ST. LOUIS • When Shadiah Thomas steps out the front door of her duplex in the 3900 block of Labadie Avenue, she sees crumbling homes all around her.
To her right are five vacant buildings, including one frequented by drug users and two gutted by fire. To her left, next to an empty lot, is a two-family brick building that’s been empty for at least three years. Across the street, facing her, are more vacants.
“It’s depressing here,” she says.
A row of five vacant homes in the 3900 block of Labadie Avenue on September 10, 2018. Drone video by Chris Lee.
Thomas and her family have lived in the Greater Ville neighborhood of north St. Louis since 2015, surrounded by long-abandoned houses that serve as magnets for crime and drug use. Those broken buildings — most owned by the city — represent just a fraction of a problem that’s plagued St. Louis for decades but has gotten much worse in recent years.
As is the case in most older, industrial cities in the United States, the number of abandoned properties has festered for decades, a symptom of dramatic postwar population loss, suburbanization, flat regional population growth, older housing stock and a history of racial bias.
In a city of just over 300,000 people now — a big drop from its postwar high of 856,000 — there are about 25,000 abandoned properties, according to a city estimate. More than 7,000 of those are vacant buildings, including about 4,000 that have been condemned.
The rest are empty lots.
Those numbers are higher than they were just a couple decades ago despite the slowing pace of the city’s population decline. The median vacancy rate in St. Louis rose from 14.7 percent in 1990 to 18.5 percent in 2010, according to a recent paper on vacancy in Rust Belt cities by Alan Mallach, an urban scholar and senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress.
With a heavy concentration on the city’s predominantly African-American North Side, at least 19 percent of all of St. Louis’ properties are vacant, according to a mayoral report, a little less than half of which are owned by the Land Reutilization Authority, or LRA, the city’s land bank.
Almost every city administration since the Great Depression has vowed to do something about property abandonment and blight — and Mayor Lyda Krewson has been no exception. Elected mayor last year, Krewson pledged to tackle the vacancy issue in her inaugural speech and has rolled out a number of initiatives in recent months.
It’s not easy to tackle a problem that’s been a half-century in the making. Taking down just the existing crop of condemned buildings would cost roughly $40 million, officials say. There are scant resources to keep the number of condemned buildings from growing.
Thomas, 32, knows there will be no easy solutions to a challenge of that scale. But what she wants for her own block is really quite simple: She’d just like her five young children to be able to play outside safely.
“I just want it so where they can come outside and I don’t have to worry about the violence. Gunshots. Kicking syringes in the grass so they don’t see it. Grass growing as tall as us,” Thomas said.
City records show the number of vacant buildings in the Greater Ville, Thomas’ neighborhood, rose by 50 percent, to more than 550, in the past decade. Only the Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood has more.
They’re among 10 of the city’s 79 neighborhoods that together account for more than half of the vacant buildings in the city. All 10 are north of Delmar Boulevard.
In his 15 years on the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, Jeffrey Boyd has watched the vacancy problem balloon in the 22nd Ward, which includes parts of the Hamilton Heights, Wells-Goodfellow and West End neighborhoods. On his own street, half the buildings are vacant or abandoned, he said.
“It’s psychological trauma, OK?” he said. “We’re frustrated. We’re tired of looking at these buildings on our blocks.”
Inside the vacants, Boyd says, you’ll find drug use and prostitution. Squatters try to keep warm, and sometimes the buildings burn.
Boyd’s constituents are past the point of wanting to try to preserve some of the properties and beg officials to tear them down, he said.
His complaint underscores the desperation in some areas of the city where property values continue to slide and where the housing market has virtually ceased to function. Even for qualified buyers, comparable sales for an appraisal don’t exist, so banks don’t lend.
There are no signs of recovery in the city’s weakest neighborhoods, even while others rebound from the Great Recession.
The percentage of St. Louis’ low-vacancy areas — those below 5 percent — rose from 18 percent in 2010 to 28 percent in 2015, according to Mallach’s research. But areas with very high vacancy — between 15 percent and 25 percent vacant properties — stayed unchanged at 22.6 percent.
Portions of some neighborhoods may have reached a point of no return; others have reached a critical juncture where if nothing is done now, they also will be difficult to save.
Mallach says that while blocks in the Ville and Jeff-Vander-Lou often have more empty lots and abandoned houses than occupied homes, other North Side neighborhoods, including Penrose and O’Fallon, have yet to descend into “hypervacancy” — when the number of vacant buildings and lots exceed 20 percent of an area’s total number of properties, creating a nearly impossible-to-reverse feedback loop.
“It’s really important to try to save those neighborhoods,” Mallach said.
“These are physically intact neighborhoods. Their social fabric is definitely being stretched, but I don’t think it’s gone. If you don’t find a way to stabilize those neighborhoods you could find yourself with a lot more vacant housing three, five, 10 years from now.”
‘Everyone in the room’
A growing sense of urgency appears to have gripped City Hall, where the Krewson administration is working closely with a coalition of nonprofit and community development groups on the vacancy problem.
Krewson’s office estimates vacant properties cost the city as much as $66 million last year. Vacant lots need mowing and tree removal. They foster illegal dumping and use up police time because of the crime they attract. Over the last two years, city firefighters have responded to more than 500 fires at vacant properties, Krewson’s office says.
The fiscal impact doesn’t even include the loss of tax revenue — and household wealth — that vacant buildings cause by hurting the values of nearby homes. According to one estimate in 2016, the city loses about $8 million a year in property tax revenue just because of the effect vacant buildings have on nearby properties.
“It’s never been tackled before in a significant way,” Krewson told the Post-Dispatch. “We’re doing our best to prioritize taking down the worst of the worst. … If we had unlimited funding, this would be a faster process.”
