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Inside this duo's $4M plan to remake north city life: 'We're creating opportunities'

"We’re not taking any shortcuts. We’re completely transforming the houses, inside and out"
Credit: SLBJ
Neal Richardson (left) and Michael Woods of Dream Builders 4 Equity.

ST. LOUIS — Walking into the home on Cupples Place, with its abundant natural light, charming fireplace and modern kitchen, it’s hard to imagine that the 1,000-square-foot house was once filled with trash and grime.

“We’re not taking any shortcuts. We’re completely transforming the houses, inside and out,” said Michael Woods, co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit Dream Builders 4 Equity that led the renovation of the home in the north St. Louis neighborhood of Kingsway East.

Run by Woods and co-founder and president Neal Richardson, Dream Builders aims to invest in the neighborhoods and youth the St. Louis region has neglected in the predominantly African American and low-income north city.

Dream Builders recruits area high school students and pays them $10 to $15 an hour to work on home renovations and repairs in north city, experience through which they learn construction, real estate and financial literacy skills that they can use to build careers. In the roughly four years since its inception, the 501(c)3 has helped 60 students earn close to $250,000 through scholarship funds, wages, and profits from home sales and books they write once they complete Dream Builders’ program. The books, Woods said, empower the students to write their own story in their own voice.

Woods, a published author and entrepreneur, and Richardson, an executive with U.S. Bank Community Development Corp., met over 15 years ago at Transformation Christian Church on Page Boulevard. They created Dream Builders while sitting on Richardson’s couch, brainstorming ways to give back to youth who grew up like them.

“They’re able to see themselves in us. ‘If Mike and Neal can be where they are, I can also be there.’ But it’s also just the way that we genuinely love and appreciate them. We’re giving them that confidence to believe that they can truly achieve anything,” Woods said.

The nonprofit is concentrating its efforts on the Hyde Park neighborhood, where it aims to invest $4 million by 2025.

Hyde Park has seen little investment in recent years. Over the past five years, the city issued just $6 million in building permits in Hyde Park, according to city records. By comparison, more than $1 billion worth of building permits were issued for the Central West End over that same period.

Dream Builders’ plan calls for five homes to be renovated and five homes to be repaired each year; 50 new students are expected to join each year as well. By then, the group estimates between $835,000 to $1 million can be earned through youth employment, scholarships and book sales, said Richardson.

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