Eltoreon Hawkins has made it his mission to help St. Louisans buy vacant, city-owned houses.
The 25-year-old contractor bought his first home from the city’s Land Reutilization Authority when he was a student at Harris-Stowe State University.
Hawkins now helps select LRA homes that need a minimal amount of work — known as the “Finest 15” — and records popular Facebook Live videos of each property. He spoke with St. Louis Public Radio’s Shahla Farzan about his passion for showcasing vacant homes.
On his Facebook Live tours
Because I do this pro bono — weekend after weekend, looking at the same house — what I do is I go on Facebook and go live while I'm giving a tour to one person. If that person don't decide to buy it or don't like it for some reason, you’ve got thousands on Facebook that probably will see it.
I give tours on Facebook because everybody can't make it out of the house. Everybody can't set up appointments. Everybody don't have the opportunity to leave work. I'm trying to bring it to them, instead of them coming to us.
On what he looks for in “Finest 15” houses
You want to look at it structurally. Is all four walls there? Check. Then we decide if the roof has jeopardized the integrity of the structure. If it's a two-story, everything that's coming from that roof has gone down to the second floor, down to the first floor and down to the basement. Sometimes you can have a complete cave-in. Sometimes [the floor] can still be there, but it's so damaged that if you walk on it, it’s gonna all cave in. Once we go inside and realize that the integrity is good, that’s basically it. That’s a win-win situation.
On the challenges of renovating a vacant home
The big thing is finances. A lot of people, when we show them these houses, their biggest fear [is] finances. "I don't have enough money. I don't have enough money to get started. I don't have enough money to finish."
So you want to first make sure that you have startup money. If a house is $4,000, you want to have at least $6,000. That's if the house needs some more boards on the windows, if you need a roof patch, a tarp; anything you want to secure the house as soon as you get it. Certain things you want to do immediately, soon as you purchase it.
Sometimes people go into these houses and start working on them, and they just leave them because they got overwhelmed or they run out of money. In my mind, I go in asking, "As a single mom or single father or a single individual or a college student, can I make this work with my income?" [If] you buy a house and it goes back into inventory because you don't have enough money to get started, that's defeating the purpose of what we’re doing.
I'm not gonna say this is an easy process with houses — renovation. It's not at all. It's a road that you gotta go down and take your time and have the heart to do.
On preparing homebuyers for unforeseen challenges
Things like asbestos and mold — what we do is make sure they're aware of it. "This house may have asbestos, so before you buy it, you might want to call this person and come look at it before you even put an offer in," or "That joist look a little funny. It may be structurally damaged. Since I’m not a specialist, you might want to call a structural engineer." Once you make sure they're aware of it and they want to jump into that, then it's really out of our hands.
I would have loved someone to break down these things before I got into my second house or third house. I had to learn by experience and people in this business know that's the most costly way to learn.
On buying his first LRA house in Walnut Park for $1,000
Since I had experience with houses, it wasn't as hard as others. I went in, I knew what I had to do. I made a checklist on what needed to be done. I knew around how much money it was gonna take, and I took care of it all myself. I started just for the income-wise, but once I bought that house and finished it, it turned into a whole 'nother thing. I felt some type of an entitlement. I felt like I owned a piece of this stock of this large company, and what was the company? The company was the neighborhood.
On his love for historical architecture ...
I'm a big history fanatic. I love going into old houses because you find some crazy things. You walk in, and you can almost feel the stories that happened there.
We walked into one house where it was a two-family flat, and upstairs there was no way into the basement. On the way out, we seen a latch on the front steps and we unlatched it, and what happened? The steps flipped up. That was the coolest thing that I have seen thus far in a house. A Batman staircase.
… And why he wants to fill vacant houses
Growing up, I walked up and down to my bus stop, every single day, walking past vacant houses. I knew which houses to throw trash on; I knew which houses I can cut through to go to stores. You’re thinking "that house doesn’t mean nothing to nobody," that nobody cares. You can relate that to crime — as you get older, you’re going to do things that you think nobody can see. So vacancy tests our kids’ integrity, because they think nobody cares about the neighborhood and nobody cares about them.
I didn't want my daughter getting up every morning feeling the same way that I did. I wanted her to know not only that I'm doing something to make a change, but she can do the same. And you don't have to be a product of your environment. Period.
Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan
Send questions and comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org