The $10K and $300K Plan to Combat Vacancy and Why St. Louis Needs Both

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$10K rehab - image by Freshwater Cleveland

There's more than one way to combat urban vacancy. In fact, there are many, but two extremes recently crossed our desk that well highlight the need for cities to persue and all-of-the-above approach. In Cleveland, a developer aimed to renovate a 1,400 square foot, 1889 Victorian for less than the cost of demolition, $10,000. The final product is smart, beautiful and rented, for $500 per month, more than enough to cover the investment.

There are more than 20,000 vacant homes in Cuyahoga County according to some estimates. Since 2009, that county's land bank has demolished more than 2,000 homes, and is constantly seeking more money to demolish more of Cleveland. A similar story can be told in Detroit, Youngstown, St. Louis and elsewhere. In St. Louis, the city's website is touting a recent ~$300,000 infill project in The Grove neighborhood built on vacant land owned by the local land bank. The single-family residence with an add-on 1br apartment has a contemporary aesthetic and was built for a couple seeking to make the neighborhood a permanent home.

The point is that both are great and needed in places like St. Louis. Though, to be honest and point a way forward, it's the $10,000 renovation is that isn't encouraged here. The ballpark figure the city's Land Reutilization Authority (LRA) cites for an historic renovation is $80-$100 per square foot, or what could have been $140,000 for the rescued Cleveland Victorian. Although the numbers are not easily accessible, thousands of 800-2,000 square foot homes have been demolished in St. Louis over the past decade. Thousands more are threatened.

The $10,000 rehab was accomplished by repurposing materials on site, shopping at the local Habitat Re-Store and offering a stripped down interior. It's loft-like, as some walls, and even most of the second story floor, were removed. A wall that isn't there doesn't need to be drywalled and finished. Projects like this use cheap local labor, ex-cons, handymen, whoever can do the work. And it works.

$10K rehab - image by Freshwater Cleveland
{the Cleveland Victorian rehab is a stripped down, cost-effective and livable rehab – image by Freshwater Cleveland}

$10,000 Cleveland rehab - image by
{without high-end furnishings, the rehab still presents a finished product – image by}

$10,000 Cleveland rehab - image by
{the kitchen island and shelving repurposed materials from the partial interior demo – image by

Demolition can be necessary, but most are not. There's a moment, a tipping point, at which a neighborhood ceases to exist because of the loss of residential fabric. There's a point where there are simply too many vacant lots to form a community. Sitting and waiting for multi-unit infill projects has proven to be a false hope. Where successful examples exist, they are notable for their rarity. This is emblematic of St. Louis.

It's easy to celebrate The Grove infill project. It has a modern aesthetic, was designed by a city architecture firm just a few blocks from the home site, made use of two city-owned vacant lots, and fulfills a dream of the homeowners; exactly the type of people St. Louis needs to keep. The contemporary home itself is helping change the perception of the neighborhood and city. The clear hope is that the project will serve as a model for others and ultimately be the impetus for others modern infill projects. Big investments in the city matter. In fact, the project has already been the catalyst for the quality rehab of an adjacent multi-family building. This is one end of a city-wide solution.

{The Grove infill is changing perceptions of the neighborhood and city, and catalyzing adjacent investment}

How can St. Louis embrace and facilitate both of the above (and everything in between)? It starts with an openness by developers, city government and the LRA to experiment, to reward brainstorms on the crumbling built environment. With some irony, the successful state Historic Tax Credit program in Missouri has likely led too many to believe that the magic redevelopment number for an historic home = purchase price + historic renovation – state/fed tax credits. This is part of an all-of-the-above approach, but clearly sets the bar high for saving a building, too high for too many buildings. The expectation cannot be that each building saved be an historic redevelopment.

