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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Vacant Buildings Bill

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has reported that a measure to catalog vacant buildings and fine their owners for violations has moved along in the legislative process, winning the support of a key aldermanic subcommittee.

Personally, I am all about code enforcement. Making sure vacant buildings are secure and stabilized should indeed be a high priority. And finding owners of long-vacant buildings can be difficult. So I see where this bill is going and I don't disagree.

However, the obvious question arises: how will this bill affect the several thousand city-owned Land Redevelopment Authority (LRA) parcels? (Let's talk Paul McKee, Jr. later...)

Check out this building at 1435 Salisbury in Hyde Park--an LRA-owned building. The image is courtesy of Geo St. Louis.

While the picture above is dated from August 4, 2006, I was in town January of this year and saw it with each and every window open and un-boarded. I believe the city only requires a property owner to board the first floor to block easy entry. Yet won't open upper floor windows accelerate the decay of this handsome mixed use building, resulting in code violations? How can we as concerned citizens (whether because of safety concerns or historic preservation ones) see to it that this property is more tightly secured? Will the vacant buildings bill help? Will it put pressure on the LRA?

On that note, why doesn't the LRA have a storefront with staff to assist potential buyers? I'm sure it has something to do with the fact that the city has no money. Still, I'd like to see our city's budget reflect the needs of our community. We need to better manage and market the city's inventory of vacant parcels. While many LRA parcels are located in severely distressed neighborhoods and the properties themselves need several thousands of dollars of TLC to become livable, some LRA holdings are in stable or stabilizing neighborhoods. Benton Park West and Old North St. Louis, to name just two, should have dedicated LRA staff helping market viable properties.

Beyond that, I wonder if the city has ever considered an Urban Homesteading program, whereby you essentially get the house itself for free, in addition to other tax credits, if you bring the house to code and remain living in it for several years. Baltimore pioneered this type of thing in the 1970s and saw hundreds of properties renovated. From a 1986 New York Times piece entitled "Baltimore's Story of City Homesteading":

During the 1970's the city sold blocks of abandoned Federal-style row houses in downtown neighborhoods for $1 apiece and provided buyers with up to $37,000 in low-interest construction loans. The city provided technical assistance and authorized payments to approved contractors. Major work had to be completed within six months and, after 18 months in residency, homesteaders received the deeds to the houses.

The Baltimore homesteading program evolved as an alternative to urban renewal programs that were phased out. The first project, for example, was a block of 44 tiny row houses on Stirling Street in Oldtown -one of the lowest-income neighborhoods in East Baltimore.

Other solutions for vacant properties exist. What about a community service program whereby those convicted of certain low-level crimes could serve out their sentences rehabilitating vacant and city-owned properties? Skills would be gained in the process.

As I have posted previously, Kansas City is using federal monies (through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or ARRA) to establish what is being called a Green Impact Zone in the city's downtrodden east side. This program would employ un- and under-employed neighborhood residents in renovating and weatherizing both occupied and vacant housing. St. Louis has largely used its ARRA funding to plan bare bones streetscape improvement projects that didn't ever even seem to consult the surrounding community. Someone correct me if I'm wrong. Where are our priorities?

I think this Vacant Buildings bill is probably a good "stick" measure, but where are the carrots?



Unknown said...

I would homestead in a heartbeat. I would absolutely love to move into a building in Benton Park West and use my labor and capital to bring it up to code and make it into a home. What a great, great idea for transforming nuisance properties into tax-paying, inhabited, invested homes.

Matt M. said...

Me too!

I'd probably get a corner storefront building and fight the city to allow a business back in. Viola--a live-work unit restored.

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