Driving around the South Side of Billings with Eric Basye, you can hardly go a block or two before he points out a project his organization has been involved in.
Near South Park are three of its duplexes, all rental units. A few blocks away is a dilapidated house, recently purchased and ready for renovation. He points out a few more rental units, and then a house that was moved into the neighborhood from the medical corridor.
All of them are rented out, and many of their tenants are people unable to obtain credit, or people under the shadow of having served time in prison.
“We are intentionally serving the people that no one else will,” Basye said.
The slogan of Community Leadership and Development Inc., a Christian organization that Basye has directed for five years, is “Rebuilding Lives, Restoring Families, Re-Neighboring Communities.” So the good it does, however impressive the numbers might be, should come as no surprise.
‘Christmas Store’ planned
The CLDI will be having its seventh annual South Side Christmas store on Saturday, Dec. 12. There will be two sessions, from 10 a.m. to noon and 1 to 3 p.m., in the gym of Orchard Elementary School, 120 Jackson St.
The CLDI encourages people to donate gifts or money, help collect donations or volunteer to work at the store. Suggested gifts include sports equipment, bikes, skateboards, scooters, helmets, children’s and family board games, arts and crafts supplies, DVDs and education items.
Not recommended are stuffed animals, clothing of any kind, backpacks and anything used. The idea is to respect and empower parents by allowing them to buy new items at garage-sale prices. For more information, call John Geiger at 256-3002, ext. 206.
What might be surprising is how many of the people who work for CLDI are themselves walking the walk. Basye said most of his staff of 15 people live on the South Side, having renovated or built homes there.
Those houses are on the tour, too. Basye lives on the 400 block of South 31st Street, just down the block from Dave Hagstrom, who founded CLDI in 1982. Steve Houlihan, head of construction for CLDI, lives with his family in a house he built on Buchanan Street, not far from Riverside Middle School.
Those houses, and many others inhabited by people who have “intentionally relocated” to the South Side as a way of building community, have cost their owners much more than they could hope to sell them for, given the stigma attached to the South Side, Basye said.
Perhaps the deepest commitment was shown by John Geiger, Youth Works director for CLDI. Six years ago, the organization purchased one unit in a collection of row houses just southwest of Riverside, off Jackson Street, for years one of the most notorious low-income housing complexes in the city.
The unit was converted into the 316 House (named for its address, not a biblical passage), a youth center that provides after-school activities, as well as Bible study, breakfast every Friday and special events.
Two years ago, Geiger purchased another townhouse seven doors down from 316, renovated it and moved in with his family—his wife and two (soon to be three) children.
Geiger said it really wasn’t that big a decision for him and his wife. They had previously done inner-city ministry in Memphis with Basye, a Wyoming native, and moved to Billings three years after he did.
“That kind of decision for us goes way back,” Geiger said. “We always knew it was important to live in the community we were serving.”
The townhouse itself was a concern, he said, because of the tiny yard, the unattractive box-like structure and living so close to your neighbors, but they have come to like what he calls “a really tight-knit community.”
“I think it means a lot to people,” he said. “When the neighborhood problems become your own problem, you see it in a different light.”
The biggest surprise has been how peaceful the neighborhood is. There are troubles—watching families get evicted, seeing parents of children they know arrested, witnessing the slow response by the police department and other city service providers—but “it’s actually a lot quieter and low-key than I expected,” Geiger said.
And as Geiger said in a recent CLDI newsletter, “Loving our youth and our neighbors as Jesus commanded has taught us more about His character than any sermon or conference could have ever taught us.”
CLDI’s latest project is the Orrel Cove housing development, right next to Riverside and the row houses. It consists of three completed duplexes and two more nearing completion, all newly built.
“That’s been a huge success,” Basye said, and the financing for it shows how successful the nonprofit is in fundraising and forming partnerships. The project has a $1.2 million price tag, he said, but CLDI had to borrow only $101,000 of that.
Just behind the nearby Orchard Elementary School is the organization’s biggest single project—Chrysalis Acres. That 17-acre development, started by Hagstrom, now a state representative, has 70 lots, with 57 houses already built and sold.
In all its programs, as the organization’s mission statement says, it “seeks to transform lives and empower the people of South Billings to do good works through the person of Jesus Christ.”
But there are no religious requirements for people who use their services, Basye said. Out of 250 tenants spread across the South Side, he said, “I would say the majority are not Christians. Honestly, I love that they would come to us.”
CLDI rents property through its Koinonia Management Co. and does most of its building and renovating through its Koinonia Housing Construction Co. Both are named for one of Hagstrom’s earliest projects, the Koinonia Mexican restaurant near South Park. The Koinonia (Greek for “fellowship”) burned down years ago, and those three rental units mentioned above now occupy the property.
If all goes well, CLDI will be breaking ground next spring on another Greek-named project: a café, coffee shop and community gathering space known as Katapheugo, Greek for “refuge.” They are still looking at various sites, Basye said, but the hope is to build it and also move the CLDI offices into the building.
That would free up its current offices, at 109½ S. 32nd St., for an expansion of its Hannah House program, which provides housing and life-skills training for women in crisis. The program already occupies two houses on the property in front of the CLDI offices.