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East Side group tracks foreclosures to improve Payne Avenue area housing

As an aging inner city neighborhood, the Payne Avenue corridor on St. Paul’s East Side is plagued by foreclosures and other housing problems, so those issues are at the top of the to-do list for John Vaughn, the new executive director of the East Side Neighborhood Development Co.

He took over two months ago, realizing that dealing with foreclosure is the key to revitalizing the area in this economy. 

“Housing is our No. 1 priority, and we need to know the extent of the problem,” Vaughn said. “So we’re working to map homes that are under water on their mortgages, those that are going into the foreclosure/redemption period, and those that are actually foreclosed.”

Vaughn, a veteran of community organizations in the Twin Cities, had his 2012 action plan approved by the ESNDC board last week.

In the plan is his effort get a jump on the housing problem by working with the community development law clinic at the William Mitchell College of Law and U-Plan, a nonprofit community organization, to assemble the housing data and map it out for easy access.

“We want to drill down far enough in the numbers to be predictive, to know what’s coming down the line, so we can prepare for it,” Vaughn said.

The ESNDC, a nonprofit that promotes housing, economic development and community engagement on the East Side, also works with the city and other agencies to deal with the area’s housing problems. For example, the city administers a  Neighborhood Stabilization Program to help with vacant properties, but there just isn’t enough for all of them.

Its not just an East Side problem; most areas of the city are seeing high numbers of foreclosures and vacant homes; and the falling values wreak havoc on the city’s tax base, so everyone in the city suffers as the tax burden shifts to other homes and businesses, he said. 

Vaughn also plans to deal with the problems associated with vacant homes — crime, blight, code violations, perception of safety — that can hurt a neighborhood. Projects like planting gardens on empty lots, painting streets and creating crime watch groups can help, he said.

The agency works with Habitat for Humanity on building projects in the area, and with the Brush for Kindness program that paints houses for low-income residents.

With an $850,000 operating budget and seven employees, ESNDC can’t solve all the problems itself, but Vaughn said he’ll be aggressive about getting outside help for Payne Avenue.

“We’re like a junk yard dog, going after anyone who’s reputable and capable of helping out on the East Side, to come in and work with us,” he said. With help from other nonprofits and the private sector, he thinks he can stem the tide.

In his work plan, Vaughn said:

“The best strategy for housing redevelopment is to energetically reach out to nonprofit and private sector resources by being that highly receptive local organization which attracts as many partners as possible. So, ESNDC will use a business development approach to market opportunities featuring ESNDC as an enthusiastic local partner in a receptive community.”

The agency also works on economic development, and had success helping get a new Kendall’s Ace Hardware store at Payne and Phalen Boulevard. Construction will start soon, and its grand opening in the summer will be treated as a big development victory for the East Side.

For years, the ESNDC has run a “Main Street” improvement effort to spiff up the retail portion of Payne.

“We’re working hard to enhance cleanliness and safety in the commercial areas, and we have some commercial loans and capital improvement money that can help out,” he said.

Vaughn plans to push the agency’s community outreach efforts on the East Side. This summer his group will conduct a door-to-door canvassing of 9,000 properties to see what residents care most about, and to encourage folks to get involved in neighborhood and community issues.

“We want to help people take on the issues they feel are most important, like vacancies and foreclosures, quality-of-life problems, crime, code violations and real or perceived lack of safety,” he said. “We want to work on the things people care about, and you don’t know what those are until you ask them.”

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