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EAST ALTON, Ill. – Aaron Bizaillion, Alisha Bryan and their two sons used to live in a two-bedroom trailer with no relief from the summer heat or the winter chill. There was nowhere outside for the kids to play and no immediate access to a washer or dryer.
When their son’s teacher encouraged them to pursue a home in an affordable housing redevelopment, Bizaillion promptly applied for it. After getting approval based on their income and need, the family was one of eight to move into Emerald Ridge, a brand new development in East Alton, located about 20 miles northeast of St. Louis.
Rise, a nonprofit community development organization that revitalizes St. Louis-area communities, collaborated with various organizations, including PNC Bank, to build the Emerald Ridge development for residents who earn 60 percent or less of the area’s median income.
Ninety-one obsolete housing units from the 1940s were replaced by 46 new, single-family homes. Each home has a two-car driveway, disability accommodations and energy efficiency with increased insulation, low-flow fixtures, reflective roofing and highly efficient mechanical systems. Bizaillion said:
When I got the phone call to tell me I was accepted to Emerald Ridge, I cried. I came from not having anything to having a new home like this.
About 75 years ago, Emerald Ridge was known as the “Defense Area,” built as employee housing for a local ammunition plant during World War II. The small, “barracks-style” buildings were intended as temporary but were eventually sold to private owners who converted them into rental housing.
Some landlords maintained their properties, but a majority of the homes became outdated and sub-standard. Development efforts began in the 1990s. Although many homes are still occupied by long-time residents, new people were welcomed with Emerald Ridge’s official opening in September 2014.
The first residents included Bizaillion and Bryan along with their two sons, Matthew, age 13, and Dylan who is 3. Bizaillion, an Illinois native, recalls it was a turning point for his family when they found out they would be renting one of the new homes.
“This was the best thing that’s ever happened to us. It’s the first new home we’ve had, so it made move-in day very special,” Bizaillion said. “I walk through this house sometimes and think to myself, ‘How did I get so lucky to have something as nice as this?’”
Bryan noted that in addition to having more room for them and their sons, they also have access to their own washer and dryer.
The redevelopment helped to bring the community together and provide a better quality of life for its residents.
“I would use the word ‘immense’ to describe Emerald Ridge’s impact on East Alton,” said Larry Perlmutter, communications and development manager at Rise since 2013. “Before the development was here, the community was run-down with high crime and drug activity. Now it’s a beautiful housing development with the park at the center.”
Emerald Ridge has also encouraged local, economic growth in the area and has made residents feel safer with the removal of the obsolete housing. The amount of crime has declined dramatically as the area improved.
The neighborhood park is a focal point of Emerald Ridge. It has doubled in size since its opening and there are plans to plant trees and install new restrooms. Public schools also are within walking distance, and a new bus stop was added to the front of the development for residents’ convenience.
“The positive image of Emerald Ridge has stimulated interest in residences and businesses in the Village of East Alton," Mayor Joe Silkwood said.
Bizaillion noted that the neighborhood is night and day from his old one. He started a neighborhood watch program so he and his neighbors could get to know and look out for each other.
“This was the first new construction development in the area in decades,” said Laurie Peterson, a community development consultant for PNC. “The committed organizations that had the faith and vision to do this helped residents and other business developers see that East Alton is a place with great future potential."
She added: "The homes have enhanced the overall look of the neighborhood. What was a worn out, run-down area is now vibrant, alive and embraced by the community.”
Peterson, a member of Rise’s CDC Capacity Building & Collaborative Grant Program Oversight Committee, said PNC has worked with the non-profit for years to make improvements in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. The bank was an investor and lender in Emerald Ridge’s $15.9 million revitalization.
“One of the missions of community development banking and internal partners like PNC Real Estate is to improve the quality of life in our communities and neighborhoods,” she said. “Our ability to do that is often through funding projects like this. We can make a major impact on an entire town and its future growth.”
Perlmutter from Rise said: “PNC is not only involved in the investment in the development, but cares about Rise and the communities we work in."
All the single-family homes were 100 percent occupied before the ribbon cutting. There were nearly 100 people on a list when Rise opened up applications. Perlmutter said there is a waiting list for future residents.
In 2016, Emerald Ridge received a Governor’s Award from the Illinois Housing Development Authority for excellence in affordable housing development.
Bizaillion loves the neighborhood, and his family plans on buying the home in the future.
“I like knowing there is a chance to live in a house and aspire to buy it. I want my children to grow up knowing they can have nice things if they work hard. I just want the best for them,” he said.
I can’t say thank you enough to those who made this redevelopment possible. This place they built and what they’re doing to improve the community is very special, and it gives people the opportunity to experience something they couldn’t have otherwise.
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