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Push to rehab 100 homes in north St. Louis sputters, but the ambition remains

Push to rehab 100 homes in north St. Louis sputters, but the ambition remains

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ST. LOUIS — A prominent St. Louis community service group four years ago pledged to renovate 100 deteriorating homes along the Page Boulevard corridor at a cost of $20 million, helping to revitalize the neighborhood along the way.

Better Family Life in its 2018 annual report explained that the rehabbed homes were a primary component to a broader initiative pushing for commercial development, greater employment opportunities and “innovative recreational venues.”

“We want this area to be as thriving as it once was,” the report said.

But today the celebrated plan has only resulted in five homes being rehabbed, with chief executive Malik Ahmed explaining that only “droplets” of the $20 million in government and private financing materialized. Ahmed asserts, however, that the Page Boulevard Revitalization Initiative isn’t dead and is hopeful that the funding will come together this year, at long last.

Ahmed, who’s the founder of the nonprofit agency, said the funding could come from private donors and also government sources such as the city. The organization has received offers of financing from banks, but Better Family Life needs donated dollars to make the project more affordable for people who already live in the area.

“We’ve got to try to make these houses affordable to keep current residents in place,” Ahmed explained. “That’s where the impasse has been.”

So far no government or business entities have signed on to partner in the project.

But the agency plans to announce its status as an EnVision Center this April, a designation granted to nonprofits by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. No funding is tied to the designation but Ahmed said he’s confident that being an EnVision Center will encourage more big donors to climb on board.

Ahmed said part of the challenge is that businesses, as well as the state and local government, consider the development of north St. Louis a “low priority.”

“There are so many things about black-white St. Louis that I’ll never understand,” Ahmed said. “How can you not see the devastation that could result if this is not built up, if it’s not an indigenous effort by the people who come out of these communities? How could you not see what could possibly result?”

His agency has several initiatives intended to improve the lives of low-income people in St. Louis by addressing crime, unemployment, education and emotional trauma. But Ahmed said the revitalization of Page Boulevard is a primary aim. The area Better Family Life wants to address — from Vernon Avenue to the south up to Wells Avenue in the north, stretching from Kingshighway Boulevard over to the city limits — is blighted with abandoned homes. Ahmed believes that the Page Boulevard corridor could be a commercial-residential hub.

“This corridor is so important,” Ahmed said. “It’s a jewel waiting to be discovered. It’s centrally located in approximation to the Central West End, the University City loop, Highway 70, Highway 64, to Forest Park, to hospitals, to museums. It is ideal for development.”

Better Family Life is currently rehabbing a home across the street from its headquarters in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood, and has eyes on another. Those efforts are primarily funded by the city’s Community Development Administration, the nonprofit network NeighborWorks and private sources.

According to the CDA, Better Family Life requested funding to rehabilitate four homes along Page Boulevard in 2018. They received funding for one and the others were denied.

In the case of the one that was approved, CDA Executive Director Matt Moak said, “We thought the numbers supported (the organization’s) ability to do the project with our contribution and be successful.”

Repairs cost $250,000 to $270,000 per structure. Of that amount, Better Family Life is hoping to get $50,000 in subsidies for each home.

Tyrone Turner, the organization’s vice president of housing and asset development, said one abandoned home the agency has nearly finished renovating had significant structural problems.

“Three-fourths of the (back) wall pretty much had deteriorated and had to be re-bricked,” Turner said. “We had to put on an entire new roof and underlay.”

The agency is hosting several community meetings to discuss what residents want to see from the corridor revitalization. Organizers say they’ll use the feedback to create a cohesive plan for the corridor by working with other development groups. The next meeting is scheduled for Wednesday.

Despite the delays and the challenges securing funding, Ahmed said the Page Boulevard revitalization effort is still very much alive.

“If we have to do it brick by brick, we’re going to stay on it,” Ahmed said. “We are committed to this work.”

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