CEDAR RAPIDS — Over a hundred people watched Thursday evening as an excavator took a giant bite out of a boarded-up 12-plex apartment building in Wellington Heights.
Police and neighborhood leaders said the building had come to symbolize the worst in a neighborhood tired of crime, bad behavior and bad landlords.
Acting Police Chief Tom Jonker told the crowd that police officers had been called to the 12-plex at 1415 Bever Ave. SE on 182 occasions in two years for drug busts, assaults, fights, drunkenness and more. Demolishing the 12-plex would not cure all the neighborhood’s problems, but it was a start, Jonker said.
The 12-plex is one of 24 properties that the Four Oaks children and family services’ subsidiary, the Affordable Housing Network Inc. or AHNI, quietly has purchased in an 18-block area in the last six months as part of what the organizations are calling the TotalChild Wellington Heights Initiative. Most of the properties, some single-family, some multifamily, will be renovated with the goal of turning many of the single-family homes that had been rental properties into homeownership opportunities for low and moderate income families. More properties will be bought and another group of rental properties in the target area likely will be managed by AHNI.
The effort’s bedrock belief is that children — including the children for whom Four Oaks work provides services — need good housing and a safe neighborhood just like they need family and good schools. Four Oaks’ TotalChild program is designed to stand by children in the programs in all parts of their lives until they are 18.
“This building were taking down today housed some of the worst struggling neighborhood issues in Wellington Heights and in this community — high poverty, high crime, lots of helplessness. It’s certainly not a place for kids to grow up,” Jim Ernst, president/CEO of Four Oaks, told last night’s crowd.
Ernst said Wellington Heights’ neighborhood leaders have made it clear in supporting Four Oaks and AHNI’s neighborhood-transformation initiative that residents in the neighborhood want neighbors who obey the law, who are good neighbors and who take care of their property.
In purchasing 24 properties in the 18-block piece of Wellington Heights with plans to purchase more, AHNI is the new landlord in the neighborhood and a landlord that is going to be a good landlord for children, families and the neighborhood, Ernst promised.
“Today, we are saying to landlords, you cannot provide poor quality housing for children who live here,” he said. “You can’t ignore the background checks for your tenants. This cannot just be about economics. It’s the future of our children, it’s the future of this neighborhood, and we all have to do a better job.”
Terry Bilsland, president of the Wellington Heights Neighborhood Association, told the crowd that he’s heard a lot of talk, ideas and plans over the years for his neighborhood. Now there is action, he said.
City Council member Pat Shey, whose council district includes the Wellington Heights Neighborhood, said City Hall stood behind the TotalChild Wellington Heights Initiative 100 percent and he promised City Hall would do its part to make the neighborhood a better one.
“I’m here to let you all know that as a city we will redouble our efforts to hold landlords accountable in this neighborhood,” Shey said. “We will continue to enforce the current city codes and make sure all the landlords adhere to the letter and spirit of the law.”
In the crowd was Dale Todd, a homeowner in the neighborhood, a former president of the Wellington Heights Neighborhood Association and a former City Council member, who said the issues of the neighborhood are “incredibly complex.”
“That’s why the city councils in the past have not been able to deal with this effectively,” Todd said. “It’s a start. I commend them for it. But now comes the hard work.”
Angie Shultz, another neighborhood homeowner and neighborhood association board member, said demolishing the 12-plex at 1415 Bever Ave. SE was an important step for the neighborhood.
“Just having this down will make a difference for the safety of our neighborhood and our children,” Shultz said. “There was much drug activity and thing going on here, and everybody was aware of it. It’s just going to be really good for our neighborhood.”
Chad Simmons, executive director of Diversity Focus, said last night that transforming a neighborhood like Wellington Heights is not like checkers but more like the more-complicated challenge of chess. Diversity Focus is working with Four Oaks and AHNI in an alliance to improve housing and other opportunities for African-Americans in the community.
The Wellington Heights Initiative’s 18-block focus comes in an area with a sizable African-American presence, and Simmons said some African-Americans could be forced out of the neighborhood as AHNI takes over properties and makes more demands of its tenants. The “upside” and Diversity Focus’ interest is to increase homeownership opportunities here for the neighborhood and for African Americans in it, he said.
Four Oaks’ Ernst has a target of increasing homeownership from the current 49 percent on these blocks to 63 percent.
“This is an opportunity to empower people,” Simmons said. “There also is the risk of reducing diversity within the area. Unfortunately, you have to deal with both sides.”