Creating a community of choice

Lifelong East Side resident Seanne Thomas is ready to help residents invest in their neighborhoods through buying a lot and building a house or rehabbing vacant residences. (submitted photo)

A survey conducted in early 2013 identified 7.1 percent of houses in the ESNDC 90-block target area as vacant. 144 vacancies were found amongst 2,044 total residences. The darker map pins represent vacant lots. Vacant residences are marked by the lighter pins. (submitted graphic) (right-click View Image for larger view)

ESNDC launches neighborhood development initiative

Rebecca Rowe
Review staff

Over 140 houses are currently vacant in a 90-block area on St. Paul’s East Side between Phalen Boulevard and Maryland Avenue. Additionally, there are 96 vacant lots.

Data from a survey, collected in January by the East Side Neighborhood Development Company, forms the backbone of a new initiative launched by the nonprofit organization.

“We’re targeting the area of St. Paul hardest hit by foreclosures and vacancies,” said ESNDC executive director John Vaughn. “Our effort is to create a ‘Community of Choice’ on the East Side, a place where people choose to come and choose to stay.”

Community of Choice is a three-year project attempting to build a housing market in the post-Great Recession era.

Begun in 2013, the endeavor combines resources of a wide range of partners, including Dayton’s Bluff Neighborhood Housing Services and Habitat for Humanity, to best serve the East Side.

Initiative plans

Normally, community development companies, such as ESNDC, work closely with government agencies and philanthropic sources to produce affordable housing.

This strategy necessitates an organization’s reliance upon outside entities for funding.

Community of Choice breaks ground on a new path to ensure housing availability for people of all incomes.

The novel approach involves a private sector “buy-build-sell” team.

Led by lifelong East Side resident Seanne Thomas, the group seeks to identify individuals interested in community investment.

Opportunities with ESNDC include buying a lot and building a house and rehabbing vacant residences.

“We’ve already found a number of people interested in and able to invest in their community. There is a whole screening process involved,” said Thomas, a highly experienced broker and real estate agent.  

A local effort

The East Side Neighborhood Development Company was formed in 1979 as a neighborhood nonprofit community development corporation.

Its 33 years of service to Payne-Phalen and surrounding areas make the organization apt and knowledgeable to address the local housing situation. 

“Over two-thirds of residences nearby have kids,” said Vaughn from office overlooking the corner of Payne and Case avenues. “Along with all of our partners, we would want to build single-family houses with full basements and detached garages -- two stories and three bedrooms.”

Vaughn lamented about outside organizations, which he described as “knuckleheads,” -- converging upon the East Side in an attempt to earn money.

“They’ve figured out you can pick up county vacant lots for next-to-nothing. The problem is they’re not familiar with the needs of the community. Building small ramblers on (concrete) slabs is not acceptable,” Vaughn said.

The influx of external buyers, at the very least, positively indicates the existence of an ever-growing housing market in East Side neighborhoods.

“We’re definitely No. 1 in terms of knowing the stock,” Thomas said. “Now is a pretty good time to invest in the East Side.”

Target area

The Community of Choice initiative is focusing upon a Neighborhood Stabilization Program 3 area.

NSP3, a label given by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, recognizes districts experiencing the most severe problems associated with the foreclosure crisis.

These “severe problems” include extremely high rates of homes financed by a subprime mortgage, delinquency, or foreclosure.

St. Paul received $2,059,877 in NSP3 funding and chose a 52-block section of Payne-Phalen as its primary focus.

It is estimated by the city that one out of every 5.4 residential units were vacant or in foreclosuer during 2009 and 2010 in the Payne-Phalen NSP3 sector.

The HUD funding was awarded in 2011. The contract ends on March 14, 2014, and all money must be used by then. 

“One person with whom we have begun working is a contractor doing the NSP3 houses,” Vaughn said. “They’re all tip-top quality and up to the standards of the city.”

Additional factors beyond foreclosure crisis problems cited by the city as to the area’s NSP3 selection include: strong ongoing community engagement activities and initiatives by District 5 and ESNDC; key public infrastructure and investments (such as Payne-Maryland project and Payne Avenue streetscape); and nearby transit corridors.

Looking ahead

A variety of funders have given their support to the Community of Choice initiative spearheaded by the East Side Neighborhood Development Company.

“McKnight, McNeely, Bremer, Bigelow, Ecolab, St. Paul Foundation,” said Vaughn enthusiastically. “Do you want me to keep going? All these organizations know what is at stake here.”

Beyond its efforts to build new and complete quality rehabs, ESNDC offers homebuyer preparation classes and a healthy homes educational program sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield in both Spanish and Hmong.

The three-year Community of Choice initiative will run through 2015, and Vaughn has great hopes for the coming years.

“We’re planning on conducting a survey of the target area identifying vacant lots and residences every six months,” Vaughn said. “And I am really hoping we see a lot less pins on the map in the future!”

ESNDC is accepting inquiries from individuals interested in learning more about buying or rehabbing a target area home.  For more information, visit the ESNDC website at or contact John Vaughn by phone at 651-771-1152 or email at

Rebecca Rowe can be reached at or at 651-748-7816.

How do you define “affordable housing”?

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the generally accepted definition of affordability is for a household to pay no more than 30 percent of its annual income on their place of residence.

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