Becky Volz, president of the Woodland Heights Neighborhood Association, hopes a new program will help revitalize her neighborhood one house at a time. (Photo by Dean Curtis)

Becky Volz is passionate about preserving the historic homes in the Woodland Heights neighborhood, where she serves as president of the neighborhood association. 

She loves the front porches of the Craftsman- and Victorian-style homes and the big trees in their yards. 

Volz’s parents bought one of those stately homes when she was a teenager back in 1962, and Volz continues to live in that same home today. 

“You sit on your front porch and get to know your neighbors, see what’s going on up and down the street. It’s just a friendlier philosophy,” she said. “You don’t pull in your garage, close the door and go in the house.”

“Our historical park, Lafayette Park, is a gem,” Volz said. “We also have an elementary and a middle school. And so that keeps us very family focused because we have all of our children and they’re all walking to school. Schools help bring people together.”

Despite its charm, Woodland Heights faces the same challenges as the other historic neighborhoods in north and central Springfield: a large number of nuisance properties and absentee landlords, an aging housing stock with homeowners who cannot afford to make the necessary repairs and a high percentage of renters versus homeowners. 

“That’s where I really feel like Restore SGF can kind of change the landscape of our properties,” she said. 

Homes in Springfield’s northside neighborhoods could be candidates for Restore SGF’s program. (Photo by Dean Curtis)

Restore SGF is a new nonprofit aimed at increasing homeownership, raising the value of properties and encouraging reinvestment in some of Springfield’s historic northside neighborhoods.

If funding comes through, Restore SGF will have a program that gives money to homeowners to upgrade the exteriors of their homes. In order to qualify, the owners would have to invest some cash themselves, and then Restore SGF will match that investment.  This is a grant-matching program, meaning the money does not have to be repaid to Restore SGF.

Restore SGF would also have an investment program that helps new homeowners finance the purchase of a home, if they are intending to make renovations and upgrades. 

That investment program could also allow Restore SGF itself to purchase some of the abandoned houses in Volz’s neighborhood, renovate those houses and then resell them to families and individuals — something that has Volz pretty excited.

Volz met with the Springfield Daily Citizen at an abandoned house on North Main Avenue, one that could potentially be renovated and sold to a family through Restore SGF’s programs. The two-story white home sits on a corner with a large fenced yard. A couple of bowls of cat food were sitting on the front porch, left by someone in the neighborhood feeding feral cats. 

About 10 years ago, the home was featured in the Woodland Height’s Victorian Home Tour, Volz said. But in recent years, the home has been in foreclosure, abandoned by its owners and occupied by squatters. 

According to Volz, the once-stately home has been the scene of countless fights, drug deals and prostitution. 

“There are neighbors with children down the street,” she said. “Their children were witnessing altercations and activities, things that they were not happy for their children to be exposed to. It wasn’t mowed. It was just an eyesore.”

Homes in Springfield’s northside neighborhoods could be candidates for Restore SGF’s program. (Photo by Dean Curtis)

Volz showed the Daily Citizen three other properties, all abandoned by their owners and occupied by squatters. She explained that it takes months and months and sometimes over a year to go through the city’s and the banks’ legal protocols to resolve the problem. 

Rather than dealing with all that red tape, Restore SGF will be able to purchase the property or help an investor finance the property. 

“(Restore) SGF will really be able to help us streamline dealing with these empty properties,” Volz said. 

That’s the beauty of being a nonprofit organization, said Richard Ollis, city councilman and a co-founder of Restore SGF.

“We cannot be a bureaucratic organization that is hindered by a bunch of red tape and regulations,” he said. “We’ve got to be entrepreneurial. We’ve got to be very quick to react to things and nimble.

“To be clear, although we support low-income housing, we are not a low-income housing operation,” Ollis added. “This is a market-rate driven effort. Ultimately it is our goal to raise the value of homes in these neighborhoods.”

Restore SGF will provide a central resource for all residential programs — a “one-stop-shop,” as some like to call it. The website is loaded with links and information about already-existing home-buying and financing programs, incentives and assistance programs and city resources.

Restore SGF to be modeled after program in Des Moines 

Becky Volz, president of the Woodland Heights Neighborhood Association, hopes a new program will help revitalize her neighborhood one house at a time. (Photo by Dean Curtis)

The idea for Restore SGF was born out of about two years of brainstorming, research and conversations between Ollis, Community Foundation of the Ozarks (CFO) President Brian Fogle, Urban Districts Alliance Executive Director Rusty Worley, Brendan Griesemer, the city’s assistant director of Planning & Development and Bill Owen, who now serves as a state representative.

According to Fogle, city leaders and CFO really honed in on the issues of nuisance properties and dangerous buildings around the time 417 Rentals LLC went bankrupt and some 400 rental properties — most in very poor condition — were then auctioned off to the highest bidder. 

