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Fighting blight and vacancy

An abandoned and vacant building is torn down in the 1900 block of Burd Avenue after a press conference to announce the creation of a Blight Elimination Zone to demolish derelict buildings in the Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood on July 19.

In a July 20 editorial (“Prominent Philanthropists Set Example on How to Tackle St. Louis Blight”), the St. Louis Post-Dispatch urged area business leaders and philanthropists to do something about vacancy. Clearly, our vacancy challenge requires leadership and investment by the business and philanthropic communities as well as local government.

As the editorial board acknowledges, and as research and the experience of other cities confirms, demolition alone will not solve the problem. In “A Plan to Reduce Vacant Lots and Buildings in the City of St. Louis,” Mayor Lyda Krewson cataloged a wide variety of strategies her administration is using to address the problem. As her plan recognizes, while removing dangerous vacant buildings and cleaning up vacant lots are necessary actions, they must be taken in tandem with a wide variety of other tools and investments.

We need the business and philanthropic communities to invest in an ecosystem change in our city driven by:

Data. A city-wide vacant property inventory needs to be funded so that we know the precise condition and needed treatment for every vacant building and lot. Dollars are also needed to support automating the vacancy portal (stlvacancy.com/map) — built almost entirely by volunteers — so that neighborhoods and city departments have timely access to accurate data on which to make vacancy-related decisions.

Resident Supported Neighborhood Planning. While vacancy’s effects reach across our entire city and region, most of our vacant structures and lots are in north St. Louis. Moreover, we know resident leadership is key to a well-functioning neighborhood. Funding is needed to support north St. Louis neighborhoods in land-use planning. Money is also needed to support the formalized structures that empower residents to work collectively, implement agreed upon plans, and minimize displacement of existing residents. That collective empowerment comes, for example, from neighborhood associations, block units, nonprofit community development corporations and neighborhood leadership training programs.

Staffing. Research and the experience of other cities both tell us that reducing the negative impact of vacancy is a complex process that requires close coordination among multiple stakeholders implementing cross-sector vacancy strategies. Investments need to be made to support and expand vacancy-focused staff positions in key city agencies and at nonprofit organizations already focused on vacancy.

Prevention. As other cities have learned, an essential part of the solution is reducing the flow of new publicly and privately owned vacant properties entering our inventory. We need dollars to fund home repair programs (which are chronically underfunded and oversubscribed), neighborhood marketing, foreclosure prevention programs and basic estate planning for low-income people.

Training: Our city is seeing increased investment in construction, demolition, deconstruction, building stabilization and rehabilitation, and green infrastructure. People with these skills are the backbone of responsible neighborhood redevelopment. We need dollars to support workforce training and apprenticeships, job placement services, small-business capacity building, safety and equity training, and targeted financial help to ensure these emerging needs are met in effective ways.

Without these kinds of investments, one demolished property will simply be replaced with another vacant property. To effectively address vacancy, we must understand and respond to the factors that cause and perpetuate it. Much of the story of vacancy in our city, like other cities, includes a legacy of racism, disinvestment, and disengagement that has led to a breakdown in trust. Our path forward must include a commitment to racially equitable reinvestment that engages the voice and leadership of historically excluded residents.

Resources are needed to treat the root causes of vacancy, and not just its most obvious symptoms. The kind of collaboration needed to address this challenge requires communication, respect, transparency of processes, sharing of information and meaningful engagement. The Vacancy Collaborative, a growing grass-roots coalition of partners (including several city agencies) working together to reduce vacant property in St. Louis, has been working to support the ecosystem change our city needs. Local government, the private sector (including the business and philanthropic communities), and neighborhoods must work together to meet this challenge in ways that keep the community at the center of solutions.

Dana Malkus is a professor at St. Louis University School of Law where she directs the Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic and is a founding member of the Vacancy Collaborative. Sundy Whiteside is president of the St. Louis Association of Community Organizations. Also contributing is Bob Lewis, an urban planning and development professor at St. Louis University.