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Ferguson apartment dwellers make the best of their situation

Mariah Vasser, 6, rides her bike in the Northwinds Apartments on Friday, Oct. 17, 2014. A fence, topped with barbed wire, separates the apartments from the neighboring Oakmont Townhome Apartments. Mariah's father, Eldrick Hewitt, who works at Procter and Gamble, moved his family back to the apartments last year but expects to move again to look for a larger place after his rent increases. Photo by Robert Cohen,

COLUMBIA, Mo. • State housing officials presented on Friday a host of ways to avoid further concentrating subsidized housing in north St. Louis County.

Not only should new low-income housing projects be smaller than 50 units and be placed in more affluent areas, but priority should be given to investors who create well-managed properties that provide community-building services such as senior and youth activities, day care, transportation, tutoring and college preparation counseling.

New construction also should be prohibited in a census tract where more than 20 percent of the housing is subsidized.

These proposed changes, and others, first need to go through a review process.

“There is a bunch that needs to happen before any of these ideas” are put in place, said Kip Stetzler, interim executive director of the Missouri Housing Development Commission, which, among its duties, oversees and awards projects funded through federal and state tax credits.

The program has exploded in recent years, with more than 50,000 housing units now in use — four times the number in 1996.

Units funded by the tax credits now make up a third of all subsidized housing in the state. Traditional public housing units that are owned and run by agencies such as the St. Louis Housing Authority have dropped to 12 percent of all subsidized units, down from 21 percent in 1996.

Friday was the first time Stetzler and his staff publicly responded to requests by Missouri Treasurer Clint Zweifel to review low-income housing policies after the shooting of Michael Brown.

Brown was shot in the street near the Canfield Green apartments in an area of Ferguson with a high concentration of low-income properties. Tax subsidies helped investors renovate the nearby Park Ridge Apartments and Northwinds Apartments, which have a combined 774 units. As part of the contract, all residents in the sprawling complexes must earn less than 60 percent of the median income. A company based in Maine manages both properties, which have high turnover.

Critics say having lots of low-income housing in a single, impoverished area leads to crime and accelerates neighborhood decline. Proponents say the program provides good housing stock for the poor.

“While MHDC can’t control every demographic pattern that exists in the state, we surely don’t want to be in a position to exacerbate an existing social condition,” Zweifel, also a commissioner for the housing development commission, said during the meeting. “By no means do I endorse every one of these (proposals), but at least we are talking and thinking about the right” way to go forward.

Housing development commission representatives said they had interviewed scores of leaders in north St. Louis County and St. Louis and reviewed a resident survey at the Park Ridge and Northwinds complexes.

They plan on beefing up awareness of their first-time homebuyers program, which provides a down payment and offers a 4.25 percent 30-year fixed-rate mortgage. St. Louis-area households that qualify for a mortgage must be buying their first home, earn less than $69,000 a year and purchase a home valued at less than $265,000.

Don Brinker, who oversees the program, said he recently met with 250 real estate agents and brokers in north St. Louis County about the program.

“We talked about diversity … and how to promote home ownership in those areas,” Brinker said.

The housing development commission relies on the brokers and real estate agents to help promote the program. But Brinker said many of those gathered at the North County meeting weren’t well-informed.

“They didn’t know that we have constant funding,” he said in an interview about the program, adding that only about 1,500 people took advantage of it in a recent year.

The housing development commission, which is based in Kansas City, is also trying to establish a position for a regional service representative in the St. Louis area to address resident needs. The commission is trying to develop electronic maps stacked with information about areas where new projects are proposed.

Gus Metz, chief underwriter for new projects at the housing development commission, said people from the agency were always sent to physically view each proposed site that was awarded tax credits. He said the mapping tool, still a work in progress, would help.

“This is a very nice tool for anybody at MHDC evaluating a project who hasn’t actually been to the site,” he said at the meeting, adding: “We want to make sure that the development doesn’t add to any problems in the area.”

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Voucher use compared to household income by census tract

Source: 2013 estimates from U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development