Interest Time, LCEF News

The Bold Plan to Improve Refugees Living Conditions

January 3, 2018 | Posted by Demian Farnworth

Photo: The front of 2850 Magnolia during renovations in 2017.

Sunday mornings at Messiah Lutheran in the Tower Grove neighborhood of South City, St. Louis, bring a special blend of different people. No surprise since Tower Grove is a racially-diverse, mixed-income neighborhood of St. Louis.

On any given day, you’ll find middle-class families hanging out at Tower Grove Park; a homeless person roaming down Grand Avenue; refugees working a variety of jobs; and some of the most sought-after and expensive homes just two blocks down from the church.

Messiah has been part of this neighborhood for over 100 years—through its birth, decline and recent revival. Reaching out to the community has always been in the DNA of the church. For decades, under the leadership of visionary pastors, Messiah was thought of as a “church for all the nations.” It is the Sunday service where the congregation (about 120) found an opportunity to build relationships.

“Since a lot of people walk to church,” president of the congregation Chris Shearman said, “this is all about neighbors sharing life together.” It was natural that through these relationships the church learned of the poor living conditions of many of their church members.

“And that’s when we started talking about what could be done to change these circumstances,” Shearman said.

Clean homes for refugees

The answer was East Fox Homes.

East Fox Homes is a Tower Grove East and Fox Park residential apartment project Messiah Lutheran launched—with the help of a local non-profit developer, general contractor EM Harris Construction Rise, architect Urban Werks and predevelopment financing by Lutheran Church Extension Fund (LCEF).

The goal was to renovate 12 historic buildings throughout Tower Grove East and Fox Park into 47 affordable apartments. In 2014, the Missouri Housing Development Commission approved Messiah’s plan.

According to their website, “This approval provides tax credits allowing Messiah to renovate a dozen boarded up and abandoned properties in our neighborhood into fully rehabbed historic properties.” The buildings are in such bad repair that they are cheap to buy, but because they have to meet historic site standards they can often be cost-prohibitive in rehabbing. The tax credit eases that burden.

The idea for East Fox Homes began when a handful of Nepalese refugees began attending Messiah. In 2008, the first wave of these refugees began arriving in the United States as part of what was to become the world’s largest resettlement efforts. St. Louis is now home to more than 1,000 Nepalese refugees. South City attracts many refugees from the International Institute, which places refugees, is located not far from the church. South City also proves to be a good market for jobs.

Messiah launched the East Fox Homes project because they wanted to meet this need and help these families fully integrate into the neighborhood. They also wanted to prepare for even more refugee families coming to St. Louis in the near future.

“All these buildings,” Shearman said, “are a burden on this community, but we are going to turn them into assets.” More importantly, Messiah is providing safe, clean living spaces—free of lead paint and other bad conditions these refugees usually have to put up with. And they will be in safer parts of town, too.

“People park in Tower Grove or walk to church or park on the street,” Shearman said. He sees this diversity as an opportunity for growth and empathy. “It’s an opportunity to grow because of all the different backgrounds and experiences. This also lends to some empathy to the plight of the refugees and immigrants. We are sharing life and sharing experiences.”

The gorgeous view

One of the buildings they are renovating into a community center is thought to have been built around the 1880s. Nobody really knows—not even the city. It’s in really bad shape. But Shearman doesn’t mind. He sees the potential.

While plans are still coming together for the programming in the Messiah Community Center, Shearman said, “the community center will be a place where people will feel welcome to come and hang out. There will be Chrome notebooks to give the children a fun way to learn math.”

In the evening Schearman imagines different groups and members of the neighborhood using the space to meet for a variety of reasons. In the summer, there will be a lunch program for children who might not get lunch since schools would normally provide that meal.

They are also renovating the second floor into one-and-two bedroom apartments, also part of East Fox Homes. “What’s really neat about these apartments,” Shearman said, “is that families will have a gorgeous view of St. Francis de Sales Oratory from their windows,” an unheard-of perk for the ideal resident.

The rent is restricted so the housing cost is always about a third or less of a resident’s living expenses. There is a clear demand for these homes. Ten of the 12 buildings are occupied, with a wait list to get into the others. More units are becoming available as 2833 Magnolia was completed at the end of September. The last building, 2801 Magnolia, was completed in early November.

“Without LCEF,” Shearman said, “we couldn’t have covered the upfront costs like the acquisition of the property; fees involving architects, legal and design; and initial application for tax credits.” As if anticipating the question, Shearman went on to explain why the church was doing this: “This is about providing safe, affordable housing for low-income families.” Then he paused. “And that’s because we are compelled by Christ’s love.”

Originally appeared in the 2017 fall issue of LCEF’s official magazine, Interest Time. View a digital version here.

Demian Farnworth
Senior Content Writer for the Lutheran Church Extension Fund.