Fargo’s core neighborhoods surrounding downtown provide some of the city’s most distinctive old houses, with a diverse blend of architectural styles that include bungalows, Tudor and Colonial.
In too many cases, however, the houses in these leafy, venerable neighborhoods are also at risk of becoming dilapidated eyesores. When that happens a neighborhood can become blighted and a breeding ground for crime and other social problems.
It’s sobering that more than 1,500 core neighborhood homes — or one in six — are “slipping or distressed,” with an average refurbishment cost of $35,000. That adds up to a daunting $50 million in deferred maintenance.
Proportionally, the problem is even worse for apartments in the older core neighborhoods, where one in five are slipping or distressed. But it’s not an easy fix. Upgrading the apartment units would result in rents of about $1,200 in areas of town where the median rent is $800.
The core neighborhoods contain much of Fargo’s affordable housing stock. The nine older neighborhoods provide homes for 34,000 residents in 9,000 structures.
The city clearly can’t afford to allow these areas, which are full of character and an important part of Fargo’s history, to go to seed.
These challenges are catalogued in the city’s new master core neighborhood plan, which is the result of years of study and the involvement of multiple steering groups and stakeholders guided by a consultant.
The report presents a call to action, but solutions will involve a variety of interventions and will require a sustained effort from officials as well as property owners.
There are, as city planners have said, no magic bullets. The good news is that blight so far isn’t widespread or overwhelming. That means we have time to prevent slums from taking root. But the report suggests the next decade will be critical in addressing the challenges.
A significant challenge will be to induce property owners to make what the plan calls “smart and quite modest investments” to catch up on years of deferred maintenance. The endeavor will have to strike a balance between preservation and redevelopment.
It also will require cooperation with the Fargo Public School District. The plan makes clear that schools are important anchors for neighborhoods. It also will involve coordination with traffic planners.
Pedestrian and bicycle safety problems remain embedded in traffic thoroughfares designed decades ago. As we redevelop those arterials, we should be guided by the example of the recent upgrade of Main Avenue between University Drive and Second Street.
Rents are lower for units located along major traffic corridors, including University Drive, 10th Street and 13th Avenue South.
The city should update its land development code to reflect the master neighborhood plan goals — and it should step up code enforcement of rental properties in core neighborhoods, with periodic targeted sweeps to augment the current complaint-driven system.
The city could go a step further by requiring licenses for rental properties to ensure basic health and safety requirements are met.
Drumming up interest among property owners is an obvious must. The city provides tax breaks and a program with Gate City Bank provides low-interest loans for improving old properties, but the programs aren’t reaching their potential.
The recently formed Cass Clay Community Land Trust, which aims to improve affordable housing stock is a critical step in the right direction.
The plan is chock-full of good ideas — but the danger is that it will be received with good intentions and forgotten. Implementing the core neighborhood master plan will require ongoing effort.
It will take a dedicated group, with members from multiple city departments, to find ways to carry out the report’s recommendations. The Fargo City Commission should have one of its members on that group to help push it forward and to keep leaders engaged in one of the city’s most important issues, keeping our core neighborhoods healthy.