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Project spotlight: City of Homes

Neighborhoods aren’t static—they are constantly changing, often right before our eyes. So what to do when changes aren’t for the better? When houses are let go, not lived in, not cared for? Do you cross the street upon approach? Avert your eyes? Sigh in resignation?

Not if you’re Associate Project Manager Meridith Whippen, a Springfield resident and driving force behind Way Finders’ City of Homes initiative, announced at the end of 2022. She’s drawn to properties in distress by the vision of what they could be—to future owners and the greater community.

“Just the other night, I walked my dog a way I don’t often take. And there was a house that is boarded up, I hadn’t noticed it before,” says Meridith. “It had a sign on the door, I took a picture. I was like, ‘I’ve got see what the deal is with this house!’ Because it’s right on the main road, on Saint James, it’s in McKnight. What’s going on with it, you know? It doesn’t hurt to ask.”

In shepherding the City of Homes initiative—funded by a $2 million grant from the MassMutual Foundation, $1 million from the City of Springfield, and $300,000 from Baystate Health—Meridith is asking a lot of questions. And exercising patience. Both of which are integral to the project, which will give qualified first-time homebuyers the chance to purchase affordable, rehabilitated homes in six Springfield neighborhoods.

“The goals of City of Homes, which will update blighted properties and sell them through a lottery, are really to stabilize neighborhoods and build generational wealth,” says Meridith. “Springfield is known as the ‘City of Homes,’ with its big grand Victorians, hence the name. This is my community, I fell in love with it. I live in McKnight, which is one of the oldest planned residential neighborhoods in the country.”

We caught up in spring 2023 with Meridith, who joined Way Finders in fall 2022, for a status update.

“My goal is to have a house soon! While we’re waiting for property, we’re getting all our ducks in a row,” says Meridith, an attorney with a background in construction management. “I just want that day to come when a house is finished and a family moves in. And we bring them an edible arrangement!”

Getting from here to there—from scouring potential properties to delivering an edible arrangement—is no small feat. Each step along the way must be scrutinized through a cost/risk analysis, which comes naturally to Meridith: “My big thing is always, ‘What’s the risk?’ That’s what I’m programmed to do.”

For example, since the housing stock in Springfield is some of the oldest in the nation, the need for extensive rehab (“gut to stud”) and lead remediation are likely givens. And long vacant homes are often in such dire disrepair—tree roots growing through foundations, feral cat colonies at large—that they must be torn down. Begging such questions as: Could two homes be built on the lot? All these details, and any associated costs, must be carefully considered.

Then there’s the pilot piece. As Meridith explains, there are three ways a property may come into the program. Two of which are known entities: purchasing outright (the most expensive) or via a city’s Request for Proposal, or RFP (if selected from among the non-profits who apply to rehab a property).

Although the city’s RFPs have yet to be released, Meridith is hopeful. “From the discussions we’ve had, it looks like there could be three properties at once. Which is lovely, because if we can triangulate one neighborhood or one street, it starts to bring the whole area up.”

But it’s the third route—special attorney receivership, or SAR—that Way Finders is excited to pilot, as it could be the start of something bigger. Something other cities, such as Holyoke and Greenfield, could replicate, if it can be shown to work.

“SAR is an offshoot of a traditional receivership. But instead of the property ultimately going to auction, where it may be sold at a higher price or turned into rentals, the court does a motion to sell to a nonprofit,” says Meridith.

Meridith and Project Manager John Gilbert are keeping records of their efforts to pursue property through SAR, which will be analyzed by the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute to promote awareness of affordable housing solutions. As they continue to get other ducks in a row, including the lining up of contractors—relying heavily on minority- and/or women-owned businesses.

In terms of numbers? Initial projections—about 15 to 20 homes, each rehabbed for about $250,000—have gone down and up, respectively.

“There’s nothing we can do about the cost of things but prepare for sticker shock. I’m at an eight,” says Meridith, referring to the number of houses she imagines being able to rehab. “And I have a feeling we’re going to get closer to an all-in cost of about $300,000 or $350,000, time will tell.”

Other numbers have remained constant: The program is open to those making 80% of area median income, who would qualify for a mortgage of about $172,500, and there will be a 10-year deed rider.

“So if someone sells at year 11, all the equity is theirs,” says Meridith, highlighting the money that Way Finders will leave in each home, as the cost of renovation will exceed what City of Homes homebuyers can afford. “Prior to that, if they sell, whatever remains of the equity Way Finders came in with, they have to pay out of the equity that’s accrued. So there’s definitely incentive to stay.”

The funding for the program will be bolstered as homes are finished and sold, creating a cycle of funding—and a mini-lottery of sorts for the selected homeowners, who will walk right into a sizeable amount of equity.

“We also have the ability to go after more funding,” Meridith says. “I would just like to see this continue for years. Rehab a bunch of houses! Because it just makes such a difference. When you’re driving through a neighborhood with a bunch of empty homes, it’s scary. Everybody locks their doors, you see what’s happened in Detroit. I don’t want to see that happen here. I want things to get better!”