Paint the basement stairs. Replace the handles on the buffet. Carol Carey's to-do list for the 102-year-old home she is helping rehabilitate is shrinking.
Next month, she plans to put the Frogtown home up for sale — the culmination of a community effort to tick one more property off the list of vacant homes in St. Paul. It is one of several grass-roots and local endeavors to fight blight that still lingers in some neighborhoods of St. Paul and Minneapolis after the recession.
While the total number of registered vacant buildings in the two metro cities is about half of what it was in 2008, boarded-up homes continue to plague some areas, data about vacant buildings show. In St. Paul, the city counted 889 vacant buildings last month — nearly twice as many as there were in the early 2000s.
Meanwhile, the last of the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) dollars, which helped the Twin Cities redevelop abandoned homes, are being used up. Other federal programs that support such efforts have been cut back.
"NSP was a one-time really, really valuable great thing," St. Paul principal project manager Joe Musolf said, noting that the city received $31.4 million from the program. "Now we're spending the last end of that. So where do we go?"
Cities and neighbors often prefer to rehabilitate houses instead of tearing them down and leaving a vacant lot behind. But with less money available, city officials are rethinking how they invest.
Partnerships with nonprofits, foundations and community groups will be key to addressing vacant properties in the future, said St. Paul's housing director, Patty Lilledahl.
"[Cities] are kind of scrambling to keep these type of efforts going," said Chip Halbach, with the Minnesota Housing Partnership.
Less money available
St. Paul started buying vacant buildings and rehabilitating or demolishing them and selling the properties nearly a decade ago, Musolf said. After working on about 400 properties, the city has stopped buying new sites and will sell the remaining properties in its inventory over the next couple of years, he said. Officials have to determine what the city's future role will be in getting vacant single-family homes back on the market.
The city has limited funds, Musolf said, and gets "a lot of bang for its buck" when it focuses on larger, multifamily properties, he said.
Minneapolis, like St. Paul, relies on a patchwork of federal, state and local funds to address blighted properties, said Elfric Porte, who manages residential and real estate development for the city. Most of the $34 million that Minneapolis got through the NSP has been spent. Moving forward, the city will focus on "smaller target areas within the city," Porte said.
The decline in federal HOME and Community Development Block Grant money has added to the challenge. St. Paul received $41 million from those two programs over the past five years — $11.5 million less than it got in the previous five years.
In some cases, community groups have stepped up their efforts. Caty Royce, executive director of the Frogtown Neighborhood Association, has worked with Carey, executive director of Historic St. Paul, on fixing up the 102-year-old home. It is the third property they have rehabilitated through a partnership called Preserve Frogtown.
Carey said she expects that the total public subsidy to redo the home will reach $80,000 or $85,000 — significantly less than the $150,000 that St. Paul has spent rehabilitating some properties.
"Now that [the NSP funding] is down to a trickle, we need entities that are willing to look at this system and say, 'How do we do this for less?' " Frogtown's Royce said.
Shiloh Clamons said she has watched her neighborhood in St. Paul's North End slowly improve over the past 14 years. Properties have been fixed up and residents have moved in since the recession — but things aren't perfect. Three vacant properties sit within one block of her home. Such clusters are not uncommon in St. Paul, city data show.
"It's frustrating, because you want your community to be thriving, and when things just sit, you're like, 'What's wrong with us?' " Clamons said.
City Council Member Amy Brendmoen, whose ward includes Clamons' neighborhood, said that the city has seen major progress reducing vacant buildings but that she was still surprised by the number she saw while knocking on doors before the 2015 election.
The city has less federal assistance now that the flood of foreclosures has subsided, but staff members also have more time to find solutions other than demolition, she said.
Building inspectors are able to do more proactive enforcement and ensure that empty properties are well-maintained, said Robert Humphrey, spokesman for the city's Department of Safety and Inspections. But if a property is too far gone — and some empty homes attract drug dealing and other crime — Humphrey said the city's mind-set is still: "Let's tear it down."
Many residents have pushed the city to hold off on leveling buildings. In Dayton's Bluff on St. Paul's East Side, a group of residents recently held a home tour to try to save properties that would otherwise be demolished.
A judgment call
"It's a balance. And a lot of times an older home has used up its life span," Humphrey said. "It requires a lot of significant investments to keep them going."
Vacant lots left by teardowns can turn into "a repository for garbage," said Frogtown resident Patricia Ohmans, who is working with neighbors to turn empty lots into small parks. Minneapolis has allowed community gardens as a temporary use in some of its empty lots, Porte said.
Whether to tear down a building is a judgment call, said Mike Rumppe, Minneapolis' deputy director of housing inspections. He said city officials need to determine whether a property is hazardous to neighbors and whether the cost of rehabilitating the house is worth it. He added: "We prefer never to tear down if we can help it."