Already, Krewson and the Board of Aldermen managed to find an extra $2 million for demolitions in the recently approved budget, tacking it on to the roughly $1.5 million that has been earmarked for tear-downs in recent years.
“It’s my commitment every year I’m here to send to the Board of Aldermen a budget that includes at least that much,” Krewson said this month.
The Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District is supplementing that with a program to add green space to absorb rainfall as part of its effort to cut sewer overflows. Many recently demolished houses in Walnut Park East were taken down using MSD funds. The sewer district is expected to contribute an additional $2 million or so a year to demolish houses, mainly on the North Side, an effort expected to take down about 300 properties this year.
But even with MSD’s $13.5 million commitment to demolition, St. Louis’ resources pale in comparison to those of other cities facing the same challenge. Detroit has spent nearly $150 million in federal money in recent years for demolition under a program that did not include Missouri. Ohio has received tens of millions under the same program, and its attorney general set aside $75 million from a $93 million mortgage settlement in 2012. Two years ago, Maryland’s governor pledged $75 million over several years to demolish vacant buildings in Baltimore.
St. Louis, by contrast, struggles to keep a fleet of garbage trucks rolling. Securing an extra $2 million for demolitions in a city budget that grows tighter each year was a lift.
With little help expected from the state or federal government anytime soon, “we’ve got to play the hand we were dealt here,” Krewson said.
A big boost came just days ago in St. Louis Circuit Court, where the city successfully fought for a small property tax increase meant to raise about $6 million a year to stabilize vacant properties for future rehabs. The measure, known as Proposition NS, received more than 58 percent of the vote in April 2017 — a large number, but short of the 66 percent required under the city charter. The city argued this tax measure didn’t fall under the charter requirement — and on Thursday, a judge agreed. City leaders also hope to generate interest from philanthropic and business interests to address the issue.
As of June this year, the city has taken down 164 buildings — compared with 88 in the first half of last year. And while the city promises to pick up the pace, Krewson and her staff emphasize the city’s strategy is about more than demolitions.
The St. Louis Development Corp., the city’s economic-development arm, this year contributed $100,000 to help Legal Services of Eastern Missouri hire lawyer Peter Hoffman, who plans to assist agencies and homeowners clear titles to prevent future vacancies.
SLDC also hired a vacancy coordinator, Austin Albert. And Krewson’s administration found money to retain Patrick Brown, its resiliency coordinator, after the expiration of the grant that funded his position.
Albert and Brown are leading a committee called “VacancyStat” that has begun hosting regular gatherings of representatives of key city divisions, the city counselor’s office and the Citizens’ Service Bureau.
“You’re getting everyone in the room,” Albert said. “Can we pool these resources in a way that’s more effective?”
The city’s committee plans to begin meeting with a newly formed coalition of nonprofit, community development and university representatives known as the Vacancy Advisory Committee. Together, the two committees will fall under the umbrella of the Vacancy Collaborative.
The nonprofits, too, have brought on their own coordinator. Through a Missouri Foundation for Health grant and assistance from the Missouri Department of Conservation, Tara Aubuchon was hired this June by the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis, which assists neighborhood development groups and is run out of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
One of the key recommendations from a 2016 report from the Center for Community Progress on St. Louis’ vacancy problem was to form a collaborative, Aubuchon said.
“My sole focus is vacancy,” she said.
Grass-roots neighborhood groups have been pushing for years to make vacancy a top priority. The St. Louis Association of Community Organizations (SLACO) was one of the chief backers behind Proposition NS. They pushed the administration of former Mayor Francis Slay to elevate the issue, building some momentum before the Krewson administration’s initiatives.
“The whole complexion of the North Side can change within 10 years if we get starting now,” said SLACO Executive Director Kevin McKinney. “What I don’t want to see is us continually giving people reports. ‘Here’s another report, here’s another study.’”
Quality of life
After decades of neglect, it’s difficult to predict how the city’s efforts will turn out.
Throughout much of the Rust Belt, older cities responded to property abandonment by trying to attract new development — often with big subsidies — in the hope that people would move back. But they’ve struggled to compete with the magnet cities along the East and West coasts and in the Sunbelt. That suggests that a strategy here that banks on growth — repopulating areas that have been hollowed out — may not succeed.
While some St. Louis neighborhoods can be saved, others have deteriorated to the point where once-populated blocks have turned into “urban prairies” — areas more hospitable to wildlife and plants than people.
Christopher Prener, a professor of sociology at St. Louis University, says cities like St. Louis need to be “honest with ourselves” and focus on serving the people who remain.
“We may be able to stop the decline,” he said. “But we’re not going to be able to bring back everyone we lost.”
Demolishing problem properties and maintaining vacant lots — perhaps adding attractive green space for the residents still living there — needs to be done, Mallach, the vacancy researcher, said.
“That doesn’t mean the neighborhood is wonderful. It means it’s reasonably healthy, it’s reasonably safe and it’s reasonably clean. How you deal with vacant properties affects all three of those criteria,” he said. “These aren’t steps that are necessarily going to lead to redevelopment. I don’t think people should have any illusions.
“These are steps to make sure people who live in those neighborhoods can have a decent quality of life.”
That’d be a start for Shadiah Thomas, who says living among so many vacant properties means never being able to relax — always worrying about shootings on the corner and sketchy people who move between her duplex and the nearby empty buildings.
“Every night, you hear sirens. You can lay in your bed and see red and white lights. You hear the ambulances all day, every day,” she said.
“It shouldn’t be like that.”
“Tipping Point” is a series of special reports that examine critical challenges facing St. Louis neighborhoods.
Coming Monday: Fixing the Land Reutilization Authority.
Previously, about illegal dumping:
Also in the series: