St. Louis neighborhood groups try to acquire vacant properties or get owners to fix them up
Brian Glaze has fond memories of the 10 years he lived on Annetta Avenue in the Baden neighborhood of St. Louis. He and his wife, Kim, raised their three boys at the house and remember when the street was populated with families and city workers in the 1990s.
They had to sell their home and move after Glaze lost his job. He now takes drives down the street to reminisce, but when he looks around, he sees how much the street has fallen into decline.
There are just too many vacant homes, and some are a big mess.
“It's a sad situation,” Glaze said. “Not only in this area, just completely north St. Louis, all the abandoned houses.”
Glaze’s old home and most of the others on the block are among the approximately 25,000 vacant houses, commercial buildings and land plots in the city. About 60% of those properties are privately owned, but the homeowners aren’t always around.
Some of those homes have boarded-up windows and doors, while others have overgrown yards and collapsed roofs. The blight has led many neighborhood associations and nonprofits to try to compel those owners to fix up the properties. If they won't, the associations are trying to acquire them.
Members of the Revitalization of Baden Association are working to acquire vacant and nuisance homes in their neighborhood. Their goal is to spur people to stay in their community by attracting potential homeowners who can invest in the area around them, said Gloria Gooden, the association’s director of economic and housing development.
“When they're a homeowner, then they tend to have a vested interest in the neighborhood,” Gooden said. “They're interested in getting to know their neighbors, they’re interested in keeping the property up, and then a lot of them become interested in the area that's around their properties.”
Interested buyers have to submit an application to the association. If approved, they would have to pay any delinquent taxes and start renovations or work with a contractor who could make repairs. After three years of renting the home and fixing it up, they get the title from the neighborhood association.
Gooden said some owners of nuisance properties will donate or sell the properties, but the association sometimes has difficulty acquiring the land if the property owners are hard to get in touch with. Some are in other cities and states, others include international buyers.
About 20 neighborhood associations in north and south St. Louis are receiving free assistance from Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, which founded its neighborhood vacancy initiative in 2018. Attorneys help the associations compel property owners to fix up vacant and nuisance properties.
The process usually starts when neighborhood associations work with legal services attorneys to contact the property owner, said Peter Hoffman, managing attorney for the initiative.
“Sometimes those letters get a conversation started and the owner says, ‘Yeah, I bought 25 properties in a package and they're all over the country and I’ve sold one or two but I don't really care about the rest of these, you all can have it,’” Hoffman said.
A lot of factors contribute to the large number of vacant properties in the St. Louis region. Some elderly homeowners can no longer take care of their houses and others have died. Other factors include long-standing discriminatory housing practices and the 2008 foreclosure crisis. Hoffman said those mortgage foreclosures caused many Black homeowners to lose their properties.
“Those properties were sold off, and the investors started to get wise,” Hoffman said. “Over the last 10 years, the value has just grown, so their ‘investment strategy’ has paid off.”
Hoffman said absentee owners often will repair their property after they receive a notice, or they’ll give it to the neighborhood associations. But much of the vacancy initiative's work involves preventing people from abandoning their properties. Lawyers work to clean up title transfer problems and offer free estate planning for homeowners 60 and older.
Legal Services, the St. Louis Association of Community Organizations and the St. Louis Vacancy Collaborative, which tracks citywide vacancies and neighborhood organizations, also have offered workshops through the Family Property Project, a series of workshops co-facilitated by the organizations to educate homeowners and families on inherited properties so a home doesn’t become vacant.
It’s not always bad actors or spectators who are neglecting properties, some homeowners are trying to manage a house they inherited, St. Louis Vacancy Collaborative Director Torrey Park said.
“I imagine most folks who find out they've inherited a property but they share it with five other siblings,” Park said. “So there are folks that just don't know what to do with the property they weren't planning on owning.”
Park said owners who don’t want their properties can hand them over to neighborhood associations or to the city’s Land Reutilization Authority, the city’s landbank. It contains about 40% of the city’s vacant properties and is the oldest landbank in the country.
The Old North St. Louis Restoration Group and other organizations often buy vacant lots from the LRA and work with co-developers to build on those properties. The community development association in north St. Louis aims to revitalize the neighborhood while keeping the essence and architecture that defined it.
“At one point back in the '40s [and] '50s there were 90 people on average per block,” said Holston Black, part-time interim executive director of the association. “When you have blocks with hardly anything on them, that's a challenge, and so getting a range of housing is important.”
Neighborhood associations are successfully acquiring properties. Fatimah Muhammad of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association said it’s picked up about eight homes so far. She hopes buyers stay and strengthen her neighborhood for future generations.
“I can have this beautiful home on the street, maybe the block is great, but the surrounding areas are in disrepair,” Muhammad said. “So I've got to work to build the entire community up so that everybody benefits.”
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