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City, nonprofits to coordinate St. Louis blight fight, target thousands of abandoned buildings

City, nonprofits to coordinate St. Louis blight fight, target thousands of abandoned buildings

From the Post-Dispatch coverage: A city overwhelmed by vacant, abandoned buildings series
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ST. LOUIS • With an estimated 7,100 abandoned structures today, vacancy is a bigger problem than the city can handle on its own.

But a formal working relationship between the city, legal clinics, community development organizations and neighborhood nonprofits is close, those working on city vacancy issues say. They’re working to create a “vacancy advisory committee,” overseen by a dedicated staff member, to coordinate resources from the public and nonprofit worlds.

And several organizations, including the city, have recently supplemented their blight-fighting efforts with new staff and funding.

“So many people have come together on this, and that is the reason I think we’ll make some good progress here,” Mayor Lyda Krewson said Tuesday morning, standing before a coalition of area groups that are working on problem property issues.

The nonprofit Legal Services of Eastern Missouri this month hired Peter Hoffman to lead its new Neighborhood Vacancy Initiative, a position funded in part by St. Louis’ economic development office and the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis. Hoffman headed the nonprofit clinic that helped neighborhood groups address vacant properties in Kansas City, a program St. Louis officials hope to emulate.

“We will hold absentee and negligent property owners accountable through litigation,” Legal Services Executive Director Dan Glazier said.

The St. Louis Development Corporation, the city’s economic development arm, hired its own staff member, former Development Strategies analyst Austin Albert, to coordinate vacancy efforts across city departments.

“He’s going to be reaching out to all these agencies working in this ecosystem,” SLDC Director Otis Williams said. “He’s working both the public and private piece to try and pull it all together.”

Krewson, meanwhile, wants to boost the city’s demolition budget to fund more tear downs of the most deteriorated properties. The Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District is also funding some demolitions to create green space that can absorb rainfall.

A big boost could come in court, where the city is arguing that voters in April passed a small property tax increase meant to raise about $6 million a year to stabilize vacant properties for future rehabs. A majority supported it, but there’s disagreement over the margin necessary to issue bonds. “It would be a really big opportunity for us to make a difference,” Krewson told the Post-Dispatch.

She also said that she intends to sign a bill passed by the Board of Aldermen on Monday that would remove an exemption on code violation fees within a redevelopment area. Bill sponsor Cara Spencer has pointed out that many such properties are in developer Paul McKee’s redevelopment area in north St. Louis, which critics contend has been allowed to further deteriorate since the developer began assembling property there 15 years ago.

With fees of less than $1,000 per year for noncompliant properties, the mayor called the measure a small but important piece to the city’s vacancy efforts. “We’re trying to encourage people to take steps and fix up their building or sell that building to someone who will.”

Coordinating the different efforts will be a full-time job.

“It’s difficult to maintain momentum around work like this without someone dedicated to making sure people are moving in the same direction,” said Jenny Connelly-Bowen of the Community Builders Network, a nonprofit association of community development groups.

A grant from the Missouri Foundation for Health and support from the Missouri Department of Conservation will allow the Community Builders Network to hire a vacancy coordinator, a position Connelly-Bowen said the group hopes to fill by June.

“It’s a dedicated staff person whose mental energy is completely focused so that this collaborative group of experts is moving toward the goal of tackling vacancy in a meaningful and effective way,” she said.

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