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St. Louis has thousands of vacant properties. A Missouri House bill aims to change that

The racial covenants in St. Louis<strong> </strong>eventually blanketed most of the homes surrounding the Ville, including the former home of rock 'n' roll pioneer Chuck Berry, which is currently abandoned.
Michael B. Thomas / Special to NPR
Michael B. Thomas for NPR
The former home of rock 'n' roll pioneer Chuck Berry is one of 25,000 vacant homes and lots in St. Louis. A Missouri House committee is expected to discuss a bill next week that could make it easier for developers to buy and rehab vacant properties in the city.

St. Louis has a big vacancy problem — there are about 25,000 empty buildings and lots citywide.

Proponents of a bill working its way through the Missouri House of Representatives say it would streamline how buildings with delinquent taxes are sold at auction and make it easier for developers to buy and rehab those properties.

Rep. Michael O’Donnell, R-Oakville, is sponsoring the bill. He said the legislation could make thousands of vacant properties in the city more attractive to developers by solving existing issues with property titles.

“In a lot of cases the title isn’t clear and so the developers are reluctant to do anything just because you can start building on a property and fixing it up, only to find out that you don't have ownership of it, you don't have access to it,” O’Donnell said.

Dana Malkus, a St. Louis University law professor, helped draft the new bill. She said many of the fixes are technical, but they could solve issues around insurability of property titles.

“Title insurance is an essential component to development and home ownership, and without title insurance, not everybody knows that property cannot be bought or sold for full value,” said Malkus, who advises the St. Louis Vacancy Collaborative, a coalition of community members, city agencies and other stakeholders committed to reducing vacant property in St. Louis.

Without title insurance, financing the purchase or rehab of a home can be difficult. Malkus said national title underwriters often find it too risky to insure a property that’s undergone tax foreclosure in the past 10 years.

She said some changes in the bill would make it easier for responsible owners to buy property at tax sales more quickly and return it to productive use. Right now, the City of St. Louis is forced to take on many vacant buildings through its Land Reutilization Authority.

Malkus said the city becomes the “owner of last resort” if no one buys a property at the tax sale.

She said the bill could help alleviate pressure on the city to take on even more properties and “get them moving through the process so that we have more potential for a building to be redeveloped, rather than for them to continue to deteriorate and really be a liability for the neighborhood.”

Torrey Park, director of the St. Louis Vacancy Collaborative, said vacant lots and buildings are largely concentrated in north St. Louis, particularly in the Ville and College Hill neighborhoods.

The collaborative launched an online vacant property explorer tool last year that allows users to see where vacant buildings and lots are located and whether they’re privately or publicly owned.

Park said the legislative fixes in the new bill could have a significant impact, but she stressed that no single solution will solve the city’s massive vacancy problem.

The collaborative is also trying to prevent homes from becoming vacant in the first place. The group recently helped support the launch of a new fund created by the St. Louis Real Estate Tax Relief Coalition to help those having trouble paying their bills.

O’Donnell introduced a similar bill last legislative session. He said there is a renewed sense of urgency to pass it afterthe recent death of a St. Louis firefighter, who was killed after the roof of a vacant building collapsed during a fire.

Racial covenants

The original bill included a measure that would lay out a process for homeowners to remove racially restrictive covenants. O’Donnell said that he had not recently spoken with the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Craig Fishel, R-Springfield, but that he would welcome the addition to the legislation.

Recently published research shows racially restrictive covenants, which barred Black families and other ethnic and religious minorities from living in certain neighborhoods, are prevalent across the St. Louis region, in the county and the city. Records show more than 100,000 properties in the region have these documents in their chain of title.

The covenants bill, which has been separately introduced this session, is backed by the Missouri Realtors, which advocates for property rights. Sam Licklider, chief lobbyist for the organization, said that the bill needs to be passed, but that it may have more success if grouped with other legislation.

“It's important because you have a lot of developments, subdivisions that were done prior to the 1950s that have language in them that is frankly hurtful and ugly,” he said. “They need to be removed.”

The House Committee on Local Government is expected to discuss the vacancy bill at a hearing on Feb. 10.

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the St. Louis Vacancy Collaborative’s role in a new property tax relief fund. The fund was created by a separate group called the St. Louis Real Estate Tax Relief Coalition.

Follow Corinne on Twitter: @corinnesusan

Corinne is the economic development reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.