Who will build the next contemporary infill in St. Louis? Who will present the $10,000 rehab a productive and positive manner to developers, the city and LRA? In fact, the vacant property immediately next to the contemporary infill project (right) could be the perfect $10,000 project:

The Grove infill - image by nextSTL Forum member STLexplorer
{the contemporary infill project has encouraged redevelopment of the adjacent multi-family building (left) while a vacant home remains next door (right)}

*top image by Freshwater Cleveland 

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  • Roger Mexico

    I agree with your premise that smaller-scale individual efforts need to be part of the solution. As some old timers like to point out, the way that Soulard was “saved” wasn’t by major developers with deep pockets but rather by a small army of DIY types who moved in and fixed properties up over time. This approach is no longer allowed by LRA, which requires you to prove availability of significant resources before your offer is approved. For many neighborhoods and for buildings which don’t receive valid offers, LRA and city permitting should be a lot more flexible with prospective owner-occupants, offering conditional occupancy permits with longer periods to allow people to live there while correcting property defects over time.

    The damage done to the neighborhood by LRA (and other abandoned) properties is done by the façade… boarded up windows, overgrown lawns, etc. If an occupant/rehabber can spruce up the exterior (and is willing to live with interior code violations for a while), the neighborhood can be significantly improved over the alternative (looking at an LRA board-up for 5+years).

    • guest

      *Umm!*… (btw, I hate that smug, internet-age term..) old-timers can correct me here, but, isn’t it true that Soulard (or Lafayette Square), were NEVER overrun with “LRA” (tax foreclosed, totally abandoned) properties? Everyone wants a bogeyman, and LRA is a big target, but they are NOT the problem. They inherited a problem. 10,000 problems, from scheister, scum bag, slumlords. They didn’t create it.

      Can we be real here?

  • MiguelTejada82

    Look, if someone wants to live in that Cleveland example, great, but to me that looks terrible and the heating/cooling costs would eat you alive. No partitions, there’s nothing in the article about insulation – sure the guy may spend $500 in rent but he’ll be losing twice that in energy costs.
    Good rehab takes time and money. Infill takes more time and more money. Good infill takes a lot of time and a lot of money. There’s a reason why the city has all these financial incentives to spur that kind of activity.

    • Alex Ihnen

      Should have included some more images of the finished project (added a couple). Clearly it’s not for everyone, hence the need for an all-above approach.

      • guest

        Let’s talk cost of rehab for abandoned buildings in STL. To start with, the vast majority are masonry construction. Brick and stone. Tuckpointing on these buildings alone can cost upwards of $15,000-$20,000. What’s next? Architectural fees? Survey? Appraisal? Loan Fees? Title Fees? Environmental remediation? Interior demolition? Roofing? Framing? Drainage/sewer repairs? New water service? Flatwork? A garage/demo of same and replacement with a pad/garage? Landscaping? Fencing? Electrical? Plumbing? New windows and doors throughout? High efficiency mechanical systems? Framing? Drywall? Painting? Flooring? Kitchens and baths? Dump fees? Permits? Insurance? All this for “$10,000”? You bet. And if you believe that, I’ve got a bridge across the Mississippi to sell you for a buck.

        • Alex Ihnen

          Nevermind. You win.

          • guest

            This is the challenge we face. Very high costs for construction/rehabilitation combined with very low property values. Especially when thinking of LRA buildings. They are basically run down shells.

            We need to think about neighborhoods and buildings on a sort of sliding scale or continuum of both market value and condition.

            LRA properties are at the bottom end of both scales – both in terms of market value and condition. They are the worst of the worst, and that’s exactly whey they are in the LRA inventory.

            However, moving along that continuum, possibility for more affordable interventions make more sense. It’s there that we can have a greater impact.

            Lowering strict historic standards for rehab, encouraging lower cost approaches overall, dealing with absentee owners/code enforcement, etc. are all good things.

            The tension is somewhere along the middle of that continuum. That’s where absentee owners and slumlords are trying to milk properties while conditions suffer and good neighbors are trying to bring up an area.

            All of this calls for a neighborhood strategy for St. Louis. For the past 20 or so years, there’s been a strategy for downtown while neighborhoods have sort of been on their own.

            For the next 20 years, it’s time to get aggressive about the importance of neighborhoods. A good discussion would be what does a neighborhood strategy look like, especially in a high cost/low value market like St. Louis?