The group is concerned about Springfield’s aging housing stock, nuisance properties and the high percentage of renters compared to homeowners.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average number of Springfield residents living in owner-occupied housing dropped to 42.3 percent in 2019 from 46.2 percent in 2015.

As they brainstormed, Fogle said he reached out to a friend with the Federal Reserve in St. Louis and explained what they were hoping to create. He was told about Invest DSM, a neighborhood revitalization program in Des Moines, Iowa. 

Invest DSM is a collaboration between Des Moines and Polk County, Iowa, that is committed to neighborhood revitalization in the city, according to its website. Invest DSM’s small staff focuses on four pilot neighborhoods. 

Among its programs, Invest DSM offers the Block Challenge Grant Program that neighbors can use to help fix up the exterior of their homes. There must be at least four neighbors to apply and their homes must be within sight of each other. 

Participating property owners in this program are eligible for matching funds up to $1,000 or $2,500, depending on the size of the applicant team. Invest DSM will match dollar for dollar up to the maximum amount as an incentive to complete various exterior improvements to their properties. The match amount is reimbursed once the project is completed.

Though Invest DSM is only three years old, about 260 property owners have utilized the program to improve curb appeal of their homes. When complete, the homeowners put “Invest DSM” signs in their yards. 

Ollis said between the spiffed-up exteriors and the Invest DSM signs, the program creates excitement and interest throughout the neighborhood. 

This abandoned house that has squatters is right next to an elementary school. (Photo by Dean Curtis)

“They see that work is being done, and they see this sign — and they actually have people call Invest DSM and say, ‘How do I get a sign? What’s going on here? I see people working. What is happening?’” Ollis said. “Once the work is complete, they require the teams to get together for a party to celebrate. And so it starts building this momentum within neighborhoods.”

Restore SGF plans to have a similar grant-matching program for groups of neighbors that would probably require at least four or five households to qualify, to do improvements to the exterior of their homes. As it is in Des Moines, each house must be within the line of site of another house in the group. 

“So you are not just fixing up scattered site homes, one on this block, one on this block,” Fogle explained. “You fix up several on a block and then it improves the entire block. And then that encourages others to invest in their home.”

Exterior home improvement projects are not limited to upgrades to the house. Projects can include paving driveways or landscaping.

Invest DSM also has a program that provides financial incentives that encourage investor-developers within the pilot neighborhoods to make above-market investments in properties that improve the desirability of the neighborhood, the website says. 

Ollis described it as a “revolving loan fund,” that allows Invest DSM to either buy properties, renovate them and then sell them, or to provide the financing for investor-developers interested in buying the properties.

This reinvestment program, too, is something Restore SGF intends to model in Springfield.

This past summer, about 20 people including Ollis, Fogle and Volz traveled to Des Moines to learn about the program first-hand. 

By all accounts, the group was impressed with what Invest DSM is doing for those four pilot neighborhoods, called Special Investment Districts. 

“They literally have put together a neighborhood revitalization strategy with funding and a plan and are about three years into it, and they are having significant success,” Ollis said. 

Restore SGF will be modeled very similarly to Invest DSM, with maybe a few differences related to how the programs are funded. In Des Moines, the organization is funded by a portion of a one-cent sales tax, something Ollis said Springfield organizers are not going to pursue. 

Instead, the Springfield nonprofit will be funded by a variety of sources. 

To help get the nonprofit off the ground, the Community Foundation of the Ozarks* pledged $20,000 over five years ($100,000 total) in grant funding, plus $500,000 for Restore SGF’s revolving loan fund.

In addition to CFO’s pledge, OakStar Bank, Commerce Bank and Legacy Bank have committed $10,000 over three years ($30,000 total) in grant funding. Central Bank has committed $20,000 over three years ($60,000 total) in grant funding. Legacy Bank and Central Bank have each committed $250,000 for the revolving loan fund, and Systematic Savings & Loan committed $500,000 to mortgage loans in Restore SGF’s program areas. 

According to Fogle, a former banker, pledging support to Restore SGF is a “concrete way for financial institutions to show their commitment to Springfield’s low-to-moderate income neighborhoods and help improve the community.” 

In total, Restore SGF is starting off with nearly $2 million pledged, with $1.5 million in loan funding and $250,000 in grants. 

Restore SGF also requested $1 million in federal coronavirus aid from both the city and the county. Many of the pledged commitments are contingent upon public (city/county) support.

“We are optimistic we are going to have three years (of funding). Our goal is to go in and get this program underway,” Ollis said. 

