Families looking for affordable homes may find common cause with southeast Cedar Rapids’ sometimes-troubled Wellington Heights neighborhood through Four Oaks’ TotalChild program.
“I’m glad somebody got this idea and did this,” said Sue Prime. “It’ll be a nice place to live.”
Prime, 55, was sitting on the front porch of her newly renovated home one recent afternoon, enjoying the late-autumn warmth and keeping an eye on the controlled chaos next door. A crew of workers was busy turning 520 16th St. SE from a neglected, improvised duplex to a single-family home – by Thanksgiving, if possible.
“We’ve got plumbers here, we’ve got electricians here,” said Ron Heggebo, owner of Ron’s Siding and Construction. “It’s been a madhouse.”
A few blocks away on Bever Avenue, Joe Lock showed off a finished product.
“This house has a lot of charm and character,” said Lock, sounding like a real estate agent as he pointed out built-in storage cabinets and hardwood floor with an inlaid design worked into it.
That house in the 1500 block of Bever Avenue SE is about to become the second sale of TotalChild’s Wellington Heights Initiative. Lock, executive director of Four Oaks’ Affordable Housing Network Inc. subsidiary, said his staff was about close with a buyer.
The first sale was the home Prime rented for 18 years before AHNI bought it earlier this year. Through the Initiative, Prime was able to buy the place.
“We got to working with her and she wanted to stay,” said Dave O’Clair, who’s supervising the rehabilitations for AHNI.
“Been here too long to move,” said Prime – long enough to become known as “Mama Sue” to the children on the block.
Anyone who passes credit and background checks can buy or rent an AHNI Wellington Heights house or apartment, and not all TotalChild families will move into Wellington Heights. The project is designed to give a boost to families locked out of decent housing.
“Low-income housing is so critical to these families,” said Amy Grunewaldt, TotalChild director. “We can change more than just a family, we can change a community.”
The program’s goal this year is 35 rehabilitated homes in its 18-block target area, the heart of Wellington Heights. Home sales and rentals will fund 65 additional purchases and renovations over the next two years, with the goal of boosting ownership in the Initiative’s 18-block target area from 49 percent to 70 percent.
Along the 1400 block of Bever, often the city’s most trouble-prone, changes are felt before the first new neighbor moves in. The purchase of several rental properties and departure of tenants for the properties’ renovation or demolition has reduced police calls to the block by more than 55 percent for the year, through Oct. 10. (story continues below photo)
“I genuinely think we had a hand in it,” said Lock, noting AHNI now owns 15 of the city’s top 30 addresses for crime reports.
“That is dramatic and unusual, and of course we’re very happy about that,” said police Lt. Tim Daily. “As we and they proceed, we hope to see similar results.”
“Some of our housing that had the most police calls are under the control of Affordable Housing, and they’ll be sure it’s taken care of and the people they rent to are people we want to see in the neighborhood,” said Terry Bilsland, president of the Wellington Heights Neighborhood Association. “Some portions of Bever Avenue, the effect it’s had is just incredible.”
AHNI’s purchases included 1415 Bever Ave. SE, a 12-unit apartment building well-known to police. The building was demolished, AHNI placing its tenants – those who could pass a background check and pay their utility bills – in its other apartment holdings around town.
“They were very good about relocating people, but you had to pass their checks,” said Daily.
AHNI purchased another troubled 12-unit property, the Rose Apartments at 1407 Third Ave. SE. All but two of the building’s tenants have moved elsewhere as its new owner awaits approval of state and federal tax credits for renovation of historic properties, Lock said.
At AHNI’s renovated four-unit apartment house in the 1400 block of Bever, rent is $400 monthly for single-bedroom apartment, $475 for two bedrooms. Heat and city services are included, leaving only electricity for tenants to pay.
TotalChild families will move from renting to ownership through the Homeownership Incubator Program, a joint project of AHNI and Horizons, the Cedar Rapids family service organization. The program places $100 of a tenant’s monthly rent into an escrow account, allowing them to save for a down payment as they rebuild their credit.
Tenants participate in Horizons’ credit counseling while enrolled in the savings plan. When a down payment has been saved, tenants are connected to a city program providing up to $6,500 to first-time home buyers, making qualified buyers for AHNI’s affordable rehabbed homes.
The Initiative may be the best chance for a neighborhood that’s seen renewal schemes come and go, said Charles Connerly, director of the University of Iowa’s School of Urban and Regional Planning.
“Before the real estate bust, everybody said home ownership is a wonderful thing and it is,” said Connerly. “But some of these families need a little more help. It’s trying to address two issues, family stability but also neighborhood stability, at the same time. The idea of getting people into stable home ownership and providing them with social services I think is a good one.”
“It’s like a brand-new house, only it’s in an established neighborhood with fully-grown trees,” said Lock. “I can show you as many as you want to see.”
AHNI contractors perform complete renovations inside and out: new furnaces and kitchen appliances, new wiring and plumbing, new roofs and siding, new insulation and bathrooms. Interior work preserves as much original woodwork and other features as possible.
“We’re not going to put our name on something we’re not proud of,” said Lock. With new furnaces and insulation, “they’re going to be able to pay the utility bills.”
In a hopeful sign for Wellington Heights’ future, Lock points out two men working on a house down the block not owned by AHNI while a crew blows foam insulation into the walls of a program-owned house.
“You see neighbors out painting their houses and putting up fences,” he said. “They see this inherent pride coming out. That just wasn’t happening a year ago.”
It’s a happy synergy between the needs of TotalChild families and of the neighborhood, said Grunewaldt.
“These families are hard-working. They have full-time jobs, they want to succeed,” she said. “The whole goal with Wellington Heights is that long-term stable housing, and that pride in their community.”
The Wellington Heights Initiative will be self-sustaining as sales pick up, Lock said.
“We’re willing to take a risk as a non-profit,” he said. “The role of the non-profit here is to do things the for-profit companies can’t do, because they can’t make money on it.”
And as families become established in the neighborhood, Lock expects new residents to be attracted by affordable older homes within walking distance of downtown. But it won’t be gentrification – Connerly calls it “incumbent upgrading.”
“This is a better way to rescue a neighborhood than its being discovered by the gentry,” he said. “It’s being upgraded for and by people who are incumbent in the neighborhood, not just for newcomers.”