Before it became the recent center of attention, the hollowed-out house on E Street sat vacant for more than a decade.
Or mostly vacant. Over the years, the 120-year-old shell attracted vandals and squatters to the Everett Neighborhood, even though it had long been stripped to its studs.
“We had people shacking up in that house,” said Greg Baker, who has spent the past decade refurbishing a historic mansion down the street with his wife, Paula. “It kept the police busy.”
But then, nearly a year ago, a new nonprofit serving the area saw something in the 1,600-square-foot two-story. And it wasn’t good.
The siding was mismatched, the windows ill-fitting and the foundation slumped. The inside was barren — no walls, no plumbing, no furnace.
“It’s pretty sad,” Isabel Salas, a community builder with the South of Downtown Community Development Organization, said in March. “It’s caused a lot of problems.”
But it was more than just an eyesore, and a routine destination for building and safety inspectors. Here was a house in one of the poorest, oldest and most densely populated neighborhoods in Lincoln, and it was wasting space. There could be families here.
“To me, it’s the lowest hanging fruit,” Shawn Ryba, the nonprofit’s executive director, said last week. “In such a housing crisis, in such an environment, we should be putting people in there. We shouldn’t be letting them sit there vacant.”
At the time, though, the South of Downtown group was as powerless as 1105 E’s other frustrated neighbors. Then they launched a fundraiser, raised $15,000 and convinced their board to put up the remaining $35,000 to buy the home and its corner lot.
They met with the neighborhood association. They hosted gatherings outside of the house and, when it was made safer and cleaner, inside.
They asked: What do you want to see here?
Some wanted a community space — a pocket park suitable for concerts and food trucks and neighborhood parties.
Others wanted the house saved, but with a $145,000 renovation estimate, that proved to be cost prohibitive.
But through those meetings — and in their outreach work around the neighborhood — the logical future use of 1105 E began to take shape.
“We’ve knocked on over 2,000 doors and we’ve been doing a lot of listening. Affordable housing has bubbled to the top; it’s very important to everyone in the neighborhood.”
And it’s a problem across the city: The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development recently estimated the city needs another 5,000 affordable rental units.
So the South of Downtown group is moving forward with its future for the corner lot. Any day now, a demolition crew will take out the old house, and the nonprofit will begin drafting plans for a pair of affordable rentals on the site.
Ryba envisions two-bedroom units in a duplex designed to blend in with the historic neighborhood — wrap-around porch, two stories, gabled roof.
“We want to do a fun design that has all the elements of the older architecture,” he said. “We hope it looks like an older house.”
And he hopes to keep the rent reasonable. By one definition, housing is considered affordable if it doesn’t consume more than 30 percent of a renter’s income. With median incomes in the area averaging between $21,000 to $22,000, Ryba’s group will try to keep the rent between $500 and $600 a month.
“We’re going to do our best,” he said. “We’re going to figure out some subsidies. We’re going to have to do some pretty interesting things.”
Still, the overall plan is preliminary and has several city hurdles to clear, he said. The lot is small and nonstandard, and the duplex would require a zoning change.
The city is already working with the South of Downtown group. The Urban Development Department recently gave the group a $21,500 grant to pay for the demolition. The funding came from the department’s Livable Neighborhoods division.
“It’s to help with this type of work,” said Ernie Castillo, a planner with the department. “It’s best for the neighborhood, and it meets some of the goals of South of Downtown and Urban Development.”
Ryba hopes to see construction workers on the lot later this year. Until then, the soon-to-be vacant corner could be the temporary host to block parties and neighborhood gatherings.
Down the street, Greg Baker is eager to see changes. The longtime member of the Everett Neighborhood Association and his wife — the association’s president — have waited for more than a decade for new life at the old house.
“We’re super excited,” he said. “The fact that it's finally being torn down is exciting.”