ST. LOUIS — For two years, community development organizations worked to help residents of three southeast city neighborhoods lay out a plan for their community’s future.
Now a financial services nonprofit, Prosperity Connection, is taking another step: Backed by credit-rating agency Equifax, Prosperity is aiming to boost the credit scores of the residents who make up some of the city’s most densely populated neighborhoods — northeast Dutchtown, Gravois Park and Benton Park West — and reinvigorate the area, one homeowner at a time.
“We want residents to really own the process of lifting up their community,” said Amanda Colón-Smith, executive director of the Dutchtown South Community Corporation, which led the development of the neighborhood plan adopted by the city last year.
Credit counseling is not new, and Prosperity Connection has been around for a decade. But the neighborhood approach to financial empowerment is relatively novel, modeled after a similar effort launched in 2017 in South Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood.
And the idea could change south St. Louis.
Much of city’s south side has stabilized, new investment reinvigorating many neighborhoods. Southeast city neighborhoods, however — known for several streets, some violent and rundown, named after U.S. states — have not seen the same level of attention. Some 39% of households in that area live in poverty.
Yet they’re some of the most densely populated and diverse areas of the city, and around 40% of residents in the area are children. Increasingly surrounded by strengthening neighborhoods, they could be well-poised to see the flow of investment increase in coming years.
“That could be the linchpin of the entire South Side,” said Todd Swanstrom, a University of Missouri-St. Louis professor who studies the city’s neighborhoods and advocates for place-based community development.
Already, Prosperity Connection has hired a dedicated staff person to lead the efforts focused on the 17,000 people who live in the three city neighborhoods.
The position is being funded by Equifax, which says its commitment to the effort amounts to several hundred thousand dollars over the next three to five years, and should fund a second staff person soon.
Dutchtown South’s community planning work and Prosperity Connection’s reputation drew Equifax, which has a major presence in the St. Louis region after its 2007 acquisition of Talx. It’s also supporting a similar effort in its headquarters city of Atlanta.
“We wouldn’t have looked at Dutchtown if not for those nonprofits,” said David Stiffler, the St. Louis-based president of the Equifax Foundation.
He readily admits the effort benefits his company: More people trying to improve their credit scores means more data for Equifax and more potential customers for loans and other products from financial institutions. But he said good credit is a major barrier to household and neighborhood stability, and lack of credit forces people to turn to predatory payday lenders to make ends meet. And it’s a long overdue emphasis by the financial services industry on a lower-income population that it has historically ignored.
Prosperity Connection recently hired Sara Middendorf to lead the Dutchtown effort. The backers have been working behind the scenes for over a year to lay the groundwork for the program, and Middendorf said she plans to officially launch the program, dubbed St. Louis Builds Credit, in the new year, using tax season to reach residents via free tax preparation sites.
The goal: Pair residents interested in using services such as credit counseling with advocates who can help them either negotiate down old debts, or get them removed altogether.
“If you don’t have good credit, it really closes you off to a lot of opportunities,” Middendorf said.
Some low-hanging fruit in boosting credit scores could center on helping residents report their rent payments, a regular expense that many people don’t report but can immediately show credit rating agencies they’re paying their bills on time. It’s a tactic Equifax and area social service and community development groups are already trying to spread the word about.
A few initiatives have targeted the Dutchtown area recently. Last year, the philanthropic group InvestSTL chose Dutchtown in its first round of funding designed to strengthen community development organizations.
UMSL’s Swanstrom said the new credit building effort could be a “piece of the puzzle.”
But there are other limits to boosting credit, he said.
“The main issue here is low wages in many jobs,” Swanstrom said. “That’s really the origin.”
Still, if the area does see an influx of new investment in coming years, Colón-Smith at Dutchtown South hopes the credit services help renters access home loans to provide “a real true pathway for residents to stay in their community as it gets better.”
“We have the future of St. Louis living on the state streets, because we have the children living here,” Colón-Smith said. “Are we going to invest in our future?”