Though the Twin Cities housing market shows signs of strengthening, foreclosed and abandoned homes still dot many neighborhoods. However, some area residents say Facebook could be the answer.
St. Paul City Council member Dave Thune's district is a hilly neighborhood that sits across the Mississippi River from downtown St. Paul. Two homes in that neighborhood show the progress in the battle against abandoned properties.
The houses stood vacant for a time during the last year, and both have now sold. There are still about 140 abandoned homes in this area, but neighbors have convinced Dave Thune that social networking sites like Facebook could help sell them.
"It really is something that's turned into a social -- well, it is society right now," Thune said. "We probably can't imagine what it'll be like in five years."
Residents came to Thune to propose what may be the first organized effort to use online social networking sites, like Facebook, to sell vacant properties.
They want neighbors with Facebook pages to post messages that say something like "I live in a great neighborhood and there's an abandoned house here you should think about buying."
Thune has put $3,500 toward the project. The money comes from a city fund devoted solely to his district, and he didn't need city council approval to use it.
The grant money will go to the West Side Safe Neighborhood Council and Summit-University Planning Council, who'll pay Web designer Steve Boland to work with real estate agents to identify properties and help community members understand what they should post.
"It doesn't take that much money -- a couple thousand dollars and this is all the financial support the project needs," Boland said, "but if we can turn even two or three vacant properties into owner-occupied places it'll repay time and time over."
People will post Facebook updates describing the abandoned properties and nearby schools or amenities. Neighbors won't get paid for participating; their benefit may come from having a friend move into their neighborhood.
"That helps those folks that are viewing that social network stream to say, 'sure I could go look at this property or that property that I don't know anyone who lives over there, but I could visit this property in this neighborhood where I've got a friend of a friend who's ready to help me be successful,'" Boland said.
Executive Director Martha Varela of the West Side Safe Neighborhood Council said the West St. Paul community already has strong off-line social networks and this just builds on those.
"A lot of the work that we do on the west side is really done through the social networks," Varela said. "Facebook is kind of the new thing in the social network area so it was kind of a good fit for us. Because that's how we get things done here."
Organizers say the Facebook project won't lead to gentrification of the diverse neighborhood because it'll be existing residents reaching out to friends. Valera is organizing outreach to people who don't have access to the Web or aren't signed up for online social networks.
She said the effort is worth it, and others apparently agree. Officials in two other St. Paul districts have already expressed interest in expanding the project to their areas.