In affluent St. Tammany Parish, where the median home value is $189,700, Covington's West 30s neighborhood is another world: Derelict homes are plentiful, along with vacant lots where homes once stood.
In a parish where the average home size in 2013 was 2,600 square feet, the norm in the West 30s is closer to 1,000 squre feet, although there are also two- and three-bedroom homes in the 650-square-foot range.
Longtime West 30s resident and former Covington City Councilwoman Frances Dunn says something needs to be done to help the primarily African-American neighborhood, which was the subject of a $150,000 study funded by the Northshore Community Foundation.
"What’s there (housing) is in bad shape … the steps are rotten, there are holes in the ceilings and rats that come into the babies' beds,” Dunn told members of Covington’s Board of Adjustment last month.
“As we demolish, we’re supposed to build up, but we’ve not done that. We’ve got empty lots everywhere,” she said, referring to the demolition of derelict and substandard housing that was called for in the 2010 study.
But change is coming to the West 30s.
Mandeville businessman Bryan Burns, through his West 30s Redemption Co., is looking to revitalize substandard housing — not as rental property, as has been the case for so many years, but into homes that can be purchased by residents.
Burns said he had driven through the West 30s for years and had even owned a couple of apartment buildings near the neighborhood. But it was not until he toured the area with a Leadership St. Tammany class that he was struck by the conditions.
In an email to an associate, he wrote: “I was really impacted by that tour and by the living conditions many are dealing with in the neighborhood. I am pretty conservative and have always felt that the private sector and the faith communities could address every problem we have in society more effectively than our federal government.
"Following our tour, it occurred to me that ‘I am the private sector — why don’t you get off your behind and do something to help?' "
As a result, he created the investment fund and West 30s Redemption Co.
"For many who live in the West 30s, there has never been any thought of home ownership ... but it can happen,” Burns said. "You look at what someone is paying for rent and then add the cost of their utilities, which is often driven higher because of the substandard nature of the housing, and you can show them where ownership is possible."
He chose the name for his business "because no house is beyond redemption. I believe that a house can be redeemed, just like the worst among us."
Burns, who has been involved in real estate for much of his career, has put together what he calls a "socially purposed investment fund" to acquire substandard homes in the neighborhood, renovate them and then sell them, primarily to very low- and low-to-moderate-income families who live in the West 30s.
"It is unlikely that any of the prospective purchasers of homes from the fund will qualify for conventional financing," Burns acknowledged. "While many of these families are fine folks who have resided in the neighborhood for years, they are simply very poor."
Burns has been seeking participants to help with the fund but also also be working with three banks that have active Community Reinvestment Act lending programs. Other funding avenues include the Federal Land Bank and the USDA Rural Development 502 Direct Loans.
The fund will acquire properties from owners who are either unable or unwilling to maintain them. Renovation and reselling will be done by the West 30s Redemption Co.
"We seek to change families’ lives, one family at a time, through the blessing of home ownership," Burns said.
Burns appeared before Covington's Board of Adjustment to receive a series of variances for a 60 by 140 foot lot between West 28th and Dutch Alley that fronts West Tyler Street.
Two single-family homes and two duplexes are on the lot, which is the first Burns is tackling.
While there was discussion of the size of the lot, Dunn told commissioners that neighborhood residents are more concerned with the quality of the house than the size of the lot. She recalled when the neighborhood was more densely populated but had less crime.
The property was nonconforming because of the lot size and the configuration of structures and needed a variance from the board. "Today, they (the original builders) couldn't get a permit," City Attorney Julian Rodriguez told commissioners.
Burns will close on the property Friday and will start work immediately.
"As we get started, I hope we hear from persons who are asking themselves if they might be able to own their own home," he said. "I’m also hopeful of hearing from people interested in selling their properties to us."
Burns can be reached at (504) 782-0100 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.