Building A Renaissance

November 3, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Despite slumping housing sales, new-home construction continues in the North Baxter Revitalization Project.

The two-year-old effort to fill a nook of a troubled southeast side neighborhood got a vote of confidence recently when city commissioners extended their option agreement with Renaissance Construction for another year on nine city-owned properties. The goal of the project is to bring a mixture of subsidized and market-rate single-family housing to an area that had its share of violence this year.

Habitat for Humanity and the Inner City Christian Federation are building the subsidized housing for low-income residents, while Renaissance is constructing the market-rate houses. But even purchasers of the homes that Renaissance is building get two perks that normally don't accompany the acquisition of a new home.

Company President William Jeffrey Hill said the National City Community Development Corp. is offering homebuyers a mortgage rate 1.5 percent below the going rate. And because Renaissance is building in a city-sponsored Neighborhood Enterprise Zone, buyers will pay roughly half of the city property-tax rate for 12 years.

Renaissance has an option on nine of the 22 city parcels that make up the project — ICCF and Habitat have the others — and Hill said his company hopes to build single-family houses on all nine of the lots.

"There are a couple of lots that are questionable, location-wise. But it's market driven, so if we can find buyers, we plan to build on those lots," he said.

Renaissance has built and sold one house and has another under construction. A doctor bought the house at

1145 Sigsbee St. SW
for $170,000. The two-story house has four bedrooms, 2.5 baths, a living room, dining room, foyer, kitchen and laundry room over its 1,300 square feet. It also includes a finished basement.

"I went on a tour and saw that house. It's really well done," said Rosalynn Bliss, 2nd Ward city commissioner.

The second house at 1140 Sigsbee is about 40 percent done, and its layout is similar to the first. The exterior is a bit different, but other than that, the second has many of the same features as the first.

Hill said he hopes to have the home finished by Thanksgiving, if the weather cooperates. The house is listed at www.grar.com and Dan Holland of Castle Creek Realty is the broker.

Renaissance listed the first home in April as a model and it sold seven days later. But as Hill pointed out, the home-buying market was different last spring than it is this fall. Home sales are down almost everywhere and sellers aren't getting their asking prices, and that scenario has been projected to repeat itself next year. But Hill remains confident that his homes will sell, because their location puts buyers near two popular districts.

"If someone wants to live by the Wealthy Street Business District and the entertainment of Eastown, we have the only new homes there today," he said.

In addition to the company's Sigsbee addresses, Renaissance also has property options on Bemis, Diamond and Logan. Hill asked the city for a two-year extension on the firm's two-year option that was granted in 2004, but had to settle for a 12-month extension.

When commissioners gave Renaissance the additional year earlier this month, they said if the company continues making progress on the properties, they would give the firm another year. But the difficulty Hill faces is that he entered into the option agreement believing the city was going to expand a small park in the neighborhood, and that hasn't happened yet.

"This was something that I didn't know almost a year into the whole project — that the Joe Taylor Park expansion probably won't be completed until 2008, if not 2009," he said.

"Part of the sales and marketing strategy is that there is going to be a two-acre park and you can live right across the street from a park. It's really a hard sell to tell somebody that in the future, a couple of years from now, there will be a park there."

Violence in the neighborhood last spring and summer, which included the firebombing of a temporary policy station, didn't help with the marketing effort either. Nor did rising mortgage rates fueled by actions the Federal Reserve took to hold down inflation.

But the police have moved in and the violence has moved out, while interest rates have stabilized, and Hill believes his new southeast-side homes will find buyers.

"If I was in Caledonia, I wouldn't be building a house right now," he said. "But because of the location and, I think, the desire for a new urbanism-type feel, people want to be in the city and in a diverse neighborhood, and have some of the amenities that come with that."    

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