Prop NS and A New Narrative on Vacancy in St. Louis

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St. Louis doesn’t care about vacant buildings. We talk about them. We look at them. We complain about them, but we don’t really care about them. Some of us care about them, but we don’t. At least if one considers that we put money toward things we care about, we don’t care about them. A city’s priorities can be found not in its plan, but in its budget.

Vacancy is part of the St. Louis narrative, whether we like it or not. Overwhelming vacancy is the identity of North St. Louis. Vacant buildings greet residents and visitors along our central corridor. Vacancy is significant and growing on the city’s south side, which lost the same number of residents as the north side last decade.

But we can change this narrative. The story of a city is never more than just partly true. Is Portland overrun by $9 coffee and fixies? Sorta. Is Columbus a “smart city” that has avoided rust belt issues? Kinda. Are “makers” moving to Detroit and resurrecting manufacturing? You get the idea.

Anyway, St. Louis doesn’t care (Want to be charitable? St. Louis hasn’t been able to care…) about vacant buildings. Caring requires energy, ideas, commitment, and yes, funding. One such idea was on display in the city’s Gravois Park neighborhood. I was on hand representing the Dutchtown South Community Corporation as 20th Ward Alderwoman Cara Spencer explained the investment.

In short, for the first time, city demolition funds were used to stabilize a building in an area of increasing investment. Instead of $10,000 spent on demolition, approximately $15,000 was spent to stabilize the home and preserve its potential value. Will the building see a new buyer and attract investment? Maybe. Hopefully. Probably? But I see the value of this effort as something more.

St. Louis hasn’t cared about vacancy, and clearly hasn’t appeared to care about vacancy. Caring about vacancy hasn’t been part of our city’s narrative. Whether one building, 10 buildings, or 100 buildings are stabilized, the act of employing a new idea, a new effort, of not simply allowing yet another building to be demolished, is incredibly valuable. Perhaps we can care about vacancy.

Of course all the city’s demolition funds won’t go to stabilizing buildings. Plywood won’t be removed and replaced by plexiglass on all vacant buildings. But these are proactive statements that demonstrate to others, and ourselves, that we care, that the issue will not be ignored, that we’re not devoid of ideas.

If ideas are welcome, what else will we come up with? How else can vacancy be addressed? What if we empower residents and others to find solutions? What if they do it because they know new ideas are supported? What is someone moves to St. Louis because they know it’s a place that cares and is willing to try new things to address old problems?

The big vacant eyesores are slowly going away along the central corridor. Tax incentives will bring The Armory and City Foundry back to life, and Cortex and Saint Louis University development will change the face of that part of our city. But vacancy isn’t simply an old problem, its a growing problem. It is perhaps most apparent in St. Louis City, but St. Louis County must also act now if it hopes to have an impact on the growing challenge. Perhaps Prop NS and other ideas can provide a template for the region.

Vacancy maps by Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis:

So what does this have to do with Prop NS? NS is for “Neighborhood Stabilization”, and Prop NS would approve a bond initiative that would fund stabilization of city-owned buildings. You can read all about Prop NS and why your “Yes” vote is important in this NEXT STL Op-Ed by Michael Powers.

In addition, Prop NS supporters are demonstrating a strategy called Clearboarding today at 3600 South Jefferson. Clearboarding is being increasingly used to secure vacant buildings without the stigma attached to plywood boardups. The state of Ohio recently banned the use of plywood boardups on vacant buildings, and mortgage backer Fannie Mae has said it will help pay for clearboarding. The full press release on today’s demonstration can be found below.

You can learn more about Prop NS and Clearboarding at the links below:

Prop NS:

St. Louis ballot measure Prop NS seeks to stabilize city-owned vacant buildings

Discussing Proposition NS, which would raise funds to stabilize and market vacant buildings

City residents kick off campaign for Prop NS, the ‘vacancy bond issue’ on the April 4th ballot

Clearboarding:

Plywood Substitute for Vacant Houses Gets National Backer

Ohio Lawmakers Ban Use Of Plywood To Board Up Vacant Buildings

________________________________

Proposition NS backers demonstrate clearboarding solution

for vacant properties in lead up to April 4th vote.

Proposition NS, for “Neighborhood Stabilization,” is a bond initiative that creates a fund for stabilizing vacant city-owned buildings. It goes before voters on April 4th.  In the final days of the campaign, NS backers have teamed up with Cleveland, Ohio based SecureView to demonstrate to local officials, first responders and others a state-of-the-art technology to secure vacant and abandoned homes and reduce the visual impacts and public safety concerns related to blight.

The demonstration will take place on Monday, April 3, 2017 at 10:30 a.m. at 3600 South Jefferson Ave., St. Louis.

SecureView has worked in communities across the country to “clear board” unoccupied properties, replacing warped and worn plywood with a see-through product that resembles a window, but is virtually indestructible.

Robert Klein, founder and chairman of SecureView and a national expert in the property preservation industry, describes his company’s product as “a practical and attractive alternative to plywood for boarding.” The clear polycarbonate boarding prevents vacant and abandoned properties from becoming eyesores that further reduce surrounding property values and scare off potential investment in neighborhoods and business districts.

The Monday morning event will both highlight the visual impacts of replacing plywood on a storefront and demonstrate the strength of the product in protecting from intrusion by vandals. St. Louis fire officials believe that by properly securing vacant buildings, the city can reduce the risk of fires and increase safety for first responders.

“For decades, plywood has been the standard material for boarding up vacant and abandoned buildings,” said Robert Klein. “But plywood has become the ugly and stigmatizing symbol of community blight, fueled by the foreclosure crisis of the Great Recession.”

Klein and others say plywood announces that a property is vacant and abandoned, sending a distress signal of a neighborhood in trouble.  “Replacing plywood with clear polycarbonate will secure the property so it can be rehabilitated and reverse the decline of our neighborhoods and the loss of more homes. This investment in the community is an important step that will lead to further neighborhood stabilization.”

Michael Powers, a member of Neighbors for a Stable St. Louis, the group running the Yes on Proposition NS campaign, says this demonstration is a part of an ongoing conversation about fighting vacancy in St. Louis. “Last year again our city lost 3,000 residents,” said Powers. “We have to begin rethinking how we deal with this pervasive issue and how we significantly reduce the negative impacts of vacant buildings on our neighborhoods.”

If passed, funds from Proposition NS would be available to tuckpoint, weatherize and stabilize vacant city-owned homes, of which there are some 2,800. Securing of properties with clear board up technology would be a qualified expenditure.

 

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  • Nat76

    A new tool to address vacancy, if this passes, is encouraging. The time to develop/backlog question is one that needs to be addressed though. There is a problem in neighborhood development we haven’t directly addressed in STL that has to do with the balancing act between backlog timing, price differentiation, and the “G” word. A basic example of two identical shells that both require 100K (net of incentives, including developer profit) for resale. Both have the same incentives available for redevelopment.

    House A is in a challenged neighborhood with a low, but creeping, level of reinvestment. It has some community assets, lower crime and some degree of diversity, which makes the home appealing to a wider audience. The shell will cost 10K. The developer will sell for 110.

    House B is in a more challenged neighborhood. No/very little reinvestment. Fewer assets. Higher crime. No diversity. The shell is free. The developer will sell for 100K

    The only prospective buyers for B are those who both cannot afford 100K, but not 110K and who aren’t willing to downgrade to a slightly smaller home for 100K in the same neighborhood as home A. In other words, there isn’t a market for B as long as there are a lot of As floating around. And we have a lot of As in St. Louis that will need to be redeveloped before we can address the Bs.

