Contractor Ben Perez hands an old window frame to field manager Chris Wilson, on ladder, as the two renovate a Drew Lewis Foundation Blue House project on West Webster. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

IN-DEPTH |

Marsha Hatfield spent most of her adult life as a renter.

She was a homeowner briefly in 2006, just before the housing market plummeted. But like a lot of people at that time, Hatfield lost that home to foreclosure. 

Her now-adult children have told her all that moving around from rental to rental was tough. They had to switch schools and friends often. 

Marsha Hatfield and her son Skyler Hatfield sitting in their living room.
Marsha Hatfield and her son, Skyler, live in a recently renovated home in the Grant Beach Neighborhood. Hatfield purchased the home with help from the Blue House Project. (Photo: submitted by Marsha Hatfield)

Hatfield was among the first participants in the Blue House Project, a unique homeownership program happening in the Grant Beach Neighborhood

Hatfield, 54, and her youngest kid, 13, live in an old craftsman-style home she bought just over a year ago. Prior to that, they rented the home for two years.

“You learn from your mistakes,” she said, recalling all those times she and her older kids moved. “That was really hard on us. My thing is, I want to be in a stable place. My (13-year-old) has not moved around. He has the same friends he started with in elementary as he goes to high school with. I am able to do that for him.”

The Blue House Project obtains old homes that are in bad shape (in foreclosure, abandoned, an eyesore, etc.) in the neighborhood, renovates them and then helps low-to-moderate income families who otherwise might never have been able to qualify for a traditional home loan become financially stable enough to purchase the home. 

Hatfield’s home was built in 1878. The home was renovated from top to bottom about four years ago before she and her son moved in.

Blue house across the street started it all

The Blue House Project started in 2016 and is a program of the Drew Lewis Foundation (DLF), a nonprofit that works to lift families out of poverty and build and improve community within the Grant Beach Neighborhood. 

(Editor’s note: The Drew Lewis Foundation receives advertising on our site through a gift from an individual donor to the Daily Citizen.)

The Blue House Project is currently on its 15th home.

The Drew Lewis Foundation, founded by Amy Blansit in 2015, is housed at the Fairbanks Community Center at 1126 N. Broadway Ave.  

Blansit is a Democratic candidate in the House of Representatives District 133 race. (She is running against Republican Melanie Stinnett, who owns a pediatric speech therapy clinic in Springfield.)

The idea for the Blue House Project started when the then-rundown blue house across from the Fairbanks was for sale. 

Blansit said it mattered who wound up in that home because of the family-focused programming happening at the Fairbanks. She didn’t want it falling into the hands of an absentee landlord.

As it turned out, the man who owned the home felt the same way. 

Drew Lewis Foundation and Blue House Project founder Amy Blansit stands on the porch of a recently renovated home in the Grant Beach Neighborhood
Drew Lewis Foundation and Blue House Project founder Amy Blansit stands on the porch of a recently renovated home in the Grant Beach Neighborhood. (Photo by Jackie Rehwald)

“They didn’t want another slumlord in this community. I’m so thankful for that,” Blansit said. “After speaking with him and him making that statement, it really made me think, like okay — what can we do to make sure that we acquire the house or somehow make sure that the right person (does).”

Around this same time, Blansit was working with former mayor Thomas Carlson on a proposal to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to create an affordable housing development with a case management program. 

Blansit’s and Carlson’s HUD proposal did not get approved. So Blansit then proposed to Carlson that instead of building a cul-de-sac on the outskirts of Springfield they should look at investing dollars back into the housing stock already here but in disrepair. 

“He was interested, and we made an offer on the first house,” Blansit said. “We had no other idea what to call it so it just kind of became the Blue House. And then it evolved into the Blue House Project.”

(Editor’s note: Tom Carlson is the founder and publisher of the Springfield Daily Citizen, and its leading donor to date.)

Funding comes from a variety of sources

The Blue House Project was started with an investment from Carlson, but Blansit said they’ve been able to grow the program through a variety of funding sources, other investors and donations. 

One of the biggest donations came from Stacey and David O’Reilly, who “adopted” a house.

“They have put money into one specific home, and they’re kind of following that process,” Blansit said. “Then when we sell that house, we will roll those funds into the next house. So their donation is allowing us to continue to basically move the funds forward. Theirs is a strict donation, not an investment.”

