it a lot more,” she said. “We just want to be part of the neighborhood.”

Reporter Tim Hrenchir can be reached at (785) 295-1184 or @timhrenchir on Twitter.

Reporter Angela Deines can be reached at (785) 295-1143 or @AngelaDeines on Twitter.

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