    We could raise the standards for vacancy redevelopment in the “better” neighborhood, but then we risk reducing vacancy redevelopment in both. People will buy habitable homes in the “better” neighborhood and rehab them over time. We could invest more heavily in the “better” neighborhood so that the remaining shells jump in price. Then there are questions of displacement/equity/exclusion/aggressive gentrification. Slower redevelopment means more time to address investment in many areas quickly enough for the shells to be standing. This isn’t to say that some development in neighborhoods like B can’t be done in parallel with the As, but meaningful enhancement outside of those areas fortunate enough to secure large grants probably won’t occur.

  • STLEnginerd

    The city is in murky waters with this legistlation. I am someone that sees demolition of the historic charachter of St. Louis as a slow a tragic cancer. I don’t necessarily think its bad but i think a pilot project would be a good idea to see what kind of return the city gets. For instance if the city spends 15k on a building, how long does it take to recoup that investment in terms of property tax dollars. Seems like it could be a long time even for the ones that are eventually rehabbed.

    Compare it for instance to a MLS stadium which may take 30+ years to recoup, but at least they have a reasonably defended (if debatable) financial analysis spelling out the return for the amount of investment. At the end of this investment the building is still vacant so it could be years before they get rehabbed. How does this get to paying for itself.

    You’d almost be better off to use the money augment the HTC program with the money. Maybe earmark it for projects that would typically skate under the radar.

    I really hate to see tragic historic architecture lost but i am not sure this is a wise way to preserve it.

    • The fact is that most of the vacant city-owned houses in north city are not eligible for historic tax credits because they aren’t in historic districts. Thus the economics of saving those houses remain weaker than in south city historic districts (the growing vacancy in southeast city falls largely within districts that put incentives at work). After Proposition NS hopefully passes, maybe we need a proposition to fund real comprehensive planning, and increase the eligibility of historic buildings for tax credits. We also need to tackle reforming the Land Reutilization Authority by funding individual property marketing and management strategy — things the agency doesn’t do now because there’s literally no funding for these things (not because, as is assumed, the agency is part of some conspiracy). Otherwise we’re not going to really change the trajectory for many north side neighborhoods.

      • Bobby Gissendanner

        People connected to Prop NS that I contacted did not seem to understand the special challenge presented by north city vacant buildings. Krewson did not know it offered 5 yr tax abatement. P-D article says she is determined to tackle the vacant bldg. problem.

  • Alex Ihnen

    Everyone’s taxes are always too high. Property taxes in the City of St. Louis are relatively low. Service delivery is worse than some surrounding communities. Starving (or failing to fund) the city in order to force it to deliver better services will not work.

    • HawkSTL

      I understand the sentiment. But, with a $510.7 million budget, the City isn’t “starving.” The City simply isn’t choosing to fund what should be a priority. Asking the taxpayers for more is always the easy way out. Instead of addressing the budget issues themselves (i.e. make the choices we’ve elected them to make), they come back to the taxpayers year after year after year.

  • HawkSTL

    According to the Post-Dispatch, the Prop NS supporters can’t say whether this will increase property taxes. I don’t know about everyone else, but my property taxes are already too high for the return. If we eliminated redundant City offices (do we need a comptroller, treasurer, assessor, collector of revenue — why isn’t that one office?), that would be much more effective in finding revenue. Plus, every City election lately has a tax increase on the ballot (this one has four!). I’m voting “no.”

    • Tony Flores

      the property tax hike is $11 per 100k

      • HawkSTL

        Yes, that is the usual argument — “it is just $x dollars.” But, do you think it is necessary to raise taxes for this? Consider that the City has $510.7 million budget for 2017.

    • RyleyinSTL

      City property taxes are ridiculously low when compared to the surrounding municipalities.

      • HawkSTL

        I don’t know about you, but mine aren’t “ridiculously low.” “Ridiculously low” could apply to the quality of the schools and return on services that I receive. Or, “ridiculous” could apply to the amount of tax increase proposals that appear on the annual ballot. I love the City, but taking more money from our households is not the solution to every problem.

