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Neighborhoods Near the Iowa Capitol Are Taking On a Fresh Look

Rob Dillard
Iowa Public Radio

Houses on the near east side of Des Moines, within sight of the Capitol dome, are among the city’s oldest. They are also among the most in disrepair. Some changes are afoot to freshen the look of three low-income neighborhoods.

Stacie Phillips works amidst a whir of construction activity in the shell of a house built in 1907 from a kit popular at the time.

“It’s a wonderful old house with the original trim, the conference ceilings," she says. "It has the original, beautiful swing-out casement windows we have rehabbed. Just a beautiful plan.”

Phillips is the neighborhood housing manager for Community Housing Initiatives, a nonprofit that buys worn out properties for rehabilitation.

“Right now, we’re at the end stages of framing," she says. "We’re putting blocking in, and we’re shimmying and stuff for the final stages of rough-ins for electrical and such, and preparing for cabinet installation.”

Credit Rob Dillard / Iowa Public Radio
Iowa Public Radio
Stacie Phillips (right) and Beth Hicks look over plans for rehabilitation work on a house near the Iowa Capitol

Phillips is in one of three side-by-side-by-side houses being refurbished in the Capitol Park Neighborhood of Des Moines. It is one of three east side neighborhoods bundled for an ongoing project called Viva East Bank. Beth Hicks serves on the initiative’s project management team.

“Viva East Bank actually covers a wide range of efforts from affordable housing to public infrastructure to youth programming,” Hicks says.

The three neighborhoods were hit hard by the collapse of the housing market and resulting recession of the first decade following 2000. They left behind foreclosures, vacant homes and blighted properties. But since 2014, when Viva East Bank began to roll, nearly 200 homes have been repaired, 17 new houses built and 21 abandoned properties torn down. It was a little more than three years ago Chelsea Lepley returned to her hometown and bought a house on the near east side.

“It’s a 120 years old, so it has so much character,” she says.

Credit Rob Dillard / Iowa Public Radio
Iowa Public Radio
Chelsea Lepley in the Capitol Park Neighborhood of Des Moines

Lepley has since become one of the loudest cheerleaders for east side development as chairwoman of the Capitol Park Neighborhood Association.

“We’re a neighborhood that’s diverse in almost every metric or facet you can think of in terms of income, languages, ethnicities,” she says.

Efforts to improve the housing stock in the Viva East Bank neighborhoods, install public art in parks and rebuild infrastructure, have benefited from a $500,000 award from Project Reinvest. It’s the result of a settlement with Bank of America for selling faulty mortgage securities during the housing bubble. Pastor Keith Hackle Jr. at the Philadelphia Seventh Day Adventist Church in the MLK Jr. Park Neighborhood sees an improving attitude among his parishioners.

Credit Rob Dillard / Iowa Public Radio
Iowa Public Radio
Pastor Keith Hackle Jr. at the Philadelphia Seventh Day Adventist Church

“When you see new paint, when you see new porches, when you see decks being built, it makes you feel better about where you are, and it makes you believe and know that individuals actually care about their homes,” he says.

A key benefit from all of this restoration is young homeowners moving to the area. Chelsea Lepley in Capitol Park says her neighborhood is close to downtown and to bike trails, and the houses are affordable.

“There are not a lot of places in the city where you can get a four-bedroom house for less than$100,000,” she says.

And she’s not worried, for now, about properties becoming overvalued.

“We’re never going to be Brooklyn," she says. "People are not going to get priced out of their homes in the same way as in coastal cities where gentrification is a huge problem.”

Back on the stretch of 13th Street between Lutheran Hospital and East High
School, Stacie Phillips sees evidence the neighborhoods have become a draw for homebuyers. She completed renovation work on one of the houses over the summer.

“We finished it in August and it sold within three days,” she says.

Those involved with east side improvements say they have led to $13 million in public and private investment in the Viva East Bank neighborhoods since 2014.