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Study finds St. Louis land bank needs more staff and funding

Vacant buildings owned by the Land Reutilization Authority in the 4000 block of Evans Avenue. February 2017.
File photo | Marie Schwarz | St. Louis Public Radio
Vacant buildings owned by the Land Reutilization Authority in the 4000 block of Evans Avenue.

St. Louis’ Land Reutilization Authority has nearly 12,000 parcels of vacant land and buildings and just eight and half employees.

That’s far below the ratio of employees to property in other cities, according to a year-long assessment of the LRA released on Thursday. Urban planning firm Asakura Robinson, which conducted the yearlong study, recommends the agency hire four more employees in the next one to three years.

Principal Alexandra Miller compared St. Louis' agency to the land bank in Flint, Michigan, which has about 13,000 vacant parcels and 26 staff members.

“It’s very different in terms of what you can do and the types of programs you can manage with eight and a half people versus 26,” she said.

St. Louis has the oldest land bank in the country and must take in all properties if owners fail to pay taxes for five years. The goal of the LRA is to stabilize areas, eventually sell the land and get the properties back on the tax rolls.

The agency has 8,378 vacant lots and 3,528 abandoned buildings. 

But Miller said the organization needs more money to get beyond just managing the property. Currently, LRA relies on property sales for most of its budget, while in Kansas City land sales make up 15 percent of its land bank budget, with the rest coming from general revenue.

“And their budget is about twice LRA’s for half the number of properties,” Miller said. “So when you look at something like that you say we need to find ways to address this.”

LRA’s umbrella organization, the St. Louis Development Corporation, commissioned the study last spring. As one of the cities included in the federal Strong Cities, Strong Communities program, St. Louis was able to get the study funded by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Otis Williams, director of the development corporation, said he was excited to have the study in hand.

“It gives us a road map on how to improve,” he said.

The report also recommends centralizing all data related to vacant land. Williams said the city is already looking into a new inventory software package that would help do that.

As for adding more staff, Williams said it won’t be possible with LRA’s current resources, and he isn't exactly sure how they’ll increase the agency’s revenues, either.

“We in St. Louis don’t fund the economic development function,” he said. “SLDC, for all of its other missions, doesn’t get general fund revenue.”

Yet Mayor Francis Slay has made vacant land a priority in the last year, creating a Vacant Land Task Force and announcing several new programs including:

  • Partnering with the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District to demolish about 1,000 abandoned properties as part of a rain-scaping program.
  • Implementing a Mow to Own program that allows residents to eventually take ownership of small parcels adjacent to their property currently owned by the LRA if the resident agrees to maintain them.
  • Leasing 42 LRA-owned lots to Fresh Coast Capital, a nonprofit that planted trees to later be harvested.
  • Bringing in AmeriCorps teams and trained residents to use the Loveland app to create a comprehensive database of all 130,000 city parcels, including vacant and abandoned lots and buildings.

Follow Maria on Twitter: @radioaltman

Maria is the newscast, business and education editor for St. Louis Public Radio.