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Thursday, June 19, 2003 02:48 pm

Eastside Story

Ron Fafoglia builds a neighborhood

Ron Fafoglia says he's fairly conservative. He jokes that he falls just to the right of Genghis Khan. This would make him a perfect candidate for fighting terrorists or hosting his own talk show or finding a way for Republicans to take back the state, anything other than what he's doing, which is placing low-income people into their own brand new homes on the east side of Springfield, rebuilding a neighborhood in the process.

Fafoglia is executive director of the Springfield Project's Home Ownership Program for Equity, Inc. (TSP-HOPE, Inc.). The nonprofit organization is tearing down eight dilapidated houses in the Mather Wells neighborhood along the 1300 block of E. Jackson Street to make room for ten new homes that will sell for $55,000 to $60,000, about $45,000 less than what it will cost to build them. The City of Springfield, the Federal Home Loan Bank, and the Illinois Housing Development Authority are providing grants to cover the difference, as well as the down payment and closing costs for each home buyer.

The homes will be marketed to those with low incomes. Most prospective buyers must attend credit counseling, home maintenance, budget management, and home buying seminars organized by TSP-HOPE. Buyers must also have clear credit records dating back one year.

The houses, Fafoglia says, are nothing like typical "low-income" projects. TSP-HOPE's homes will come with Andersen windows, high-efficiency appliances and fixtures, and 30-year roofs. CONSTRUX of Springfield will build the houses and follow a "green check list," which means the homes will be made with minimum waste and with high standards for indoor air quality and other environmental categories. Each house will follow a similar floor plan: One story, three bedrooms, one bath, living room, dining room, and a kitchen spread out over 1,080 square feet. A basement adds another 1,080 square feet and is ready to be finished with fixtures built in for a second bathroom. Qualified borrowers only have to come up with about $500 to buy a TSP-HOPE home. With that $500 down on a 30-year, 7 percent loan, a monthly mortgage payment plus insurance and taxes comes to about $497. A buyer who receives assistance from the grant program would have to partly repay it if the house is sold within five years. If a homeowner sells the house within 15 years, it must be sold to another low-income buyer.

"With good credit, you can earn less than $20,000 and own one of these homes," Fafoglia says.

Fafoglia doesn't have a background in neighborhood development. For the past 30 years, he ran Coast to Coast True Value on Bruns Lane. Before that, he was in the Navy, stationed in Japan during the Vietnam War. Last year, he sold his store, and signed on with TSP-HOPE, Inc. He liked what he saw.

"It sounded like a neat job," he says. "It's one of those programs that's not a giveaway." The idea behind it is simple, he says: Bring the eastside back to life by building entire neighborhoods filled with stable homeowners who need a little assistance at the start.

In many respects, rebuilding the eastside is a daunting task. Fafoglia describes much of the neighborhood as an "eye sore" with garbage problems and a large number of buildings that deserve to be condemned rather than rebuilt. A report on the eastside completed in December by the St. Louis firm Peckham, Guyton, Albers, and Viets, "urban consultants" hired by the City of Springfield, observed that the "huge concentration of vacant lots and vacant and/or boarded-up buildings" rivals the worst parts of much larger urban areas, such as Chicago. The consultants mostly paid attention to the portion of the eastside between 14th and Dirksen and Cook and South Grand. Just within that area, they found that 828 properties--nearly half of all the parcels or buildings--were either vacant, boarded up, or deteriorating. (Barely more than half of the buildings, a total of about 1,000 properties, were either new or in good condition). TSP-HOPE's houses will be just north of that area. The neighborhood is in similar condition, except for several nicer homes, rehabbed by TSP-HOPE and other groups. "It's a neighborhood that's becoming a place you can walk around in again," Fafoglia says. "We're out there looking for our next project."

On the up side, Fafoglia adds, government money is pouring in for programs such as TSP-HOPE, even though westside development often receives more financial breaks than eastside development. Fafoglia calls that situation a "travesty." Without such assistance, his project would be "virtually impossible." Some of the properties TSP-HOPE purchased for demolition cost only $200.

* * *

Urban renewal is a tricky game. Transforming neighborhoods with bad reputations often doesn't work if the right approach isn't taken.

Peckham, Guyton, Albers, and Viets Urban Consultants surveyed the recently rebuilt Poplar Place, once known as the large, crime-ridden Evergreen Terrace apartment complex on the eastside between Wheeler and Pope.

"It should be noted that the Poplar Place recently underwent significant renovation and improvement," PGAV's report stated. "However, this complex is estimated to be only 25 to 30 percent occupied and has been unable to attract new tenants." An ongoing promotion to live there for the first six months rent free hasn't helped. Fafoglia talked about Madison Park Place, once known as the John Hay Homes, located just north of Madison Avenue east of 11th Street. The Hay Homes had a similar reputation as Evergreen Terrace, but its successor has met with far more success. Madison Park Place has been given the look of a new subdivision with single-family homes mixed in with rental properties, all of which are full. But as long as Madison Park Place is surrounded by gates and concrete walls, it still looks like a housing project rather than a real neighborhood, which is what Fafoglia desires.

"I don't want this to look like tract housing," he says.

The houses should be completed within the year, and by then Fafoglia expects all will have owners either ready to move in or successfully making their way through the seminars. He's been surprised by the mix of people interested in the homes--whites, African-Americans, Hispanics. Some have asked whether the homes can be purchased without using the grant money.

Going from a conservative small business owner to the director of a low-income home ownership program has not left Fafoglia unchallenged from an ideological standpoint.

"Now I'm much more tolerant of what people have been through," he says. "Not everybody has received 'middle-class' opportunities." He recalls conversations he's had with TSP-HOPE's president, Bev Meeks, "a black lady."

"I will form an opinion. She will agree with me, but from a totally different perspective, with a lot more compassion."

When Fafoglia considers the future of the 1300 block of E. Jackson Street, he thinks of his own traditional upbringing.

"I'd like to see it look like the neighborhood I grew up in, on N. 12th Street," he says. "We played baseball in the street, stayed up late, weren't afraid to be there, and knew everybody."

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