A neighborhood is an ecosystem, a quirky human habitat, and when it’s been damaged by generations of neglect, it probably needs help that has nothing to do with repairing roofs and bringing wiring up to code.
After years of advocating for walkable neighborhoods and preservation of historic buildings, I decided to stop talking about it, and start doing it. So last year, I took the plunge and purchased a little 1915 bungalow fixer-upper near downtown Tulsa. I thought this would be a good way to learn the financial ropes of small development, build relationships with contractors, and hone my property-management skills before moving up to a small 4-plex or mixed-use building sometime in the future. As it turns out, it’s been all of that, and so much more.
My strategy was to comb older neighborhoods near downtown that need and deserve reinvestment. Basically, I was looking for a place with a compact street grid, alleys, and rundown housing with a couple hipster “indicator species” (brewpubs! yoga!) nearby. So when I saw a house come up in the local sheriff’s auction, I was ready.
Having attended a couple Incremental Development Alliance workshops, I worked up a pro forma based on expected rental income and the cost of improvements, financing, and operating expenses to determine how much I could pay for the house. Then I added about 30% to the renovation budget as a cushion against my own ignorance. The project still “penciled” with room to spare, so I set off to the sheriff’s auction feeling optimistic.
The funny thing is that I didn’t win the auction, but I did get the house.
The only other bidder was a young woman with her daughter by her side. Maybe I was stereotyping, but she looked like so many neighborhood advocates I’ve worked with over the years, it seemed silly to keep bidding against her. We were just making it more expensive for each other. So I stopped a few thousand dollars short of my (very conservative) top price and let her win the auction.
Afterwards, I introduced myself. Within minutes, we bonded over a shared disdain for replacement windows and Home Depot kitchens. She was indeed a preservationist who had renovated several houses in a nearby historic district. Tulsa being Tulsa, we had friends in common. So we exchanged phone numbers, and I left the auction feeling good about the experience, despite “losing” the bid.
A few weeks later, I received a call from her. For various reasons, she and her husband were not going to be able to start renovating the house for several months, and wondered if I would still be interested in it. If so, they would sell the house to me for the price they paid.
Which is how I came to own this little slice of history.
The house is located on the dodgy end of an up-and-coming neighborhood about a mile east of downtown. Like most “streetcar suburbs” the neighborhood is defined by a compact street grid, houses with front porches on small lots, detached garages, and sidewalks throughout. There are a multitude of classic, if rundown, craftsman bungalows in the area, and everything is conveniently close to a couple historic “main street” districts. Which is to say, the neighborhood has good bones.
It also has pockets of crime and decrepit buildings, thanks to an abundance of slumlords who prey on people with few resources and fewer options.
The house I bought falls smack dab in between the good and the bad. If this street were the Korean Peninsula, my house would be the DMZ. To the south are mostly stable, fairly well-maintained homes with a mix of working-class and retired residents. To the north is slumlord deluxe, with a lot of… shall we say… “entrepreneurial” activities going on.
The house next door has a failing roof, boarded up windows, missing siding, exposed insulation, and an overgrown backyard. I can only assume the landlord is waiting for a good tornado and a sizeable insurance payment before maintenance will begin.
Nearby are a couple rundown 4-plexes, where the owners come by once a week to collect their rent in cash, and remove the front doors when people fail to pay. Door removal appears to be their main skill when it comes to property management. Tenants appear and disappear on a monthly basis, and “friends” come and go with a frequency that implies they’re not there to borrow a cup of sugar.
All this is to say that I’m operating a bit outside my comfort zone. While I’ve done my share of manual labor and blue-collar jobs, I realize that I’m basically a privileged, middle-class, college-educated white woman working in an area where I don’t always understand what’s going on around me. Since I can’t tell a meth addict from a person who lacks dental insurance, my policy is to be polite and respectful to everyone I meet, and hope that folks will return the favor. So far, so good.
Despite all this, I’m excited about the new house. It’s totally intact. Original three-above-one double hung windows with poured glass; original pedestal tub; original doors and fixtures; and oak floors throughout, even in the bathroom and the kitchen. Houses built in 1915 were constructed with lumber from old-growth forests, which means dense, straight wood with unbelievably tight grain. There is simply no way to replicate the quality of materials and craftsmanship that went into the creation of this house.
I remain forever grateful that none of the previous occupants had the desire (or possibly the budget) to ruin it. Had this house been located in a more affluent neighborhood, it would have been gutted. Vinyl windows and particle-board cabinetry from a big box store would have been installed. Light fixtures would have been replaced. Once trendy, now dated, backsplashes would have appeared.
Old houses and high-quality craftsmanship develop patina over time. They were built to last, and it shows. They age with grace. They can be repaired. My job is to be respectful while I do it.
But there’s more to revitalization than simply fixing up old buildings. A neighborhood is an ecosystem, a quirky human habitat, and when it’s been damaged by generations of neglect, it probably needs help that has nothing to do with repairing roofs and bringing wiring up to code.
The most obvious problems spring from poverty and addiction. From there, it’s an easy spiral down. Folks with few options and a lot of time on their hands are going to get into trouble. Inability to pay lawyers and court fees means more families living on the edge. Criminal records limit job opportunities and housing choices. And concentrated poverty makes it hard to find a way out. When every person you know is in the same lousy circumstances, it’s harder to move up.
In some ways, a little gentrification would be a good thing in this neighborhood. So often people want to work, but there’s no one around to hire them. If I could afford it, I’d hire the whole neighborhood to scrape paint, pour concrete, trim trees and mow lawns. But since I’m living off my savings, I have to do the grunt work myself, and save the paid jobs for licensed professionals.
The whole experience has me thinking about ways to help the people who live nearby. I dream of finding ways to pay people to learn skilled trades. Creating places where you could borrow tools to work on projects or make crafts for sale. Finding ways to help people access the social services they desperately need but may not know are available. Developing policies that would protect people from unhealthy and unsafe slumlord housing and predatory lending.
I don’t have the answers. Right now, I’ve got my hands full just trying to fix up this one old house. Every day I’m humbled…but I’m learning. My project is one small step, and it’s not enough, but it’s a start. It's just one of a multitude of small actions that will be needed to help make the neighborhood a better place for everyone.
This article originally appeared at StrongTowns.org and is re-published here under a Creative Commons license.