What Is Your Community Worth? An Hour? A Day? Or, Nothing?

I live in a city in decline. We’re not Detroit, but there are a lot more empty houses in Saint Paul, Minnesota, than I’d like to see. Some are just slow to sell, some are orphans of banks, and some are simply abandoned. That’s the house next door to mine.

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My neighbor, a good guy with a slew of problems, passed away a few years ago. When he died he was deeply in debt, had a gigantic second mortgage that he’d been tricked into assuming, and no assets to fix the house up. It was sad to watch, painful to be around. I honestly think that this tsunami of debt crushed him spiritually. Combine the debt with the death of two of his adult children, both abrupt and totally unexpected, and he was at the edge. When the dog died the last bit of his motivation went with the dog dishes out the door to the rubbish can.

The house mirrored his demise. It is a lovely 100 year old brick home with some great features. But it wasn’t maintained. When he passed his surviving children didn’t want to assume the burden of the house and didn’t try to get it from the bank that held the paper on it at the time. That paper was tough to track: I wanted the house so I tracked it myself.

It lead to a dead end. The mortgage holders would not talk to me because I wasn’t on the mortgage. I explained that he was dead, as far as I knew the house was completely abandoned, and it would soon become the property of the city – they would see no payments. (And, truth be told, they hadn’t seen a penny in years, they’d just held off on foreclosure so their debt ratio would stay down.) The broken record response got tiresome. I begged to be allowed to buy the house. Finally, after one last call, I wished them luck as they would lose it all.

Two years passed and the house declined further. I’d gotten in before the winter hit that first year and drained all the pipes, got the utilities turned off, and even winterized the plumbing fixtures. I still held out hope that I might get the property some day.

For the next two years I mowed the lawn, picked up the trash, trimmed the hedges, shoveled the snow, called the newspapers and begged them to quit leaving copies on the sidewalk. (Those things jam snow blowers!) But it was to no avail, the roof started to crumble and the pigeons and squirrels moved in for a stay. I called the city and they made it an official abandoned building.

I kept mowing and shoveling and then someone broke in and started stripping the house. Bad timing, we were home. So, I got the pleasure of watching the cops scoop up these knuckleheads. But that forced the city to move into “demolish” mode. The postings went up and hearings were scheduled. I talked to neighbors about perhaps buying the place as a group and fixing it up. Good responses, they’d be there, etc.

I was the sole person in that hearing. I talked to the assembled city officials and asked that they try to get a buyer to fix it up – I preferred a neighbor over a vacant lot. But it came down to establishing a date for the bulldozers to come on in and do the job.

Then God stepped in and lent a hand. The one person who was late to the meeting took her seat. She was the historical preservation advocate. Not much hope there, it’s not a historical or unique building. But she read her report and it seems that the city has a vested interest in saving that house. It would be the first gap on my block if it was demolished, and the city thinks we’re viable. (We are – good neighbors!) So she asked if the county wouldn’t foreclose on it for back due taxes and then put it into their rehab program.

I lit up. I had a shot at it again for back taxes and property value. Or someone else did, but it would not be torn down if that happened. That’s what I wanted: a neighbor, not a vacant lot. I left that hearing with hope that my neighborhood might be on the cusp of turning around.

Because I spent 2 hours going to a meeting. And a few hours mowing lawns and blowing snow. And making sure burglars didn’t steal the plumbing and burn it down. Just the stuff good people do for their neighbors. Yet I was the only neighbor.

The moral of the story isn’t that I’m a fantastic guy. It’s that you only have to care a little bit, do a little bit, and extend yourself a tad to change the course of events. I might be the guy that kept Saint Paul from declining like Detroit. Or it might be you.

What is your time worth? How much does your home and your neighborhood matter to you. I’d like you to think about that today, and then act on your analysis. It might just be helping an old neighbor out trimming those hedges. It might be a coat of paint on the wheelchair ramp. Or simply a neighborhood patrol to keep the vandals and burglars out of your alley.

Me? I’m going to pray about what to do if that house becomes available. I need one more project like the Mississippi river needs another major rain storm. But God will guide me. When the time comes, I’ll be ready. In the meantime, I’d appreciate your prayers as well. I’m good at lawn mowing, not so good on wisdom.


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