Raising values means raising prices

Becky Volz, president of the Woodland Heights Neighborhood Association, speaks with Daily Citizen reporter Jackie Rehwald. (Photo by Dean Curtis)

It’s important, according to Ollis, that Restore SGF starts strong by making solid investments that get neighbors excited, as well as those in the banking sector who have expressed interest in being partners to Restore SGF.

“We have to prove ourselves. We know that,” he said. “We have got to get in there and make solid investments and gain some ground and some traction.”

In addition to hiring three people to staff Restore SGF, a portion of that initial funding will be used to conduct a housing condition study, Ollis said. That will help determine four areas of Springfield where Restore SGF will focus its efforts.  

According to Ollis, Restore SGF’s ultimate goal is to raise the value of properties in the targeted neighborhoods.

“The idea is you spend enough time, energy and effort in there to get the market working,” he said. “Once the market takes over, our job is to move on to the next area.”

Asked if there are concerns the program could lead to gentrification in some of Springfield’s most affordable neighborhoods, Ollis said that’s a question he’s heard from several folks. 

And while it’s true that the goal is to increase property values for homeowners, Ollis said Restore SGF will increase affordable housing in those neighborhoods when it saves abandoned, rundown houses from being demolished. 

“The bottom line is housing, we believe, is an ecosystem,” he said, “meaning that there will be homes that increase in value. And there will also be developments and other things that will be positioned as affordable housing.”

According to Fogle, gentrification has not really been an issue in the Des Moines neighborhoods targeted by Invest DSM, the program Restore SGF is modeled after. 

Is this Springfield’s ‘window of opportunity’?

A look inside an abandoned house shows what squatters have left behind. (Photo by Dean Curtis)

Ollis is a fourth-generation Springfieldian who grew up on the northside and attended Boyd Elementary, Pipkin Middle School and Central High School. He’s been on city council since 2017 and believes now is the perfect time for an organization like Restore SGF to help increase property values and encourage investment in Springfield’s historic neighborhoods.

Ollis described what he’s observed in Springfield over the years and what he believes contributed to the decline of property values in some areas of north Springfield. 

“When I was a kid, those neighborhoods were really nice, and some of them still are,” Ollis said, adding that he’s recalling those neighborhoods some 50-plus years ago.

In the 1970s, the Battlefield Mall was constructed in southern Springfield, Ollis continued. Not long after, many locally-owned businesses moved from Commercial Street and downtown Springfield to the mall. Many households also moved to the southside, away from the historic neighborhoods in central and north Springfield. 

Around that same time, greenfield developments were popping up in nearby communities like Ozark and Nixa. Folks were able to buy new or relatively new homes for $80,000, Ollis said. 

“Plus they were building brand spanking new schools,” he said, referring to Nixa and Ozark. “So we had a fairly good exodus of young families that could buy an $80,000 home that was new, that was more modern. It had the closets, had the garage. These older homes had no closets, had no garage, didn’t have very good bathrooms, etcetera, etcetera.

“And frankly at that time, our schools were not very good in Springfield,” Ollis continued. “And so they were moving out, particularly into Nixa and Ozark and some of those other areas.”

Many of those older homes in Springfield’s historic neighborhoods were purchased by landlords rather than families who intended to live in them.

“We started thinking about, ‘Okay, but what’s happening now? Is there an opportunity?’” Ollis said. “We think there is.”

Ollis pointed to some major investments already happening in central and north Springfield: Voters recently approved Springfield Public Schools’ $168 million bond issue and much of that is going to build new schools in north and central Springfield. And City Utilities invested $120 million on a fiber installation project that will bring high-speed internet throughout Springfield. 

“We have invested in our downtown and up on C Street and those areas continue to grow,” Ollis said. “And then we just got the $26 million build grant (for the) Grant Avenue Parkway.”

“We started looking at the economics, and that same $80,000 home out in Nixa is now $225,000. It’s flipped, meaning that you now can buy an $80,000 home in one of these historic neighborhoods,” he said. “You are going to have to put another $80,000 in it. But if you did, you’d have a $160,000 home with all these amenities that young people are looking for.”

Ollis said he believes a program like Restore SGF has a “window of opportunity” to help draw people back into these historic neighborhoods and increase property values. 

“We are a free-market type of enterprise,” he said. “It’s not a government entity coming in to save the day. It’s about creating homeowners and future homeowners and giving them tools and resources to renovate housing stock.”

*Editor’s Note: While the Daily Citizen awaits IRS approval of its tax-exempt status, CFO is accepting tax-deductible gifts from donors wanting to support the mission of the nonprofit news organization. Proceeds from the Daily Citizen project fund at CFO may be used to pay general operating expenses, but not staff salaries.

Jackie Rehwald

Jackie Rehwald is a reporter at the Springfield Daily Citizen. She covers housing, homelessness, domestic violence and early childhood, among other public affairs issues. Her office line is 417-837-3659. More by Jackie Rehwald