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Monday, April 25, 2011

Renters are focus of nonprofit's housing initiative in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood

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Anonymous Pioneer Press said...

7 foreclosed apartment buildings will be leased at affordable rates
By Frederick Melo
fmelo@pioneerpress.com
Updated: 04/23/2011 09:30:22 PM CDT


Affordable housing advocates have long bought up blighted, abandoned properties, cleaned them up and sold them to low-income families for below market value. The thinking is that everyone benefits, including the neighbors, as property values rise with a caretaker in the home. Without one, a vacancy deteriorates into an eyesore, drawing squatters and vandalism.

Jill Henricksen, executive director of the Greater Frogtown Community Development Corp., calls those efforts admirable but insufficient. The foreclosure crisis has hit Frogtown harder, arguably, than any other neighborhood in St. Paul, and it's not just homeowners who have lost their housing. Renters, too, have come home to find locks on their doors as landlords' properties are foreclosed upon.

With financial support from the city, the state and two foundations, the Greater Frogtown CDC has bought seven vacant, foreclosed duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes with the goal of converting them into affordable rental housing. The refurbished apartments will be rented out at rates affordable to families making no more than half the metro area's median family income.

In other words, the Greater Frogtown CDC is about to become a landlord. That's an unusual step for a neighborhood nonprofit organization of its size, and it's a break from tradition for housing advocates accustomed to preaching the importance of stabilizing low-income neighborhoods through home ownership. With stabilization in mind, much of Frogtown was rezoned for single-family homes several years ago.
"Our program is a little different," Henricksen said. "We don't necessarily see the answer as pushing people into homeownership again. If they've lost their home, it's going to take time to build up their credit again. ... Our belief is the American dream has to be redefined.

"Our organization has wanted to get into rentals in the neighborhood," she continued. "There are some very unethical landlords. When real estate values were high and prices were high, we couldn't make the numbers work. But now, we've got this opportunity in front of us because of the foreclosure crisis. ... There are some blocks in Frogtown where 80 percent of the properties are vacant and boarded."

In fact, there are more than 170 vacant properties in the area under the purview of the Frogtown Neighborhood Association, and more than 260 vacant properties overall in the 1st Ward, which has lost more residents than any other area of the city since the 2000 census. While the East Side has more vacancies, Henricksen points out that it encompasses a larger area.

The "Greater Frogtown Affordable Rental Opportunity" effort isn't without its critics. The CDC's seven acquisitions sit in areas where they're mostly surrounded by single-family homes. Getting the vacancies to remain rental properties — a nonconforming use for the area — requires zoning relief, and convincing neighbors, community advocates and members of the St. Paul Planning Commission to see the benefits of low-income rentals has required months of negotiation.

8:14 PM  
Anonymous story continued said...

For 943 Thomas Ave., neighbors expressed concern that maintaining the site as a fourplex would draw too much traffic and too many children. The Frogtown Neighborhood Association, otherwise known as the Thomas-Dale District 7 Planning Council, has been generally supportive of the neighbors' concerns, as have some members of the planning commission, who point out that Frogtown housing prices are already relatively low.

"The residents of Frogtown, we're not anti-renter," said planning commission secretary Anthony Fernandez, a Frogtown real estate agent running for city council. "But for our taxpayers' government dollars, is this the best use of resources? We really have to take a look at retaining the people we have in the community. Increased rental areas drive out homeowners. ... We don't need to be saved in Frogtown. Everyone's always trying to 'save the residents of Frogtown.' "

In a compromise with neighbors, the Greater Frogtown CDC agreed to convert 943 Thomas from a fourplex into a triplex, and the CDC was granted zoning relief from the planning commission in February. The building, which is 8,000 square feet, will likely be rehabbed in June. Once it's ready, the CDC has partnered with Guardian Property Management of New Brighton to screen tenants and manage the sites.

The CDC is contracting St. Paul-based Neighborhood Energy Connection to make sure the rehabbed apartments are as insulated and energy efficient as possible, which will lower renters' utility bills.

"We're replacing everything in the properties, and doing everything 'green,' " Henricksen said.

She said the work on 943 Thomas can't happen soon enough.

"While we've owned that, there have been three or four break-ins," she said. "We find drug paraphernalia and blankets. You can tell someone has been sleeping there."

The Greater Frogtown CDC is now seeking zoning relief for 711 Charles Ave., which has been maintained as a duplex for 87 years, according to their readings of Ramsey County property records. The property has been vacant for more than 18 months.

The other properties acquired by the CDC are at 174 Charles Ave., 750 Sherburne Ave., 826 Sherburne Ave., 783 Charles Ave. and 749 W. University Ave. Meanwhile, the CDC hopes to purchase two properties at 846 W. University Ave. and 946 Thomas Ave.

Funding for the rental initiative is coming, in large part, from federal stimulus dollars administered through the city's Neighborhood Stabilization Program, which is expected to contribute roughly $775,000 to the effort. An acquisition loan from the city will contribute another $242,000, and the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency is contributing $664,000. The Greater Frogtown CDC is contributing $150,000, and the St. Paul Foundation is adding $50,000. To place tenants, the CDC has partnered with the nonprofit Project for Pride in Living, which matches low-income residents with job training and housing.

Meanwhile, the CDC hasn't abandoned its homeownership efforts. Henricksen said her group will continue to buy and sell vacant homes as affordable housing. In fact, they've closed on five homes this year through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, and three additional homes using their own funds.

Janelle Tummel, a spokeswoman for the city's Department of Planning and Economic Development, noted that planning efforts have always called for a mix of housing options in low-income areas. Ward 1 city council member Melvin Carter III agreed.

"Nobody's really against rentals," Carter said. "What people are against is properties that are poorly managed."

"I've got properties on my own block that were foreclosed upon, and they were fantastic neighbors," Carter continued. "Without rentals, we can't have them back."

Frederick Melo can be reached at 651-228-2172.

8:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

St. Paul closes them up with false code violations and then hands them out like treats to the block clubs.

9:28 PM  

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