Group plans to rehab south city homes for refugees

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ST. LOUIS, MO (KTVI) - A dozen dilapidated buildings could soon be rehabilitated in south St. Louis.  The project won't just benefit the neighborhoods, but a group of foreign refugees seeking a better life.

Toni Easter lives in a rehabbed home on Magnolia Avenue in Fox Park.  On her block, she laments there are more houses than people: "Each one has such a character, they sort of are the neighbors, the buildings themselves. And it's kind of hurtful to watch them degenerate and fall apart; they're such beautiful buildings."

One of these abandoned buildings was painted light blue. Neighbors affectionately call it the "blue castle."  It's one of 12 structures that south city resident Chris Shearman plans to renovate, producing 45 apartments.

Shearman explains, "Anytime that you can take something that's falling apart, vacant, detrimental to the neighborhood, and then turn it into an asset, that's going to be a positive."

The idea for this project came about a year ago, at Messiah Lutheran Church on South Grand. One of the Bhutanese church members was lamenting that a relative was living in a building with unsafe lead levels.

In recent years, a number of refugees from Bhutan have made south St. Louis home.  Many of them attend also Shearman's church.  He and other church members got together with Rise, a non-profit developer, to rehab multi-family homes for these refugees.

"It became apparent that there was a need for more high-quality housing in the neighborhood, in places where people could walk to mass transit, and they can walk to jobs," explains Shearman.

Sixth Ward Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia is glad that these buildings may finally be restored. She says, "I've had developers look at them, and the numbers don't make sense for most mom and pop shops, or even larger developers, to rehab."

Funding for the roughly $10 million project will come from historic and low income housing tax credits, along with non-profit groups and other investors.  Now, they're just waiting for the green light. In December, the group will find out if their tax credits are approved.

As for Easter and the other residents on her block? "We're looking forward to the progress of this project, and actually having neighbors," she says.

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