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Davenport’s housing program aims to revitalize inner-city

As decades of population decline have left many city blocks with vacant lots and abandoned homes, Davenport leaders hope a new city program will begin to spur redevelopment and repopulation in some of the city's oldest neighborhoods.

Called Davenport DREAM, the program sets aside roughly $900,000 in grants for new and existing homeowners for the upcoming fiscal year. Aldermen recently approved putting the program in place as of July 1, the Quad-City Times reported.

The top priorities of the program are to repopulate the central parts of the city, assist existing area property owners who want to make major improvements and "breathe new life" into vacant and abandoned spaces, said Sarah Ott, a Davenport city management analyst with the city's economic development team.

Citywide population has grown by roughly 2.4% over the past eight years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That rate is far lower than many of the cities in a state that has traditionally been slow to grow nationally. And much of that growth happened along the city's outer edges as new development inched into undeveloped farmland, encouraged in part by earlier city incentives aimed at new construction.

But as construction costs have risen, Davenport's downtown has become more of a hotspot and other incentive programs have emerged at the state and federal levels, the city's formula for incentives is essentially being reversed to offer higher priority in the inner-city. Part of that renewed philosophy is rooted in the theory that millennials are looking for a more urban setting to live in — a nod to Davenport's higher education institutions and the blossoming downtown.

"The Davenport DREAM project is basically a grant that is meant to help rehabilitate and repopulate these neighborhoods, to inspire neighborhoods to fix up their properties, to turn their houses into homes (and) build a sense of community pride," Ott said during a recent interview with the newspaper. "Those are all things that we're looking to do because we know that fixing up a street starts with fixing up one property."

People who live or plan to live in the city's core neighborhoods — the boundary line for the map includes the city's 1st, 3rd, 4th and 5th wards — can apply for a grant with the city's economic development department to make broadly defined improvements to their properties.

Grants for existing homeowners max out at $15,000 apiece, and can be used for major mechanical issues or facade improvements. City officials have about $650,000 set aside for that part of the program, which translates to at least 43 properties they hope will take advantage.

The second leg of Davenport DREAM is aimed at incentivizing new homeownership; $250,000 is set aside for new homeowners to obtain grants of up to $25,000, which program managers say should go to roughly 10 new homes.

Evaluations of the grant applications are to be done by the city's economic development team. City leaders hope the program will be used by individual homeowners — who may hire contractors to do the work — or local developers seeking properties to rehabilitate. But the grant does come with a string: Those who get one must ensure the home is occupied for five years, a requirement aimed at creating stability in the neighborhoods.

Alderwoman Marion Meginnis, 3rd Ward, represents some of the city's most impoverished areas — as well as some of the biggest up-and-coming ones. Over the past several years, she's witnesses some major transformation in her neighborhood, largely the result of major private investments. She recalls city blocks where nearly every house was boarded up that have been begun to bounce back after the rehabilitation of a single home.

"Money can sort of stimulate money," said Meginnis, a longtime proponent of investing in the city's historic districts.

Meginnis points to the vacant homes and abandoned lots — many of which are in her neighborhood — as an opportunity for growth the city needs to invest in for blighted areas to improve over time. And while the Davenport DREAM is a step in the right direction, she says, the program will require time and consistent commitment from City Hall to make any remarkable improvements.

"I'm not looking to see phenomenal change in the first year because that's not how this works," Meginnis said.

Other community leaders hope the program could begin to remedy some of the problems the city has with affordable housing and persistent inequities experienced by protected minority groups. A recent housing analysis for the city of Davenport found that nearly 30% of residents experience a housing need, and black and Hispanic residents are nearly twice as likely to experience a housing issue than white residents.

Alderwoman Rita Rawson, 5th Ward, has long made urban revitalization a core part of her tenure on the city council, and it's one of the biggest issues she's running on as she seeks the mayor's office in the next municipal election. She says the problems identified in the city's most recent housing analysis bear striking similarity to the one performed five years ago, and that tells her the city is not doing enough to address housing problems for residents.

"We have not done a good job on housing and if you look at that report. It's the same issues that still persist," Rawson said.

While Rawson considers Davenport DREAM a good start to begin the long-term goal of urban revitalization, she says the program falls short in terms of funding. She wants to see the program get around $5 million instead of the $900,000 that's been set aside for its first year. And she says there are other changes needed at the state level — namely an ability for cities to create a land bank system — for major improvements to take root.

Still, Rawson says a softer rollout of the program in its first year could provide several data points for city officials to consider as the program is refined, including potential program gaps and the number of applicants. And when she thinks of the potential the program and others could have to transform neighborhoods, she points to the city's downtown, which has blossomed over the past several years into a bustling business district.

"Downtown used to be blighted. No one would ever come down here. It was not the place you would go and hang out," Rawson said. "And look at it now: It is the place you go and hang out."

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Information from: Quad-City Times, http://www.qctimes.com

An AP Member Exchange shared by the Quad-City Times.

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