St. Petersburg’s community redevelopment non-profit, Venture House, held its ceremonial “sledgehammer swing” May 18 to mark the beginning of its affordable housing city improvement efforts.
“A little over two years ago, Venture House was a 90 second pitch at a social enterprise contest,” said President and CEO of Venture House Frank Wells, as he stood in the living room of a large, boarded-up two-story house in South St. Pete.
“It went something like this,” said Wells: ‘The City of St. Pete needs innovators. It needs entrepreneurs and artists who create the next generation of jobs and culture in our city. The city of St. Pete has several hundred boarded up, vacant houses and they’re mostly concentrated in South St. Pete, where we have twice the poverty rate, twice the unemployment rate, twice the foreclosure rate as the rest of our great city. So why can’t we take those houses, fix them up, and put [entrepreneurs and artists] in them?”
According to the Venture House website, the organization’s plan aims to take boarded-up, vacant houses — especially problem properties and those in foreclosure — and rehab them. The units will then be rented out at an affordable rate to local artists and entrepreneurs who commit to stick around, get involved in the community, and help create jobs.
The plan also includes targeting small clusters of houses — usually five to ten — in close proximity to each other in order to “maximize neighborhood impact, and create additional synergy for the entrepreneurs and artists.”
The target neighborhoods will be those which aren’t currently attracting private developer capital, but could foreseeably attract private investors within 3-5 years, thanks to “an appropriate jump start.”
“In St. Pete we talk a lot about vision and being a city with a vision, being a city of opportunity where the sun shines on all who live, work and play here,” said Mayor Rick Kriseman, who was also in attendance for the event. “And I always like to stop at the ‘all’ part, because it really is about being a city of opportunity for all. But, when we talk about vision, this has clearly been a vision of Frank’s. And to be here, to watch this vision become a reality, should be inspiring to all of us.”
The house where the May 18 event was held is located at 1830 20th Street South. The idea is for it to serve as a showcase for the project. Several more houses are in the pipeline as well. And as the project scales up to 100-plus houses over the next several years, as is the organization’s goal, Venture House is hoping to create “a permanent critical mass of affordable housing for its innovators,” and “the next generation of businesses, jobs and culture in the [St. Petersburg] community.”
“People ask, ‘Lisa, what are your top three priorities for council?’” said St. Petersburg District 7 City Council-member Lisa Wheeler-Brown, who was part of Venture House before she was elected to City Council. “I get that question all the time,” she continued. “But I don’t have a top three. They’re all number one’s. And one of those [priorities] is redevelopment and revitalizing our area. And Venture House, with its vision, is part of that solution.”
Financially, part of the reason Venture House works has to do with its status as a non-profit. It can accept donated or below-market-value properties from banks, financial institutions and other owners of abandoned properties. It can also leverage the power of market-based financing solutions, foundations, and venture philanthropists, while a community land trust holds the properties to ensure long-term affordability, allowing flexibility for rentals or ownership participation for Venture House entrepreneur residents.
“If we’re going to turn around neighborhoods like this […] it’s not going to be easy, but it’s not going to be complicated,” added St. Pete City Councilman Karl Nurse. “This street unraveled because of drug dealers and a poor job on behalf of the previous administration’s policing. And I want to thank the Mayor for bringing a real police chief here. Because, what happened was, the people who lived here left. And we’re coming back. But, as you can tell, old houses are like old people, we need more TLC than we used to.”
For more on Venture House, check out venture-house.org.