Rock Island launches pilot Homestead Program to fix up blighted neighborhoods | Politics and elections

Rock Island has launched an effort to bring back an affordable housing and neighborhood revitalization initiative that died out in the 1990s.

The Urban Homestead Program uses federal money to purchase and then fix up dilapidated houses before reselling them to moderate- and low-income families. The goal is to improve blighted areas in the city, even if that means fixing up one house at a time.

The city recently rehabbed its first house, at 1435 15th Ave. The two-story, three-bedroom, 1.5-bath home was rebuilt from the inside out, including reconstruction of the front porch that looks out onto Longview Park.

“That is the pilot house,” Miles Brainard, Rock Island community and economic development director, said. 

Brainard said the city currently had general rehab programs, like TARRP, the Targeted Area Repair and Rehab Program, aimed at areas of the city “that need a little more TLC” that are funded with Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) from the federal Housing and Urban Development program. 

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“What we’ve had running for years and years are the housing rehabilitation programs focused on smaller-scale projects,” he said. “That might range from a furnace or water heater being replaced to a roof being redone or front steps being rebuilt. What we haven’t done is a whole-house rehabilitation.”

When plans for the house were first introduced last year, some city council members pushed back, saying the math didn’t work out in the city’s favor. Spending more than $200,000 to fix up a house that will sell for less than $100,000 didn’t make sense, they said.

Some council members made the same point again when it came before them during the April 11 meeting to approve a sales contract with the home’s buyer, Johana Perez, for $92,000.

The city bought the house from the county tax auction in 2019 for $835. Although council members approved spending up to $230,000 last May to rehab the house, the actual cost was $209,000. 

“These are not funds from the city’s general fund,” Brainard said. “These are funds from HUD and a grant from IHDA, the Illinois Housing Development Authority. The funds we receive from them are intended to use on projects of this kind, which are adhering to all of the regulations that those agencies have.

“This isn’t like a normal home-flip project that folks might do privately. We’re trying to achieve goals set out for us by these agencies using their funds.”

Brainard said those requirements included an environmental survey to test for lead-based paint and asbestos. If those hazardous materials are found, abatement must take place. He said the cost of rehabbing the house on 15th Avenue was $209,000 in part because the environmental study turned up both lead and asbestos that needed to be removed.

When it was safe to proceed, the interior of the house was gutted and received all new wiring and plumbing, a new HVAC system, a new kitchen and appliances were installed and a half bath was added on the first floor. Outside, exterior siding was replaced, the front and back porches were rebuilt, new concrete walkways were installed and nuisance vegetation was removed. 

“At the end, what we have is an average, safe, quality house,” Brainard said. “Have we spent more than anyone might do on their own renovation? Yes, but we are achieving the goals set out by those agencies using their money to do it.”

He said Perez, the buyer, now has a safe home for her and her family that wouldn’t need any significant maintenance or upgrades for years.

Brainard said he hoped the city would eventually rehab and resell one to two homes per year once the program was fully functional. He looks to the success of Davenport’s Urban Homestead Program and hopes that someday Rock Island’s program will be similar.

Bruce Berger, community and economic development director for Davenport, said the city received about $1.5 million annually in CDBG funds and $400,000 from HUD’s HOME program

“We generally do one or two Urban Homestead projects a year,” Berger said. “In general, we spend CDBG and HOME dollars on things like our Down Payment Assistance program, Owner-Occupied Rehab Loans, Accessibility Rehab Assistance, rehab and construction of affordable rental housing, small business economic development activities and infrastructure projects.”

K.J. Whitley, community development manager for Moline, said the city received $867,229 in CDBG funds in 2021. Although Moline does not have an Urban Homestead Program, Whitley said the city provides houses to nonprofit organizations that rehab and resell them to low-income families. 

Brainard said Rock Island had already purchased its next house for the program, located on 32nd Street. 

“It’s sitting there ready, if the council wants to proceed with the program and wants to do a subsequent whole-house rehab,” he said. “We purchased it because the tax auction only happens once a year, so we wanted to grab one when we could. 

“When we say ‘homestead,’ what are we trying to accomplish? We’re trying to inject an improved property into a neighborhood that could really use a bit of a facelift. We’re not just creating one good house; we’re tying to transform neighborhoods. When we were doing this project, we noticed the adjacent property owners started rebuilding their own decks and cleaning up their yards. Small things, but it makes a difference.

“One house at a time can really change a block face,” Brainard said. “Little improvements build up over time.”

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