        • RyleyinSTL

          Ridiculously low, as in, much lower than my friends living in adjacent municipalities. In my part of South City I feel that I get a pretty good return on those taxes. I’ve even got services like street lights and an alley, they don’t have that in Town and Country!

          Money is not the solution to every problem but it could be part of the solution to this problem. In the city of St.Louis vacant properties are a HUGE issue.

          • HawkSTL

            You likely have a lovely home. But, realistically, comparing the average South City home to Town & Country? Those are not equivalent in terms of sq. footage of homes and lot sizes. So, of course, you should pay less than friends in Town & Country. That is not a fair comparison.
            More to the point = the existing $510.7 million budget can help solve the problem. There just isn’t political leadership to do it. Instead, we pay for the staffs for all of the offices we don’t need at City Hall. I’m voting “no” on these until things change.

          • RyleyinSTL

            The bigger the house the bigger the tax in the city as well, I’m not sure I get your point. The overall rate is lower in the city.

            All that said (argued?) I agree that it makes no sense to have 6 different departments all doing basically the same thing. The question is what offices are mandated by the State constitution and how much money would combining them actually save?

            But for me, it’s all for not, I’m not a citizen and so my opinion is unfortunately unimportant on election​ day.

          • HawkSTL

            The point was that that the comparison should be between equivalent neighborhoods in the City and County. Most everyone in Parkway School District is going to have a larger house and more property than South City residents. So, the comparison does not hold together. Compare an equivalent South City neighborhood to Affton or Shrewsbury, and then we’re getting more equivalent. On the elimination of offices, the elimination of the Recorder of Deeds is on this ballot. The Post-Dispatch says at least $1 million in annual savings, and it will be used to fund body cameras. Why can’t we do that for vacant buildings? No reason other than lack of political will. As for citizenship, I’d urge you to apply so that you can have a say.

          • Nat76

            Comparing tax rates and absolute performance across municipalities/tax jurisdictions is a fools errand. St. Louis is a city with 60+ years of deferred expenses brought about by resident flight. The reasons for this flight were almost completely beyond the city’s control and had to do with things like highway construction, national residential development policies, changing housing preferences, etc. It has a much higher level of poverty as middle and upper class residents left. It has contamination from long gone industries that polluted soil before the advent of the EPA. It has buildings that are functionally obsolete for their originally intended purpose. With more middle class residents, schools would perform better by traditional metrics. Crime rates would decline over the long term (all else equal). More sales and income tax from these residents would reduce the real property tax burden. Unfortunately, you can not attract and retain residents without paying for the services required to do so, and when you’re starting from a socioeconomically challenged base, those things are going to cost more.

            If you were to cut the Parkway school district’s population in half, increase its poverty to STL city levels, put 50 years on current infrastructure, and if strip malls and suburban housing were as dead/unappealing as urban development was in the 70s and much of the 80s, then those areas would be much worse “values” than the city is currently.

            It’s not a “leadership” thing as much as it is having been dealt two very different hands.

          • HawkSTL

            You’re not wrong about all of the factors. However, STL County (more than 3 times the population and 8 times the land area of the City of St. Louis) has annual budget of $564 million. The City’s budget = $510 million. If you think that there’s not a leadership problem on the budget, the numbers say otherwise. STL County is much more efficient with less revenue per person.

          • Nat76

            Not sure where you’re getting your numbers from, but I suspect you aren’t comparing things on a like basis. The city’s budget (which is actually higher than what you’ve stated) covers both city and county functions. STL county excludes municipal functions that STL city also covers.

            From the better together study, using numbers from a few years ago: city = $814 million. county = 776 million. STL county’s municipalities = 758 million. The county and its municipal services need to be combined. You’re stating that the city, per capita, is charging 184% more per capita for general government expenses. The true difference is 68%, or only a bit more than a third of what you think it is.