Chris Wilson, field manager, drilling holes to run power lines while contractor Ben Perez demos old window headers in a Drew Lewis Foundation Blue House project on West Webster (Photo by Jym Wilson)

The program receives Small Business Administration (SBA) funds that are used to purchase materials, as well as some state funding. 

“We did get a lot of different resources in order to put this together,” Blansit said. “But, I mean, that’s what it takes.”

“It’s the history of Springfield,” Blansit said in an earlier interview. “These homes are 110 years old. We have these amazing stories of the people who lived here when it was a railroad town. We need to preserve our heritage.”

Blansit wants to keep the program fairly small with just a handful of houses at a time either in the process of being renovated or being rented by a family that is working to one day become the home’s owner. 

“I don’t want 30 on the books to where we become another landlord who’s not keeping up with their properties,” she said. “The idea is we can manage this. Now when we sell one, we’ll pick up another one.”

Homes are first offered to RISE families

Although the program started as a way to save the blue house across from the Fairbanks, it’s turned into a program that promotes homeownership and improves the lives of low-to-moderate income families, as well as improves the quality of life throughout the neighborhood. 

After the renovations are complete, the home is first offered to participants in the RISE Program. 

RISE is short for Reaching Independence through Stability and Education and is a two-year program that includes education on topics like financial literacy and parenting skills. It was originally called the Northwest Project, a $1.2 million initiative funded by the Community Foundation of the Ozarks.

Encouraging homeownership and helping RISE participants become financially ready to take on a mortgage is a natural fit for the RISE program.

“The single most successful way for someone who has low income to build wealth or assets is through homeownership,” Blansit said. “One of the problems we have is if you’re low income, you are also the least likely to get a home loan from a bank. 

Program relies on partnerships with banks

“We really started looking at where the gaps are in those two pieces and how do we start working with individuals to raise their credit score, to build at least some savings and then to use the resources that are out there like the down payment assistance programs,” she said. 

The program is partnered with different banks that use Community Reinvestment Act funds to provide good financing terms for participants. Bankers from those institutions work one-on-one with participants to plan out how to repair their credit and save enough for a downpayment.

“Our program really looks at giving individuals up to two years to become a homeowner in that they have to create a banking relationship,” she said. “We’ve got several banks that we work with, and they can select which banks they want to work with. They start meeting one-on-one with bankers who look at, in the next year or two, what are the steps they have to take in order to become the owner. And they have to start creating savings goals and meeting those goals.”

Chris Wilson, field manager, removes an old light fixture from the front porch ceiling on a Blue House project on West Webster in Springfield. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

RISE participants who are interested in the program enter a standard two-year lease agreement whereby they pay rent equivalent to what the mortgage would be. During those two years, they work on stability factors such as improved employment and income. 

New homeowners start out with equity

They work to repair their credit and save for a downpayment. A health educator inspects the homes monthly to help families learn how to keep the home safe and reduce environmental hazards that can lead to chronic health conditions and expenses. 

When participants are ready to buy the home, the Drew Lewis Foundation sells it to them for $5,000 to $10,000 below its appraised value, meaning families come into homeownership with equity.

“I’m building equity here,” Hatfield said. “When I came into this home, the banker said, ‘I’ve not seen anybody in a long time come in, buy a home and have this much equity going into it like you do.’”

If the home isn’t a good fit for anyone in the RISE program at the time it’s finished, Blansit said it is then offered at market value to DLF employees or board members — people who care about the Grant Beach Neighborhood and want to be a part of the community. 

All of the homes are sold with a stipulation that if they decide to sell it within the first five years, the DLF has the first right of refusal to purchase it.

Single dad wants to give daughter stability 

When Jon Grace first heard about the RISE program from friends, the single dad didn’t think the program was something he’d benefit from. 

Fast forward a couple of years and Grace said he’s gotten so much out of the program, including becoming a homeowner.

“This opportunity seemed a lot better knowing that like within the two years, I was going to be in a position to where I could buy it,” Grace said.

Chris Wilson, field manager, drilling holes to run power lines in a Drew Lewis Foundation Blue House project on West Webster. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Grace has worked with a banker and went to credit counseling classes to repair his credit and get ready to take on a mortgage. 