          • Alex Ihnen

            Agree with a lot of that. Point is to find a hundred ways to approach rehab and revitalization. The example from Cleveland is just one to think about – where it might be applicable. We celebrate the big victories/projects, as we should, but need to widen our image of a stabilized and rebuilt city.

  • Mark

    I’m trying to find info on the vacant city-owned home pictured to the right of the infill home. I looked on the city’s LRA sale list, but can’t find anything. Can anyone advise?

    • Alex Ihnen

      Looking further, the empty building next door is not an LRA property. Taxes of $500/yr have been paid through 2011. The owner lives in Benton Park and has owned the building since 2006, according to city records. The corner lot appears to be owned by Redbrick Management (Pete Rothschild). The building address is 4232 Gibson and info can always be found at:

      (story has been edited)

    • Roger Mexico

      A remarkably large fraction of LRA-owned properties (as verified with geo saint louis) do not appear on the LRA for sale site. This is even true for buildings in LRA inventory for years. This has always struck me as a boneheaded way to try to get developers interested in LRA properties.

      Also on the 10k number, was that the value listed on the permit or was it the true cost? A lot of costly work can be done that doesn’t have to be on the permit.

  • Where does one find properties the city owns & is selling cheaply for rehab purposes?

    • guest

      You can buy an LRA building for a grand or two. In reality, the city SHOULD BE PAYING YOU to take the property off its hands. But if you really want to know, dial 314-657-3700 and ask for “Real Estate”.

    • MiguelTejada82

      You have to have a full development plan before they’ll sell you the land. They don’t want spec buyers.

      • guest

        Or buildings. They don’t want to see people get financially hurt trying to take on projects for which they have no capacity to successfully complete.

        Here’s a thought, sort of building on the theme of this discussion. Maybe inmates could be used as free labor on these projects to save costs?

        We need a catchy name for this convict remediation program. Hmm. The word “rehab” has more than one application here…

        I just wonder what the Laborer’s Council of Eastern Missouri would have to say, especially since so many of its members are out of work. 🙁

  • guest

    There is probably not one LRA building that could be rehabbed for $10,000. The building in Cleveland is frame and in nowhere the sort of rundown condition of most LRA wrecks. LRA rehabs are great, but the city’s vacancy problems (especially for buildings) are most due to absentee owners, not LRA. Early intervention on those would go a lot further to rescuing buildings than trying to bracket down the cost of LRA rehabs to a nominal sum. Meanwhile, to say that most demos are “unnecessary” fails to acknowledge the fact that most city demos happen to buildings that are literally falling down.

    • JustFlushIt

      I agree with the absentee owner comment. In my neighborhood we’ve had some success with Absentee Landlord Shaming. I have not participated myself, but I have some neighbors who like to take the long drives to the owner’s homes and tell all their neighbors about their properties back in the city.

      • samizdat

        Call me the next time you do that 🙂

    • Alex Ihnen

      Most demos by the city may be buildings that are literally falling down, but most demos of residential buildings in the city are not.

      • guest

        What does that mean? Most demos in the city of residential buildings *are* by the city. By far. Either by the Building Division or LRA to the tune of a couple of $ million spent per year. And all of those are necessary. If you are referring to “demos by choice”, then you must be speaking of the Biondi/large end user sort, which is a totally different issue.

    • Roger Mexico

      LRA holds around 9000 properties whereas census figures show about 36000 vacant city properties, so with 25% of inventory LRA is a major player. I’d agree with measures to encourage absentee owners to rehab or sell (e.g. vacant building fees, etc.), but in most cases LRA and absentee owners face the same problem (market values too low to support high rehab costs).

      • dempster holland

        Absolutely true. In near s side a lot ob buildings were re-
        habbed at high cost but then could not be sold. The real
        need are policies that allow some rehab but not perfection.
        Another problem is that many people can not even afford
        $350 a month rent (needed for barebones mortgage, taxes
        water/sewer bill, etc) Further, sometimes simple fixes trigger
        expensive new requirements (eg plumbing). All this makes
        being a landlord hard. And its often an absentee landlord who
        is providing housing for a family that would otherwise be on
        the street.