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Commentary: Lessons from housing efforts in Benton Park and the West End

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 23, 2013 - As local housing markets slowly lurch back to normality, those concerned with the revitalization of local neighborhoods have the story of redevelopment in the 1990s and 2000s to teach important lessons. During that time, many local neighborhoods, including the poorest, saw significant public and private investment, with thousands of units rehabbed or built.

Each neighborhood is unique; however, two stand out as important and viable for the future: Benton Park, in South St. Louis adjacent to I-55, and the West End, on the western edge of the city north of Delmar.Housing investment in these two areas represents key strategies used by the city to stabilize and redevelop neighborhoods.

Three common elements stand out.

The first is the interaction and presence of political and public officials, locally elected officials and development experts in city government, selecting, funding, and shepherding the housing.

The second is the role of private investors in completing much of the work – small-to-medium size new construction developers in the West End and historic rehabbers and some new housing developers in Benton Park.

Third, while most of the housing produced in each area was market rate and oriented toward homeowners, each pursued strategies reflecting local market conditions and the vision of neighborhood actors and officials.

Benton Park

Benton Parks’ efforts began in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the areas’ population was largely working class or poor and mostly white. (See Table 1 for basic demographic information on the two neighborhoods.) Then Alderman Martie Aboussie spearheaded the process, using his role as chair of the housing committee at the Board of Alderman to marshal resources, including local community development block grant funds. Among other things, the funds allowed for the establishment of a neighborhood housing corporation, chaired by Ken Ortmann, who later succeeded Aboussie and staffed by a skilled city housing analyst, JoAnn Vatcha.


Over 15-plus years, the housing committee, with Vatcha’s staff assistance and financial assistance, monitored and oversaw housing redevelopment efforts, focusing on the redevelopment of existing historic properties into 63 owner-occupied, single-family dwellings, condominiums and townhouses and 75 rental units, all built to the same construction standards. Of the for-sale units, half were subsidized for low/moderate income buyers. These housing initiatives have been accompanied by a growing number of small businesses in the neighborhood.

West End

Like Benton Park, the West End had a strong political proponent for redevelopment in Alderman Irving Clay Jr. In reviewing the legacy of housing redevelopment in the 1980s, Alderman Clay argued for a new emphasis on new construction, single family, owner-occupied homes rather than the continuation of rental projects. He persuaded Mayor Clarence Harmon to provide city support, including the participation of local housing analyst Joe Fank. Clay felt that single family homes would appeal to African-American professionals.

From 1999 through 2007, a series of new projects emerged in the West End, beginning with moderately priced homes on land once occupied by low-income rentals and, building upon this success, more elaborate homes costing $300,000 or more were constructed and also found buyers. In all, a handful of developers changed the appearance of a group of blocks, including highly visible projects adjacent to Delmar. A total of 115 units have been built. This new housing paralleled and complimented the movement of the Delmar Loop eastward

Redevelopment’s Positive Impacts?

The promulgation of home ownership, through new construction or rehabilitation, is widely thought to positively affect neighborhood life. Home owners are more likely to take an interest their environs and become active in the community. The redevelopment efforts in Benton Park and the West End suffered from the 2008 financial crisis, which has made mortgages more difficult to obtain and lessened housing construction nationwide. Despite this serious impediment to redevelopment generally, both areas continue to receive favorable reviews.

One question remains:  Have these housing strategies impacted the quality of life in Benton Park and the West End? Has crime lessened? Is there a greater middle class presence? Does construction impact investment in other neighborhood housing? Are property values affected?


This short article can’t answer those questions fully. However, looking at changes in sales, permits and crime provide some initial clues, and this data point to generally positive results. Crime had been a constant in both neighborhoods throughout the period, but has fallen since 2000, leading to significantly safer neighborhoods.

There also are positive findings regarding property sales and residential building permits. In both the West End and Benton Park, sale prices have increased twofold since 1995. While the volume of sales has diminished in the past three years, in Benton Park the value remains high; by contrast, in the West End, sales taper off, reflecting the fact that no new housing is coming on the market. 

In terms of residential permits, Benton Park has more permit activity, including some very high value; however, the average permit value is relatively low. Permit activity in the West End is sparser. The notable increase between 2001 and 2008 was relatively restricted to construction of new housing and reflected that cost.

These data point to generally positive outcomes after investment in single family housing in both neighborhoods.  They also bolster the arguments that there are successes in housing market revitalization that can serve as examples for future revitalization efforts and that increasing public and private investment in local markets, particularly through home ownership, have lasting impacts.

Lana Stein is a professor emerita and Will Winter is a professor at the University of Missouri - St. Louis.

Lana Stein is emeritus professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She is the author of several books and journal articles about urban politics, political behavior and bureaucracy.