Near Eastside neighborhood comes far, thanks to NEAR

By BILL BROOKS

The curb appeal of Jefferson Street has undergone a complete transformation in the past few years. The St. Clair Place project has resulted in 100 homes developed, all but three to low- and moderate-income households.

The question John Franklin Hay spends a good deal of time thinking about is this: How does an organization work to bring a neighborhood out of blight and into social and economic health – while not crossing a gray line into an area which has, rightly or wrongly, become a dirty word in redevelopment.

Gentrification.

Whether gentrification is bad or good is a discussion for another day. What is fruit for today’s discussion is the remarkable milestone being celebrated by Hay’s organization, Near East Renewal, more commonly known as NEAR. The milestone celebrated in mid-September is the 100th house in St. Clair Place developed since 2010.

More importantly, about 95% of those new and rehabbed homes are “affordable,” sold to income-eligible buyers of low and moderate incomes.

Hay’s philosophy for St. Clair Place, as well as for the many other Near Eastside neighborhoods in which NEAR works, is that the homes “need to be affordable – and for a long, long time.” He said the homes have brought to the neighborhood “an interesting mix of young families of cultural and social diversity.”

For Andrew Frye, president of the St. Clair Place Neighborhood Association, “St. Clair Place would not be the neighborhood it is today without the neighborhood-focused approach NEAR has taken. To go from over 40 percent vacancy rate to the current mix of 100 affordable and market-rate housing is transformative,” added Frye, himself one of the people who has come to the area through NEAR efforts.

But how does an organization create a vibrant environment without gentrifying the neighborhood? One way is to create the Preserving Affordable Housing Working Group, which looks at all the economic development models and the tools for long-term sustainability. “What really works?” Hay asked.

The goal, he said, is even as a neighborhood got shinier, “that there still be room for folks with low incomes and extremely low incomes. The formula includes creating rental opportunities as well as home ownership – and ensuring that the rents don’t skyrocket along the way. “The conversation is that important in our community, and we should lead it,” the NEAR executive director said.

Hay explained that NEAR developed 32 rental houses now owned and managed by John Boner Neighborhood Centers. To quality to reside in the houses, renters must be at or below 50% of the area median income and also must send their children to one of two Indianapolis PUblic Schools – Thomas Gregg Neighborhood School or Washingon Irving School 14. “This is a family stabilization strategy,” Hay said. “These 32 houses of the 100 will always be rented — and rented to low-income neighbors. It’s part of our intentional strategy.”

Frye said the Neighborhood Association and NEAR are on the same page.

Mayor Joe Hogsett takes his turn at the microphone during a Sept. 18 morning ceremony marking the St. Clair Place achievement. Hogsett praised NEAR and its partners, including the city, for overcoming years of neglect from both the public and private sectors.

“As a neighborhood,” he said, “we want to be socially and economically diverse. It’s not all about maxing out property values – and NEAR is in complete agreement. They’re conscious of the impact a desirable housing market has and are diligent about seeking neighborhood input and feedback on their various initiatives and plans.”

Here’s prime evidence the plan is working. Remember the “Hamilton Street murders,” the headline-grabbing mass killing in 2006 of seven adults and children in a home in the 500 block of Hamilton Street? A house now standing on that property was recently purchased, the buyers fully aware of the history, without even being listed. Houses on all sides have been bought as well, and even one nearby market-rate house sold as well.

“The community is moving on,” Hay said.

Beyond that block of Hamilton Street, the success stories are equally encouraging. When this conversation took place in late August, sales were already pending on five of nine houses under construction. None had been listed.

“It’s been a good story,” Hay said while deflecting any backslaps. He has been at the helm of NEAR for four years, coming on board when the community development corporation was still known as Indy-East Asset Development. Hay said the momentum had already been created by his predecessor, Katy Brett (now Katy Renn), “and I’ve been riding it out, trying not to mess up.”

That comment would imply that Hay has had minimal contribution, an implication belied by the volume of thoughtful rhetoric which can be found under his byline on the NEAR website and its blog. He has the background, having worked improving the Near Eastside since 1987. His resume includes stints as executive director of Horizon House, the John H. Boner Community Center and Shepherd Community. He is currently also filling in as pastor at East 10th United Methodist Church.

Consider these words from a NEAR document titled Distinctive Development in St. Clair Place, which speaks to the priority of not displacing long-time residents while redeveloping the neighborhood:

“Before we started, one of our neighbors described the goal this way: ‘We want those who have lived here in the worst of times to be able to stay and benefit when they become the best of times.’”

Five years ago, the average sale price of homes in St. Clair Place was a paltry $22,000. Three years later, that average sale price had risen to $100,000. The change has crossed over to the market sector, with the first two privately designed homes completed this year selling for over $280,000.

