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Rebuilding History: CHIP grant helps save Milstead home
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Eula Mae Smith's house on the first day of renovations. - photo by Michelle Kim

When Eula Mae Smith was born in 1924 in a three-room mill house on Yellow Street, the world was a very different place. 

Conyers only had about 1,800 inhabitants, and most of them knew each other or were related to one another. Farming was the main source of work and Callaway Mills was humming along the banks of the Yellow River. And the Yellow Street-Grimes Street neighborhood, tucked behind the Callaway golf course, was a close-knit community of about 50 black families where everybody knew everybody and helped one another. 

Eighty-eight years later, Ms. Smith still lives there today. Her three daughters, who were raised in that house have grown and moved out. Many of the neighbors and families she knew have moved to the suburbs. And the drafty old house has fallen into disrepair - more work than an elderly woman can handle or afford.

Smith was facing having to leave the home that housed generations  and the neighborhood where her grandparents, Hill and Emma Williams, had raised their 15 children.

But with $53,000 of funding from a federal home improvement grant, Smith will be able to continue living in her family’s homestead. 

Her house is the first to be repaired under the Community Home Improvement Program (CHIP) grant in Rockdale.

Rockdale County was awarded the $300,000 grant in 2010 through the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. The aim of the grant is to rehabilitate homes for owners who are low-income, elderly, disabled and veterans back to safe and sanitary conditions. 

On Tuesday, the sound of hammers and saws rang out on Yellow Street as contractors began work on badly needed repairs at 1786 Yellow Street. These include a new roof, electrical wiring, flooring, heating and air, making the bathroom handicap accessible and making the house handicap accessible. 

Ms. Smith sat in a chair with a friend and her three daughters — Laura, Vickie, and Penny — and son James to watch the start of construction. 

“I am excited,” she said. “I feel good.” 

With gentle dignity, she received visits from department heads, contractors, media, and elected officials such as Commissioner Oz Nesbitt and Commissioner JaNice Van Ness, whose family she knew. Smith had worked in the home of Van Ness’s grandparents, Jewel and Rosvel Pierce Biggers. The air buzzed with the energy of a family reunion.

It was only later, at age 41, that Smith got a job at Lithonia Lighting, where she assembled light fixtures for 24 years. 

“You had to work so fast and know what you were doing,” Smith recalled. 

That steady paycheck allowed her to raise her three daughters on her own and take care of her ailing mother, Onnie “Toy” Jackson, who passed away nine years ago at the age of 99.

Smith recalled purchasing the house from her mother’s husband, Frank Jackson, during their divorce. She emphatically desacribed having to take out a $500 loan from the bank to pay him off for his half. The mill houses those days were selling for $1,000. For years, she paid $8 every week to the bank out of the $20 she earned to pay off the house. 

“We had to have somewhere to live,” Smith said. “My mama wasn’t working nowhere and she was sick too.”

Now, Smith will be able to stay in her home and sit on her beloved porch to people watch once again after repairs are finished sometime in January.

According to grant writer Alice Cintron, the county initially focused on historic Milstead area, which met the grant’s criteria of a low income area, to help preserve the historic value of the neighborhood and specifically improve a portion that had not seen local improvements, such as paving or stormwater drains. 

However, they ran into difficulties finding homes. Cintron said many homes that might otherwise qualify had title or lien issues. Coordinator Mary Ledbetter explained, “The grant funding cannot pay for tax liens and the county does not have the money to research these liens.” 

In addition, many of the repair estimates were coming in at higher levels than the grant writers had planned for. “Every house identified has had unsafe levels of lead and safety is an issue. This means we only have money for fewer homes,” said Ledbetter. 

Four or five homes are still in the pipeline and another house is set to break ground possibly within weeks. The grant is open to homes in the same Census tract as Milstead. 

For more information on the CHIP grant, contact