Renaissance Block Challenge Improving Neighborhoods

Homeowners looking for a way to make renovations more affordable can look to the Renaissance Block Challenge for help.

When the neighborhood revitalization plan was adopted in 2010, it noted that a culture of property neglect was woven throughout the city. Conditions like this undermine confidence in the housing market and discourage investment. The Renaissance Block Challenge was seen as a possible solution to the tendency of homeowners to shy away from making financial investments in their property.

“I came here to work on implementation of the neighborhood revitalization plan shortly after it was adopted,” said Peter Lombardi, executive director of the Jamestown Renaissance Corporation. “One of the key recommendations in the plan was what they called ‘cluster improvement grants.’ What the plan had found was that because of the relatively weak real estate market, many homeowners were hesitant to invest in their properties because they couldn’t see where they would get that money back. Still today, people are hesitant to invest because they aren’t sure if they can recoup that investment when they sell the property. The Renaissance Block Challenge was brought up in the neighborhood plan as a means to boost the confidence of groups of neighbors. If you have a bunch of neighbors in the same area that are fixing their porches, painting their houses that’s sort of infectious. When people see other other people making improvements, that hesitation to do the same is sort of washed away by a feeling of obligation.”

According to Lombardi, the challenge is designed to provide some financial incentives to reinvest by providing small matching grants up to $1,000 towards painting projects, porch repair projects, landscaping, concrete work and other exterior work.

The true goal of the project is the idea of coordination.

“If you want to participate, then you have to talk to your neighbors,” said Lombardi. “The application process requires that you get at least five of your neighbors to come along with you and say that they’re interested in making the improvements.”

Several neighborhoods have actually come together for the first time because of these grants, according to Lombardi. The Forest Heights neighborhood watch area was formed in late 2011, and one of the first things that they did was hold a meeting to talk about this program.

Over the past two years, there have been 11 neighborhood clusters made up of 90 participating property owners that took part in the Renaissance Block Challenge. A total of $270,000 in total exterior improvements were done, with only $70,000 being paid out as matching grants. This showed that the bulk of investments actually came from the property owners themselves.

“I think that helps to validate the idea that if people get together and agree to improve their properties then it becomes infectious,” said Lombardi. “It’s something we’d like to see in all parts of the city. It was successful the first two years and we’ll be doing it again this year as well. The pre-applications are due on March 29. After that, each participant fills out an application describing what type of improvements they’d like to do. By May, we will have designated the blocks and the property owners spend the summers either doing the work themselves or paying a contractor to do it. Once they’re done with the work, they submit invoices and receipts to us and we reimburse them.”

The local foundation community has been a driving force for this program, and several local businesses including Chautauqua Brick and Brigiotta’s have offered discounts to homeowners looking to make improvements to their property, too.

“We’re excited about this year because we’ve already received a lot of interested inquiries,” said Lombardi. “This isn’t about big, expensive projects. It’s about small, targeted efforts to boost confidence and spur reinvestment by the private sector in the community. I think it’s doing exactly what it was designed to do.”

For more information about the Renaissance Block Program, visit www.jrconline.org.