Working toward that goal, Hay espouses a system known as Asset-Based Community Development. Guiding the process is the Near Eastside Quality of Life Plan, steered by the John H. Boner Community Center, boosted a few years later by the Super Bowl Legacy Project, which included major infrastructure improvements in the St. Clair Place area.

Much of the housing work has been done through a loan fund underwritten by State Farm Insurance Co., and administered by James Taylor, executive director of the Boner Center. “James has done an incredible job of administering the fund and keeping it going,” Hay said, pointing out that the loans have been repaid with interest. “Other CDCs had trouble getting construction loans after 2008, but not NEAR.”

The investment – both in terms of money and in social capital – has paid off. In an essay titled Rebuilding Urban Neighborhoods from the Inside Out, Hay explained, “It is easier to build houses and buildings than build enduring relationships and integrity with neighbors. Without these, community is just a place and a concept, not a relational reality.”

Hay further wrote, “More people than we care to admit have lost their sense of place and community – and not just in urban neighborhoods. Being a consumer, patron and spectator doesn’t begin to satisfy the desire to belong, contribute and shape the future that lies at the heart of all of us. The continuing effort to include, invite, welcome, make room, recognize and celebrate – drawing the circle ever wider – brings all into a new and hopeful social reality.”

The hope for the neighborhoods in NEAR’s sphere, Hay said, lies in the assets: affordability, near-Downtown location, parks, the Cultural Trail and good people.

The jury is still out on whether the rejuvenation of St. Clair Place and other Near Eastside neighborhoods is truly “community building.” The verdict, Hay said, may come five years after the affordable-housing loans. Until that time, the homeowner can’t sell.

“If they don’t cash out when their five-year limit hits – and they could cash out of they wanted to – there’s an opportunity to become a legacy neighborhood,” Hay said. “It will be a place that feels like home.”

More on NEAR’s plate

Other current initiatives of Near East Area Renewal include:

  • The Teachers’ Village – In the 800 and 900 blocks of N. Rural Street, there are over 20 new and rehabbed three-bedroom homes, all dating to 1910-20, which are being sold for as little as $130,000. Eligible buyers are educators working in Indianapolis Public Schools and local charter schools.

The idea is to allow teachers to eliminate long daily drives from suburbs, thus encouraging them to work in NEAR-area schools. When they commute, said NEAR Executive Director John Franklin Hay, “they never see themselves as part of the community.” The problem: The Rural Street zone “is the most distressed we’ve done yet.”

  • Economic development — Susan Vogt, NEAR’s economic development director, has created the Near Eastside Guide, an online site/app that highlights many of the eateries, coffee shops, pubs, and antique and thrift shops across the community. This resource is a cooperative effort with Englewood CDC and the IndyEast Promise Zone Buy IndyEast Task Force.

In this area, NEAR is filling a void from the recent demise of the East 10th Street Civic Association. “We’re just scratching the surface of economic development,” Hay said, adding that a future goal includes the establishment of a Near Eastside Business Association.

  • Inspire 10th Street – This project would create an arts district between Rural and Dearborn streets, revolving around the old Rivoli Theater, long a target of redevelopment. Hay is working with the Englewood Community Development Corp. and the John H. Boner Community Center to look at every aspect of the Rivoli rehabilitation, including not only how the building would be used for entertainment, but also what the surrounding environment should look like.
  • Sherman Park reuse – Funded by a $200,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, NEAR is leading an area-wide planning effort to address the 50-acre site which once held an RCA manufacturing site which employed as many as 8,000. The goal is to give city officials recommendations for the site’s cleanup and reuse.
  • Minnie Hartmann Center – In partnership with the development firm TWG, NEAR is working to renovate the former IPS School 78 at Sherman and Vermont streets into 64 housing units for seniors and space for a full-day child daycare facility. The two entities previously worked together in 2011 to develop the St. Clair Senior Apartments.
  •  Neighborhood leadership development – NEAR convenes monthly neighbor forums to inform neighbors about emerging community development challenges and opportunities – and to engage neighbors in local community problem-solving.
  • Fighting blight – NEAR works with several agencies to assess and remove blighted abandoned houses from Near Eastside neighborhoods and to offer information resources to neighbors to flight blight on a block-by-block basis. Most of the formerly blighted homes rehabbed and offered for sale by NEAR have fit this category.

The housing improvements haven’t been limited to the major renovations of blighted housing, most of it obtained from the city’s land bank, now known as Renew Indianapolis. There have also been the weatherization effort known as Caulk of the Town, which NEAR resurrected in 2014. Described as a neighbor-helping-neighbor effort, the project works to improve energy efficiency to save Near Eastside neighbors up to 15 percent on their energy bills.

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