Charles Allison supervised as two volunteers lined up the next slat of a wooden fence.
“You need a little bit more drop — just a touch,” he advised, as Steve Blessing adjusted the wood accordingly.
Through the work of the assembled volunteers, the fence came together in a few hours in the backyard of a Dutchtown neighborhood house being renovated by St. Joseph Housing Initiative. St. Joseph Housing Initiative is a faith-based, nonprofit organization that seeks to produce quality housing for low- and moderate-income families in the St. Louis area.
The fence was just one small piece of the renovation of the Dutchtown house, which will be the eighth home in the neighborhood fixed up and sold by the housing initiative since its founding in 2018. The house had been vacant for many years before the housing initiative acquired it last summer with the help of the Neighborhood Vacancy Initiative and Dutchtown South Community Corporation. What was a three-room, shotgun-style house underwent a major renovation that included the addition of two bedrooms and main floor laundry; a new roof, new windows, new mechanical systems and updated plumbing; new appliances and cabinets in the kitchen and new fixtures in the bathroom.
“I love that we could take this obsolete floorplan and bring it up to date — preserve the house but turn what was a problem property into an owner-occupied house that’s going to be beautiful,” St. Joseph Housing Initiative executive director Maureen McCuen said.
Any major work is done by professional contractors, but volunteers take care of the smaller projects like cleaning, painting, landscaping and building fences, helping to keep costs down.
“We really couldn’t do it without our volunteers,” McCuen said. “They’re a big part of being able to keep these houses affordable.”
Four of the volunteers present that day, including Charles Allison and his wife, Mindi, are members of St. Joseph Housing Initiative’s new Young Friends group. The Young Friends support the work of the
housing initiative through service projects, like the fence building, as well as raising both funds and awareness.
Allison, a staff electrician at Washington University who also has experience in construction, enjoys being able to use his skill set to serve others in the community. He grew up in Dutchtown, graduated from St. Mary’s High School and now lives in nearby Holly Hills with his own family.
“For me, I live a little bit south of here in the city, and this neighborhood affects mine,” he said. “These people go to the same restaurants I do, they shop at the same grocery stores I do — they’re just a neighborhood over.”
Also volunteering that day were two members of the St. Stephen Protomartyr Holy Name Society, whose members have lent a hand — or a hammer — at many of St. Joseph Housing Initiative’s previous projects. David Borgmeyer has been a monetary supporter of the housing initiative since its inception, he said, and this was his second time volunteering at a project site. Like Allison, Borgmeyer lives in the Holly Hills neighborhood and wants to do his part to help his southside neighbors flourish.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, right?” he said.
Steve Blessing, a parishioner at Sacred Heart in Valley Park, is a regular volunteer at the organization’s projects. An alumnus of Bishop DuBourg High School, Blessing enjoys the chance to give back to the south St. Louis area in very tangible ways.
“I like to be outside and active, so this is right up my alley,” he said. “I’m a man of action.”
The fence was one of the final steps needed to complete the house. The homebuyer, a mother with a 3-year-old daughter who currently rents in Dutchtown, is set to close on the house at the end of the month.
“(Closing) is the best part,” McCuen said. “Every family has a different story, just like every house has a different story. But the one thing in common is every single family has worked hard to become a homebuyer and are really, really, really happy at closing.”
The St. Joseph Housing Initiative was founded in 2018, growing from conversations then-Archbishop Robert Carlson had with Bridget Flood, executive director of the Incarnate Word Foundation, and formed with the help of St. Mary’s High School, five Catholic parishes, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, Saint Louis University and others. The nonprofit works to provide increased homeownership and added stability in neighborhoods with high rates of rental housing and vacancies. Currently, the organization has ongoing projects in the Dutchtown neighborhood and just purchased its first home in neighboring Carondelet, bringing its total roster of completed and in-progress houses to 12.
All of the initiative’s homeowners are first-time buyers. Each family receives a forgivable down payment assistance loan of $5,000, homebuyer education courses, a visit to Home Sweet Home for furnishings and household goods and support through the initiative’s First Neighbors program, which matches the buyers with established neighborhood residents who help with everything from hanging pictures to gardening lessons to inviting them to neighborhood meetings and block parties.
St. Joseph Housing Initiative was this month named a winner of FOCUS St. Louis’ “What’s Right With the Region” Improving Equity & Inclusion award.
“It’s just an honor to be part of all the good work that’s happening in St. Louis,” McCuen said.
>> How you can help
St. Joseph is looking for volunteers to help with cleaning, yardwork, painting and other small projects. In addition to financial support, the organization also accepts donations of property or building materials.
To learn more about the initiative or inquire about volunteering or donating, visit www.stjosephhousing.org or contact Outreach and Volunteer Coordinator Annie Purcell at (314) 471-0282 or [email protected]