Homeowners avoiding COVID-19 turn attention to home repairs

The landmark Chuck's Restaurant, left, is undergoing renovation as part of a broader improvement project in Highland Park/Oak Park. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

In one way, the COVID-19 pandemic has strengthened some of Des Moines’ most challenged but resurgent neighborhoods. 

That’s because the rapidly spreading coronavirus forced many residents to stay home. Rather than spend their money on vacations, some decided to spend money remodeling and repairing houses in four historic neighborhoods eyed for rehabilitation, said Amber Lynch, executive director of Invest DSM, an independent nonprofit running the program. 

The result: Invest DSM, run by Des Moines and Polk County, attracted nearly five times as many projects as expected this year. The initiative grew out of a change in city neighborhood improvement strategies in 2018.

“It has been a wildly successful program,” Lynch said. “My goal for this year was to try to get us to 50 projects across the four special investment districts, and we ended up with 240.”

“I think some of that is people are at home, they’re looking around at the improvements that they’ve been sitting on for years, and we gave them just that little bit of incentive to get them going,” she added.

Lynch spoke at an online work session of the Des Moines City Council.

Amber Lynch is executive director of Invest DSM. (Photo courtesy of Invest DSM)

The program spurred $1.1 million in investments, with every dollar Invest Des Moines brought  $1.51 in private spending and economic benefits. 

Property owners in the four targeted neighborhoods — Oak Park/Highland Park, Columbus Park, Drake and Franklin — put up a combined $660,000 to fix siding and other exterior features. Invest DSM provided $437,929 in grants. Property owners who teamed up in applications covering at least five properties could each get matching funds of $1,000 to $2,500 from the program. 

“Without this program, people would have spent (their money) on a vacation or a new TV or paying off bills or put it in savings,” Lynch said. “I think we prompted them, and gave them the confidence to feel like, ‘Oh yeah, let me get that project done.’”

Lynch has noticed something else. Neighbors are talking more, exchanging contractor names, and combining several homes in a single bid to attract contractors’ interest.

Invest DSM also has a program that offers incentives to developers who turn homes into above-market properties, a forgivable loan program for homeowners, and a coming commercial business program. 

Lynch noted work in Highland Park that includes a major renovation of a historic restaurant, the reopening of a bakery and a new coffee shop. Lynch said she will also be talking to property owners along a southside corner that includes a neighborhood grocery store. 

Polk County and Des Moines plan to spent $50 million over a 10-year period on the overall Invest DSM program.

The four initial neighborhoods selected have been receiving federal aid through the city due to relatively low income levels and dilapidated housing and commercial buildings.  More neighborhoods will be added later.