A parade of empty homes

Attic brickwork
Dayton's Bluff residents Matt Mazanec and Jacob Dorer check out an interesting brick pattern in the attic of a neighborhood duplex.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

They come bearing flashlights and cameras, wearing shoes they don't mind getting dirty. The group is spending a spring afternoon plumbing the unpredictable scene of abandoned housing.

But they feel it's their duty to save these once-majestic relics. There are more Victorian houses in this challenged East Side neighborhood than in the more upscale Summit Hill, said Jacob Dorer, a member of the neighborhood's Vacant Home Committee.

Bring a flashlight
Richard DuPaul of Dayton's Bluff inspects the attic floor of a duplex on Beech Street in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

"In Summit, they have a lot of houses, but they're on like 300-foot lots. So we manage to fit four houses in that same space," Dorer said, laughing.

The committee formed last year to give local input on city decisions to destroy dangerous or nuisance buildings. Demolition has been the city's traditional tool to crack down on problem properties, but Dorer said it can be a blunt instrument.

"Rather than spending our Saturdays and Sundays looking at houses and coming up with why they shouldn't be torn down, we're hoping if we do these tours, people will buy them and we won't ever get to the point where we have to talk about tearing them down," Dorer said.

Their first stop is a 19th century Queen Anne house on the corner of 6th and Hope. Inside, it looks half-lived in, with bare mattresses, stuffed animals, liquor bottles and an old TV.

The corner of Sixth Street
Vincent Peterson says he will lose his boarded-up vacant house to foreclosure. This house is among a row of houses along E. 6th St. that were built in the late 19th century.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Up in the attic, Karin Dupaul and Amy Handford can see beyond the mess.

"This is great space," said DuPaul, a neighborhood community organizer.

"I see it perfect," Handford said. "It's already set up for a master bedroom. The plumbing's up here for a master bath. It's already to go."

Then she adds, "Well, other than a little work."

Handford has renovated her own house in Dayton's Bluff, and said it's good for prospective buyers to know exactly what they're getting into.

"Because they need to know there is work involved," she said. "It isn't just paint and wallpaper."

Half lived-in
It's common to see traces of other families' belongings while touring vacant homes. Homeowner Vincent Peterson says he will lose this Queen Anne house to foreclosure.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Handford described what the attic looks like now.

"Pigeon poop everywhere! And there's some broken glass. But see, that's the thing -- either people think you're crazy, or they say, 'Wow, this is amazing.'"

Dayton's Bluff residents are calling their May event the "Explore Your Possibilities" tour. But where they see hope in these empty buildings, homeowner Vincent Peterson sees only heartache.

Peterson bought his Queen Anne house two years ago, thinking he and his wife would live there for the next 30 years.

Only later did he learn that the city had declared the house uninhabitable because of a number of building code violations. Peterson said he has sunk about $40,000 into renovations, and will lose the house to foreclosure.

Imagining its future
Dayton's Bluff community organizer Karin DuPaul looks at a vacant house's yard through an attic window. DuPaul is helping organize the neighborhood's vacant homes tour May 3-4.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

But he isn't ready to let go of the home. And he has mixed feelings about putting his boarded-up home on display for everyone to see.

"The thing is, who are these buyers?" Peterson asked. "Just having people walk through the house, it's not a nice and easy feeling."

Event organizers are looking for homes that are structurally sound and worthy of preservation. But it's been tricky. The ones that are in good shape sell quickly -- taking them out of the running for the tour.

The group is arranging for contractors to prepare cost estimates for needed repairs at each house. The volunteers say it's important to be up front with buyers.

Real estate agent and Dayton's Bluff native Teresa Boardman said first-time homebuyers who watch a lot of HGTV are drawn to the foreclosed homes, and some have the will and cash to turn them around.

Don't turn on the water
A notice taped to a kitchen sink warns against turning on the water. This home in Dayton's Bluff has been winterized, but other abandoned properties have been ruined by burst water pipes.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Boardman isn't affiliated with the event. She said few people realize how difficult it is to restore vacant housing. Sometimes buyers don't qualify for reconstruction loans.

"There may be missing ceilings, parts of roofs, plumbing -- on and on the list goes," said Boardman. "When they find out how expensive it is on some of the real low-priced houses, like in the $50,000 range, and learn they need the permits for the plumbing and the electrical, they find that it's not for them."

Back in Dayton's Bluff, the group visits a Beech Street duplex. It's valued at $220,000, but is now on the market for one-third of that amount. It's clean and quaint, with original dark wood trim.

And again, the Dayton's Bluff neighbors begin imagining this house's future. The best way to preserve it, they say, is to put a family in it.

The tour is noon-5 p.m. on May 3, and 1-5 p.m. on May 4. Meet at 798 E. 7th St. for free trolley rides to the listings.

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