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Barbara L. Finch: Where are people supposed to live?

Barbara L. Finch: Where are people supposed to live?

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Disturbing articles appear frequently in the Post-Dispatch, but few have rung alarm bells quite so insistently as one that appeared last month on the front page under the headline, “Luxury units drive apartment rents higher.”

The article described a flurry of new construction with top-flight amenities and one-bedroom units that start at $3,100 per month. A developer quoted in the article said, “Luxury markets have been ignored here.”

Something else has been ignored here: affordable housing. And as luxury units proliferate and rents increase throughout the area, the question arises: Where are people supposed to live? In the middle of a pandemic when everyone has been urged to stay home, the issue of adequate shelter for all looms large.

As far back as six years ago, half of all renters in Missouri were considered “cost-burdened,” according to William R. Emmons, lead economist for the Center for Household Financial Stability at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. In a program delivered for Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice, he described cost-burdened as paying more than 30% of pre-tax income on housing.

Adults who find themselves working in minimum-wage jobs almost certainly fit into this category. Also likely to find themselves cost-burdened are teachers aides, nursing assistants, grocery workers, bus drivers, retail and restaurant employees, and others who serve our communities but can’t afford to live in them.

Since the alarming story about luxury rentals appeared, there have been other articles about housing in our community: the upcoming tsunami of evictions expected later this year when the federal moratorium expires, and the difficulties completing the Preservation Square low-income housing project in north St. Louis. And some good news: Midwest BankCentre has donated nearly two acres in the Bevo Mill neighborhood for an affordable housing complex for senior citizens.

Adequate housing that is accessible and affordable for every citizen is a prerequisite for a healthy community. And communities are stronger, more welcoming, richer and more vibrant when diverse people can live in them.

There are many commissions, task forces, study groups and coalitions working on the issue of affordable housing in both St. Louis city and county. Perhaps they could be inspired by initiatives in other parts of the country. For example, in Boston, the city is looking at new ways to confront its housing crisis, including a tax on high-end real estate deals with proceeds going to the development of more units for lower income residents. Also under consideration is letting the city levy a tax of up to 2% on all property sales, including commercial property, when the sale price is more than $2 million.

Oregon recently became the first state to institute statewide rent control, capping increases at 7% per year. The state also ended single-family-only zoning in communities of more than 10,000 people, allowing duplexes or four-family buildings to be constructed anywhere. Minneapolis recently moved to rezone most of the city to ban new single-family homes. Several Sun Belt cities, including Houston, Atlanta and Austin, Texas, now encourage a percentage of affordable housing units in any mixed-use project.

Most people would agree that everyone wants to live in a nice neighborhood. In St. Louis, many of these nice neighborhoods — sometimes called “communities of opportunity” — lie along the central corridor in the county. They provide good schools, access to transportation and health care, convenient shopping options, parks and other amenities. They are the suburbs, where the legacy of racial segregation continues to exist.

It is time to reverse the geography of inequity created by barriers to affordable housing in these communities. Next year Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice will launch a campaign called “Hold The Door Open.” Our members will be working in their own local communities to study laws and ordinances and proposals that perpetuate segregation and discourage equity and inclusion.

We don’t expect this to be easy — or well-received by some. Our hope is that those of us who are fortunate enough to have doors held open for us won’t continue to let them slam in the faces of others.

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