FARGO — Last year, three North Dakota State University students and several city resident volunteers traversed the streets in the older neighborhoods of Fargo and surveyed about 9,500 homes and 286 apartment buildings.
What they found, and what is at the core of the city's 64-page Core Neighborhoods Master Plan approved by city commissioners this past week, is that 1 of 6 homes had peeling paint, worn siding, signs of neglect or roofs and porches that had fallen into disrepair.
Fifty-seven of the apartment buildings — 1 in 5 — had slipping or distressed signs on the exterior.
With an estimated average cost of $35,000 per structure, it would cost about $50 million to upgrade all of them, according to the plan, which was prepared with the help of consulting firm czb and surveyed more than 80 community volunteers and 400 residents.
The City Commission initiated the $288,000 study in July of 2019 to create a plan focusing on the key issues facing the city's oldest neighborhood surrounding downtown Fargo and extending to Interstates 94 and 29.
The top concern identified was rental units or owner-occupied homes in need of repair or updating, which city long-range planning coordinator Aaron Nelson, who worked extensively on the report, said is connected in some way to almost all of the report's data and suggestions to preserve the nine neighborhoods in what planners call the city's core.
Other top concerns raised by some of the 34,000 residents who live in the neighborhoods were safety, quality of life and new development clashing with the areas they live in.
No 'magic bullet'
While the core neighborhoods study identifies a number of issues affecting the area stretching north-to-south from 19th Avenue to Interstate 94 and east-west from the Red River to Interstate 29, Nelson said planners have not identified a "magic bullet" that will improve the area.
However, he agrees with Fargo City Commissioner John Strand, who asked Assistant Planning Director Mark Williams what the city can do to make sure the plan doesn't sit and gather dust.
Williams told Strand his department will be working with the plan on a near-daily basis when they make decisions on zoning and other planning-related issues facing the city, as they do with many other reports prepared.
One of the next steps for city planners will be getting various departments, such as inspections and public works, to form a group that will begin to tackle the report's suggestions and develop a comprehensive toolkit to tackle housing stock, parks and infrastructure issues, Nelson said.
The plan will also involve work with nonprofit partners across the community and, hopefully, more involved neighborhood associations, he added.
In a letter to the Fargo community, Alexandria, Va.-based czb and firm president Charles Buki wrote in glowing terms about many aspects of the core neighborhoods, including their exceedingly rare canopies of mature elm trees along streets and blocks of quaint historic homes and schools that anchor walkable neighborhoods.
The firm also praised the building and rebuilding efforts in downtown Fargo, something "too many other cities have neglected."
While impressed with the city, the consultants wrote that they also documented "significant levels of disinvestment in the urban core, though not yet overwhelming."
The letter added that core neighborhood housing in need of repair "should be a cause of concern and action."
What that means, the firm wrote, is that about half of the residential properties in the urban core are vulnerable to loss of value, which from a financial standpoint should matter to residents in the area.
If the city and residents fail to address the issue it could lead to a shrinking tax base, reduced demand for housing in the area, and a weakened ring of neighborhoods surrounding North Dakota State University and downtown Fargo, the firm said in the letter.
The consultants said taking action is like "changing oil regularly in a car to avoid costly repairs in the future."
In addition to renovations and repairs, the report also recommended the city enforce existing codes on property upkeep, such as requiring residents to remove weeds and junk from lawns. The consultants suggested tackling code violations by dividing the neighborhoods into a series of zones that receive a block-by-block sweep for code violations on a regular basis.
While the core neighborhood plan delves into many other suggestions, the consultants wrote that it will take focus, risk tolerance, collaboration, patience and long-term thinking that is rare in most communities — including Fargo— as work progresses in the next 10 years.
There's no easy answer for property owners who don't have the money to repair their homes, said Nelson, who acknowledged affordability is a major concern for planners.
However, there are options.
An agreement between Gate City Bank and the city for low-interest home repair loans is an under-utilized program, Nelson said. The city also offers property tax breaks for residents undertaking home improvement projects.
However, the core neighborhoods report suggests larger-scale plans to provide aid to eligible lower-income property owners in the neighborhoods, where most homes were built from the 1890s through the 1940s.
The planning consultants suggested the city start by taking a small pool of resources to help cover repair costs and match with assistance from nonprofit partners such as Rebuilding Together.
One of those partners, the newly formed Cass Clay Community Land Trust, is one example of an agency that aims to improve affordable housing stock. It also seeks to repair rundown homes and build on vacant lots.
The trust provides low- or moderate-income homebuyers an average subsidy of $50,000 to help lower monthly mortgage payments. In return, ownership of the land on which the home is located goes to the trust and is leased back to the homebuyer.
The organization is in the process of selecting its first four families to move into twin homes this year on 13th Avenue and 16 1/2 Street in the southern part of the core neighborhoods, director Trent Gerads told the city commissioners this past week.
Gerads said he hopes his emerging organization can reach its goal of adding five more residential properties for a total of 10 to the trust this year. The trust plans to have 105 permanently affordable homes available to families within five years, he said.
While the nonprofits and city work together on ways to help core neighborhoods , some improvements such as having junk or weeds removed from properties may not cost much at all as they simply involve enforcing regulations.