This is the second article in a two-part series on housing revitalization in Akron. Read Part One here.
Your task: revitalize a blighted neighborhood. Your budget: $1,000. While some skeptics might scoff at this hypothetical scenario, Paul Stewart of the Oswego Renaissance Association (ORA) in Oswego, New York thinks differently. And he should know; he’s seen grants of $1,000 and less make a major difference for the once ailing area.
“Critics fail to understand [an amount like] $1,000 in the context of a strategy,” says Stewart. “It’s like internal combustion—it’s a spark that starts it all.”
Stewart founded the ORA in 2013 in an effort to combat population loss and housing blight in Oswego, New York, which lost almost 22 percent of its population from 1950 to 2000. He says the resulting disinvestment caused Oswego to “bottom out” by 2010, having worsened with the 2008 recession.
In 2013, ORA worked with a planning and development firm called czb to complete a thorough analysis of Oswego’s housing inventory—scoring homes between 1 (“ready to sell”) and 6 (“in abject distress; often abandoned”). Together they determined that more than half of the residential structures fell into categories 3 and 4. Category 3 was comprised of “good, solid” homes that were “tired and needed upgrades,” while Category 4 included “troubled properties with significant issues” that were “still recoverable.”
That middle-market point was where the ORA found its sweet spot. “What’s often missed is that if you try to go to a neighborhood that is extremely distressed, your ability to achieve a marketable outcome is extremely limited,” says Stewart. “Rarely [will you] have the resources to achieve success in the short-term. If you can get to blocks before they have tipped—those that are at risk—the cost will pale in comparison to what it would cost after it had tipped.”
Small Investment, Big Impact
Oswego’s resurgence largely has some valuable lessons to teach the town of Akron, Ohio. The 2017 “Planning to Grow Akron” report calls Akron a “city of contrasts” when it comes to housing, with one-quarter of the city’s housing in “great shape,” one-quarter “extremely distressed,” and the remaining 50 percent being “solid, older homes in mid-class neighborhoods.”
So how did Oswego do it? Inspired by similar momentum in Jamestown, New York, the ORA identified four key “middle markets” in which to help 500 property owners improve their residences over five years (with the ultimate goal of shaping how 1,500 households perceive the town). Among other means, they exceeded this goal by awarding “block challenge grants” that provide 1:1 matching of up to $1,000 for homeowners who commit to mobilize with others on their block and invest their own money on exterior upgrades.
“When neighbors are willing to work [together], they realize they have the capacity to make that street what they want it to become,” says Stewart, adding that, so far, just over $525,000 worth of grants has yielded more than $2 million in direct investment by Oswego homeowners. “When they do that, it signals to the wider market that this place is growing, and people start to move in. The confidence to invest is unlocked.”
Helping Residents Become Homeowners
The Well CDC’s Zac Kohl is hoping to unlock that same momentum in his Akron neighborhood of Middlebury. This year, the organization undertook an ambitious “60 Homes in 60 Months” project designed to reclaim area residences, combat slumlord culture, and address persistent issues of blight and disinvestment. (See Part One of this series for more detail.)
According to Kohl, Middlebury has 2,668 homes—584 of them vacant. “With only 25 percent of homes owner-occupied, the question becomes: who is the person who might actually care about their property? The [answer is the] homeowner,” says Kohl. “So how do we get homeownership into people’s hands?”
The “60 Homes” initiative will directly address that question, investing around $3 million over five years to purchase 60 homes around Middlebury, restore and renovate them, and then sell them at market rates to local residents.
“We wanted to set a big enough goal that we could see the needle move on housing in our community,” says Kohl. “We wanted to cut through the red tape and make home ownership possible for people who want to be in our community.”
Kohl is still fundraising via various channels, so the homes will be purchased incrementally. For phase one, Kohl plans to rent out 15 of the properties, rather than sell them right away. He believes this approach will have several benefits, such as helping to generate income to purchase the next wave of homes in the project and set the tone for rental values in Middlebury.
“Of those 75 percent [who rent in Middlebury rather than own], 100 percent of them are not ready to own a home tomorrow,” says Kohl, adding that they plan to put the first three homes up for rental this fall. “We want to provide a healthy living situation while they work towards home ownership.”
By purchasing a chunk of homes in Middlebury, Kohl also hopes to create more space for locals to have a say—and a stake—in the future of the neighborhood, which has been deemed an emerging “hot spot” by the city. One recent development is the popular East End apartment complex (housed in the old Goodyear headquarters), and Heritage Industrial Finishing owner Nick Pamboukis recently purchased a former senior living facility with the aim of converting it into high-end apartments.
Gentle-fication and Micro-Surgery
While the progress is exciting, Kohl wants to make sure long-term residents don’t miss out. “We hope to help avoid displacement and meet the community where the community currently is,” Kohl says of the “60 Homes” effort. “Our goal is to keep [home] ownership within the community that currently lives in Middlebury before outside investment starts to come.”
Monte Anderson of Dallas-based Options Real Estate has a name for that mindset: “gentle-fication.” He says he often gets credit for being a visionary in transforming various areas around Dallas, but that “the real visionaries were the people [in the communities]. Early on, the locals can get in and own things, fix things up, and get their foothold before the big developers can come through and gentrify them out.”
Like Stewart and Kohl, Anderson believes that small investments and projects can have a big impact. “I call it micro-surgery,” he says. “Where can I do one repair that will cause healing for the rest of the body? Which piece of land, which building [will do the same]? When you start restoring a house in the neighborhood, the whole neighborhood watches, and that can cause a ripple effect.”
As for Kohl, he’s hopeful that his efforts (and those of other CDCs) will achieve just that, and he believes Akron is in a prime position to move forward in a meaningful way.
“People are moving toward neighborhoods in a way we haven’t seen for a long time in Akron,” he says. “Right now, there’s a perfect storm of excitement and energy around neighborhoods that will encourage investment.”
(Top photo source: Oswego Renaissance Association Facebook page)