It’s a dilemma faced by many cities across the country – hundreds of empty, boarded-up or neglected homes, many in foreclosure. The houses are eyesores, they decrease property values for the neighborhood and they’re both a burden on the city and a financial drain on the banks that hold the mortgages.
It’s especially tough when the housing is located in pockets of the city where private developers aren’t willing to invest.
Enter Frank Wells, CEO of World Power and Water, a renewable energy firm, and the visionary behind Venture House.
Working in partnership with Bright Community Trust, a Clearwater-based nonprofit organization, Venture House plans to acquire and fix up single-family homes and small multifamily units in select St. Petersburg neighborhoods that need a helping hand.
The housing would then be made available at a very affordable price to select applicants, primarily working artists and entrepreneurs.
Several Goals In One Program
Wells hopes to create a model nonprofit neighborhood revitalization program that addresses multiple issues. He sees it as a “catalyst” to spur urban renewal and transform neighborhoods in the city.
It’s also a chance to create affordable housing as rents and home prices soar in neighborhoods close to St. Petersburg’s desirable downtown core.
And it’s about serving as a magnet to attract and retain young, innovative and creative talent who will contribute to the economy and culture of the city.
“We’ve already heard from several people who tell us they would love to live close to downtown where they could bike everywhere and be part of this amazing culture that is developing here,” says Wells. “But many are being priced out of the market. They’re choosing to live outside the area or they’re relocating out of state.”
A Little History
Wells credits the initial inspiration for Venture House to dozens of background conversations he had with various city leaders over the years, especially City Councilmen Karl Nurse, who has been working to revitalize neighborhoods in his district, which includes Midtown, downtown, the old Southeast and adjacent communities.
But Wells is the first to connect the dots with the city’s interest in attracting young entrepreneurs and artists.
“I signed up to attend and without really thinking about it, checked the box that said I wanted to give a 90-second pitch about some sort of social enterprise or not-for-profit business,” says Wells.
A few days before the session, he got together with a friend to brainstorm what that pitch might be.
“I told her I was thinking about two possible ideas, either the entrepreneurship program at the University of South Florida [St. Petersburg], where I am a mentor to students, or maybe how to start an Angel Fund to revitalize neighborhoods where there were a lot of abandoned houses and then putting entrepreneurs into the houses,” says Wells. “When I mentioned the Angel Fund, her eyes lit up.”
The evening of the Florida NEXT Impact Forum, Wells walked into the room, looked around and saw people with power point presentations and custom shirts with their organization’s logos on them. “I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’,” says Wells.
One of the organizers asked the name of his program and Wells didn’t have one. “He told me, ‘Well, it needs a name.’ On the spot, I came up with Venture House,” says Wells.
Without props and very little preparation, Wells presented his idea, one of 39 pitches that night. He wasn’t prepared for the audience’s response.
“People loved it,” says Wells. “Venture House came out on top. Afterward 35 to 40 people pulled up a chair to talk to me. I admitted that I had a general idea, but zero specifics.”
One step led to the next. Doors opened. “Venture House really started taking on momentum,” says Wells. “I found I was giving a lot of my time to it.”
Earlier this year, St. Petersburg Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin invited him to brief the Mayor’s team. Lisa Wheeler-Brown, the president of the Council on Neighborhood Associations, gave her endorsement. Private developers and investors he consulted thought it was a great idea. In April, he presented to a standing room-only crowd at One Million Cups, which is held at the city’s Greenhouse small business center.
Currently Wells and his team — Anthony Jones of Bright Community Trust and Rob Bocik, managing partner at Funktionhouse Urban Lumber and Furnishing, are working with the City of St. Petersburg to identify houses and neighborhoods that might benefit from the program.
The goal is to target neighborhoods within biking distance of downtown businesses and the Warehouse Arts District, as well as the Marine Science cluster and downtown area hospitals, says Wells.
To date, a short list of five to 10 properties have been earmarked in Bartlett Park and Palmetto Park just south of Central Avenue. Wells says the city has indicated its willingness to work with them on any liens the homes have accumulated and to encourage banks and landlords to work with Venture House to donate or sell distressed properties at lower than market value. Since many of the neighborhoods will be in the Midtown community redevelopment area, Venture House would also be eligible for CRA benefits.
“We’re starting to see some movement from the banks in working with us, including the Bank of America, Regions and Well Fargo,” says Wells.
Funding Venture House is expected to come from a combination of private investment and public collaboration. The organization will continue to be an affiliate of Bright Community Trust, formerly known as the Pinellas Community Housing Foundation, a community land trust with long history of working with local governments, investors and developers to create affordable housing. However, Venture House has applied for its own 501c3 nonprofit status to allow it to accept private donations. So far, says Wells, he has received $2 million in funding, which will help the group begin to acquire the initial properties. He also hopes to launch a crowdfunding event some time this summer.
In the meantime, Wells is working out the details for an application and screening process for artists and entrepreneurs interested in moving into Venture Houses. Priority will be given to people who will have the biggest economic impact on the community and the most potential for job creation, says Wells.
“We’ll be looking at whether they have a business plan, some funding, an advisory board, whether they’re involved in One Million Cups or taking classes at the city’s Greenhouse,” says Wells. “We’re looking for people who are involved and connected and most likely to succeed.”
Applicants will be able to rent or purchase homes at one-third to one-half of market value. Under the community land trust, if the home is sold in the future, the homeowner can retain a portion of the proceeds with the remainder reinvested into the nonprofit entity in a “pay it forward” concept.
“We’re hoping to create a business model that would be replicable for Tampa Bay and the rest of the country,” says Wells. “We’ve already received multiple inquiries from other cities.”
The first cluster of Venture House homes and multifamily units are expected to be ready for occupancy by the end of the year.