He is currently under contract to purchase the home he’s been renting from the DLF.

“Years ago I heard of a study that just said how much better children do when their parents own their home,” he said. “They just feel more stable, they do better in school, they do more better with their relationships and so on.

“For me, that’s what I was most concerned with,” Grace said, “just giving my daughter the stability that she needs to be confident.”

Completing program wasn’t easy for mom

Hatfield learned of the RISE Program (at the time it was called the Northwest Project) from a flier given to her by a co-worker back in 2017. 

At the time, she was going through a divorce and trying to create a better life for her and her son. 

This is Marsha Hatfield’s home that she was able to purchase through the Blue House Project. (Photo by Marsha Hatfield)

“I was just kind of starting completely over,” she said. “I looked at it and thought, ya know, I could probably really benefit from this. And it’s been one of the best things I’ve done for myself and my family.

“It trickles down to my older kids who aren’t with me, just that I’m stable,” Hatfield said. “I’m able to do more for them because I have a better grasp of finances.”

It wasn’t easy, Hatfield said. It’s two years of taking classes, continuing her education and working to repair her credit.

She moved into her home about three years ago. She rented it for just over two years from the Drew Lewis Foundation. She was able to purchase the home last March. 

Not everyone cut out for homeownership

“It’s not a perfect program,” Blansit said. “We’ve had four individuals move into homes and realize that they were not stable enough to become homeowners. And that is a hard thing — to work with individuals and say, ‘Look, homeownership is difficult.’”

When you are renting, you don’t have to worry about making repairs or staying on top of yard work. You might not worry about tucking money away for when an appliance breaks or the porch needs to be replaced. 

Contractor Ben Perez measures out window headers in a Drew Lewis Foundation Blue House project on West Webster. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

“Many of our individuals are single parents, so they’re trying to juggle a job and kids and maintaining a house,” Blansit said. “They realize that at this point in their life — or we had to help them realize maybe — owning a home that begins to fall down around you is not the best thing.”

Grace, the single dad, said there are definitely things he misses about being a renter. 

“It’s nice to go to someone else with the problems,” he said. “If something breaks, it’s really nice just to make a phone call.”

That said, Grace is excited about being a homeowner and being able to give his daughter a home and stable life.

“It feels great.”

The entire neighborhood benefits 

The Blue House Project is focused on improving the area surrounding the Fairbanks — five blocks to the north, south, east and west of the building.

The Grant Beach Neighborhood has an old housing stock with about a 50-50 blend of homeowners and renters. 

“When we have 50 percent of a community as renters, that means we have a high mobility or turnover rate,” Blansit said, “which decreases the sense of ownership and commitment to your neighborhood, your neighbors and your community.”

The program is inspired by the “broken window theory:” when other houses in the area are better maintained and kept up, others in the neighborhood will also start to keep the property in better condition.

“We normally buy houses that are blighted. The last one that we bought had a hole in the floor in the bathroom,” Blansit said. “It was rotted out, and the toilet was being held up by the beam that was underneath it.”

Program breathes life into blighted houses 

Homes are often acquired from the family of an older person who owned the home and died.  Often, the family doesn’t have the money to invest in needed renovations and find out the hard way that being a landlord is not easy.

Blue House Project founder Amy Blansit walks through a house that is under renovation as part of the Blue House Project.
Blue House Project founder Amy Blansit walks through a house that is under renovation as part of the Blue House Project. (Photo by Jackie Rehwald)

And since the home belonged to their loved one, many families don’t want to sell to a property management company — they like the idea the home will go to a family.

“We have houses that were just in very rough condition,” she said. “We are often replacing joists and taking them down to the studs. All of them get a new roof. Most of them are getting new HVAC and updated electrical. … We want to make sure that when we give the house to the family, they’re going to have the next five to 10 years of a maintenance-free home as they continue to build that asset.”

On a recent walk through the neighborhood to see some of the homes, Blansit was asked if the Blue House Project would ever be completed. She laughed.

“Not in this neighborhood. It will be a while,” she said. “Let’s just say half of the homes we end up having an effect on, we are talking about 1,000 homes. And we’ve done 15.”

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