            It’s still not small, but why the difference? Higher police expenses per capita. Police are almost 25% of the budget. Three reasons: higher average crime (more poverty in city), more policing because of the influx of people who go to the city for traffic/security and pension expenses, because older departments in areas of declining pop have accrued greater liabilities over time. Streets. Old streets need more repair than newer ones. Health/welfare, community development and on and on…it’s all related to more poverty, and major population declines from 1960-2000.

          • HawkSTL

            Numbers are from St. Louis County, Missouri 2016 Recommended Budget (by Steven V. Stenger, County Executive) and FY 2017 Annual Operating Plan, City of St. Louis, Missouri. Explain it away, but, yes, we are paying more for less in the City. Anyone who has been to City Hall to solve an issue has seen it with their own eyes. Too much overhead for a 300,000 person population.

          • Adam

            “…we are paying more for less…”

            this is a value judgement. i think Nat made a pretty good argument. you’re going to pay more to maintain an old house than a new house, but either way you’re maintaining one house. that doesn’t mean you’re paying “more for less”. it means that an old house costs more to maintain.

          • HawkSTL

            I am throwing away money to live in the City as compared to my old place in unincorporated STL County. If the City did spend money to maintain my house, that’s the only way I’d come out ahead. We compared budgets before moving and knew what we were getting into. But, that doesn’t mean City government should have the same number of offices, overhead, and ward funding as if it still has 800,000 people. To me, that’s the very definition of bad government.

          • Adam

            i was using “house” as a metaphor for the city in general. not arguing that city government can’t be streamlined, but it’s difficult to compare city and county on a apples-to-apples basis because the the infrastructure is much older and is used by more people per square mile than any part of the county.

          • HawkSTL

            Adam: if you don’t have people like us–families with kids–the City will die. So, rhetoric aside, no one would want that. But, yes, if it becomes too expensive, we will have no choice but to follow the others out across the City/County line.

          • Alex Ihnen

            The City must be doing something right to have attracted you, even at greater cost. 🙂

          • Nat76

            For what it’s worth, budgets aren’t good comparisons, because things get classified in a non-uniform manner. If you’re looking for comparisons, look at the CAFRs, which are audited and actual.

            The bigger point here is you can’t call STL County cheap on the basis of numbers that don’t even include very basic things for 70% of the population like police, fire, snow removal, street cleaning, local public works/street repair, city/town mayors, councils, attorneys, traffic courts, planning commissions, public assets like municipal parks, parking structures, etc.

            Get rid of all of the above for Maplewood, Webster, Kirkwood, etc and get back to me with how wonderful and efficient the (non-existent) service is.

          • HawkSTL

            I lived in unincorporated STL County for 20 years. Services there are and were better. School district was a million times better. Property taxes were less. All that said, I like my City house better. Like my neighborhood better. But, yes, we’re throwing a lot more money away to live in the City. You’re welcome.

  • Tony Flores

    I’m in favor of NS….that being said, as I mentioned in a post on Next Door…even after the stabilization happens…its gonna take some people with a pioneering spirit to purchase one of these and put 100k+ in renovations to live in or rent these properties. It’d be nice for the city to educate the citizens about 203k and FHA loans…more affordable way for residents of the city to get out of rental living and more home ownership. I would love to buy one of these (i am a PoC)…but my wife aint havin’ it.

    • Michael Powers

      There are lots of programs, many the efforts of existing non-profits, that could run alongside a stabilization fund. I like your idea. Potential buyers need to be courted and educated!

    • Imran

      I just bought a bombed out LRA property in north city and am exercising that pioneer spirit to bring it back into use with private financing.

    • Adam

      We’re in the process of buying/rehabbing a house in Dutchtown via a 203k loan. I’d never heard of such a loan until our lender brought it to our attention. The downside is that the interest rate is a little higher than using a conventional loan, but we intend to refinance in a year or so.