Distinctive Development in St. Clair Place

In 2009, Near East Area Renewal (NEAR) accepted the community’s challenge to revitalize St. Clair Place—a near-downtown neighborhood that had become notorious for vacancy, violence, and blight. Seven years and 89 new and rehabbed houses later, the neighborhood has made an about-face. It’s being described as one of Indy’s “hot” neighborhoods.

Being considered “hot” is nice. It’s also concerning. On the one hand, working hard to make the housing market function again in St. Clair Place has been one of NEAR’s goals. On the other hand, maintaining affordability across a diverse cultural and income spectrum has been another of our nonprofit’s core commitments.

We welcome growing demand for homeownership in a neighborhood in which we are heavily invested. We also want our displacement prevention strategies to be a factor that makes the St. Clair Place story exceptional in Indy’s urban renewal.

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.” That heartfelt goal, and our community-based planning, is now being put to the test.

We are anxious to see if five strategies built into our community development, described below, will result in the broadly inclusive, income-diverse neighborhood we initially envisioned.

NEAR - Gentrification vs. Community Building

1. Plan with and for neighbors as stakeholders and the primary assets of the neighborhood.

This is one of the distinguishing practices of Asset-Based Community Development, which guides us. Asking and valuing neighbors’ perspectives began in the Near Eastside Quality of Life Plan in 2007 and continued in St. Clair Place neighborhood redevelopment planning in 2009. NEAR continues to bring ideas and pending decisions to the St. Clair Place Neighborhood Association for consideration and vetting. This transparent process includes welcoming new residents into the decision-making mix.

Honoring longtime St. Clair Place residents moved from planning with them to assisting approximately 150 existing households with homeowner repairs between 2008 and 2012. In partnership with Rebuilding Together and other community development groups, more than $3,500,000 was invested in improving properties—thus supporting folks who have called St. Clair Place home for years.

2. Begin with the end in mind: a vibrant, culturally diverse, mixed-income community.

A place that intentionally—by planning, policies, and relationships—values existing diversity and welcomes new neighbors was embedded in St. Clair Place revitalization from the start. In terms of infrastructure, this means maintaining and developing high-quality affordable housing—including assisting existing residents to repair and improve their properties. In terms of placemaking, it means shaping green spaces, pocket parks, trails, and safe walkways. In terms of relationships, it means supporting social barrier-crossing events and facilitating heartful conversations.

3. Displace no one in housing development and develop strategies to discourage displacement if/once equity increases.

NEAR made a basic commitment when we began: develop only vacant lots and abandoned houses. We’ve kept our word: no neighbor has been displaced in our development. The bigger challenge is to reduce instances of displacement once real estate investors start putting profits ahead of people in this neighborhood. We are working with the City of Indianapolis to encourage property tax caps for long-term residents. We are exploring effective property covenants and shared equity initiatives that will maintain long-term affordability in an emerging housing market.

4. Build first for affordability for low-to-moderate income households—both for leased and owner-occupied housing.

The first 32 houses NEAR developed in St. Clair Place were committed to permanent affordable rental housing. The MIBOR Foundation, celebrating 100 years of service in Indianapolis in 2010, raised $500,000 to support this effort. These 32 ‘Centennial Houses,’ available only to families with very low incomes, were deeded to and are managed by the John Boner Neighborhood Center. NEAR partnered with another CDC to develop St. Clair Senior Apartments, providing 32 units of affordable rental housing for senior neighbors.

NEAR has since developed over 50 houses for homeownership. Purchase is restricted to households at or below the 80% area median income (AMI) threshold (for a single individuals, 80% AMI is $37,135). This neighborhood is being revitalized via low-to-moderate income homeownership opportunities. NEAR has thus far developed and sold only three houses without an affordable housing income restriction.

5. Encourage developing relationships between and among new and existing neighbors. This is, to us, the critical value added.

Believing that what makes a neighborhood great is people more than houses, NEAR invests staff and volunteer capacities into building relationships in St. Clair Place. We support neighborhood gatherings, bring long-time and newer neighbors together, and host awareness-raising, problem-solving forums on a regular basis. If St. Clair Place is to become a legacy neighborhood, it will be because of the wealth of relationships that emerge between and among neighbors.

St. Clair Place has come a long way since the 2008 housing crisis swelled its vacant property rate to over 40%. Many abandoned houses and vacant lots remain, but its streets are safer, properties are being redeemed, homeownership is on the upswing, and new neighbors are embracing the opportunity to put down roots here. Notoriously bad actors that held the neighborhood hostage to exploitation, substandard housing, and violence are still present, but in retreat. It’s beginning to look and feel somewhat like the promising place neighbors began to hope for nine years ago.

NEAR will do all we can to encourage continued healthy development of the neighborhood. The market is a long way from working on too many streets. There is a block-by-block challenge to end illegal activities and fight blight. Along with these challenges, we are dually vigilant (1) against real estate speculation that would drive out existing neighbors and (2) against the proliferation of exploitative and poorly managed rental housing. Every day we roll up our sleeves and work to continue to develop community as we create a great place for neighbors.