For homeowners, vacant homes mean woes


A fixer-upper at 620 Jessamine Ave. is one of the homes the city of St. Paul is releasing for sale to developers in an effort to boost the housing market in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood, and other areas throughout the city. (submitted photo)

To address vacancies, city moves to sell properties

Patrick Larkin
news editor

“As winter brings more darkness, the vacant homes just add to it,” wrote Shannon Lawson, a resident of the East Side’s Payne-Phalen neighborhood, in an email to city and state officials, neighbors, the East Side Neighborhood Development Company and the East Side Review.

She should know -- she’s living right in the thick of it.

For Lawson, a stroll around the neighborhood can be in some ways a source of disappointment.

On a recent walk, she found that in a nine-block area around her Payne-Phalen home, there are 26 vacant homes or lots.

“This is disheartening for those of us who live here,” Lawson wrote. “What can we do as residents to get families in these homes or get them rehabbed by the city? Winter is coming.”

Lawson conducts monthly audits of empty homes as part of the Vacant Housing Watch, a group sponsored by the East Side Development Company that monitors the Payne-Phalen neighborhood’s housing vacancies.

When ESNDC conducted a study of vacant homes last winter in an area surrounding Lawson’s home on the 700 block of Jessamine Avenue, there were 50 vacant properties, Vaughn said.

Vaughn said that number has since declined with the fixing up of six Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity homes. And he expects the number to continue to dwindle.

City RFP

To an extent, the city has a response to Lawson’s woes. They’ve made a move to release clusters of vacant homes and lots to developers through a request for proposals process, called “Inspiring Communities.” Approved by the city council on Wednesday, Oct. 9, the RFP seeks to spur housing development in troubled areas.

The council hopes to shed the city-owned housing stock in one fell swoop to boost localized housing markets in the Dayton’s Bluff, Railroad Island and Payne-Phalen neighborhoods, among others.

They want to bring in developers to add single-family homes to the market, including nine in Lawson’s area, and about 50 throughout the East Side.

This includes 27 fixer-upper homes, and about as many buildable lots.

In all the city has released a total of 240 properties city-wide as part of the initiative. This includes vacant lots, distressed houses and non-buildable parcels.

The move towards RFP is a way for the city to stretch its dollars further, explained Roxanne Young from the city’s Planning and Economic Development department -- rather than bear the full brunt of rehabilitation costs, the goal would be to have developers turn properties into viable single-family housing.

The city would supply gap funding, to address the fact that it often costs more to rehab or build than the homes can be sold for.

The city has about $2.9 million in the form of municipal bonds and state housing funds to address these gaps. No more that $150,000 can be applied to any one property.

Proposals are due to the city by 3 p.m. Friday, Nov. 27.

Although the PED department couldn’t comment on the number of proposals it had received, Sara Swenson from the department did say that at an informational meeting about the RFP process, 90 people, including interested investors, showed up to hear about the city’s development strategy.

The city is requiring developers to use green building standards, and to qualify for the Xcel EnergyStar program.

In addition, half of the homes have to be developed to be exclusively for owner-occupiers, said Sarah Zorn from the city PED. The other half could be rented.

In Lawson’s locale

Seven of the homes on Lawson’s list are owned by the St. Paul Housing and Redevelopment Authority. Of these, the city is at different stages in selling them off - one has a purchase agreement, one is on sale through a city housing website, one is slotted to go up for sale, two are being rehabbed, and two are listed in the RFP.

Nonetheless, it’s far from addressing the entire vacancy problem in the neighborhood.

“The HRA is trying to focus our resources in order to make an impact in Payne-Phalen,” Young wrote to Lawson. “Nevertheless, the scope of need is beyond what the HRA currently has funds to address.”

For the properties not under city control, Young encouraged Lawson to work with the Payne-Phalen Community Council, ESNDC and to press the Ramsey County tax forfeiture office. The idea being, if more parties are working on it, it will inspire the community.

ESNDC weighs in

Vaughn lauded the city’s move to release properties.

“In the government development world, it’s pretty fast-paced,” he said, although “I’d like to be quicker,” he added.

“We’re looking really at what people have been talking about for a number of years -- concentrating enough action in a small enough area to show impact,” he said. With the possibility of the additional city-owned homes going out to bid, “I think we’re getting into good shape,” he said.

He said ESNDC would be focusing on an area in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood.

He’s hoping it could be enough to turn things around a bit. “If we can concentrate our bundling up there, I think that neck of the woods is going to be looking pretty good in a year or two,” he said. The term “bundling” refers to ESNDC’s approach of combining different grants to address numerous problems with a home all at once.

If a prospective homebuyer drives through the neighborhood and sees newly built homes and revitalized old ones on every block, “that’s sending a really good message to folks about the neighborhood,” Vaughn said.

The bottom line

Despite the city’s efforts, Lawson’s concern remains.

The bottom line: “there are too many vacant houses around my house,” she said. “The rehab projects around me have taken over a year and are still vacant.”

She said the empty houses are more noticeable come winter, when there’s less light.

“When other neighborhoods’ houses are covered in outside holiday lights and decorations, many homes on the East Side don’t have any lights on inside!”

But Lawson does have some positive notes to add. For one, she said she’s encouraged that ESNDC has plans to rehab and build as many as 100 homes in her area.

“We try to stay positive,” she said. “The neighbors we have are great and we aren’t planning to move so we do what we can to build community.”

And those aren’t just words -- the Lawsons were part of a team of neighbors that helped put in a small park next to their home, through a project called Payne-Phalen Pocket Parks.

While Lawson said beautification projects like this won’t erase the problem, “it can help change the image.”

So here’s hoping for some more holiday lights in the area in coming years.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com.

 

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