Often in St. Louis, we lose sight of projects that don’t bring hundreds of luxurious units to a booming Central Corridor, repairing the city fabric that St. Louis chose to bulldoze in the 20th century. We see incredible, dense apartments proposed in The Grove, Downtown, and the Central West End, remarking that they surely are the solution to the last half century of population decline in the City of St. Louis.
They help, quite a lot, but St. Louis is far more than its Central Corridor, with neighborhoods like Dutchtown hosting the highest density of residents in the entire city per square mile. Here in Dutchtown, potential is everywhere, with a commercial corridor coming together on Meramec St. and an impressive set of architecturally significant homes. Yet, interspersed throughout are perhaps hundreds of abandoned homes and vacant lots.
Restoring St. Louis is a much more difficult task than people often realize, where hundreds of new units in the wealthiest neighborhoods do not make up for the hundreds, if not thousands of residents lost yearly in North/South St. Louis’ communities. Neighborhoods that experience disinvestment invite crime, turn away potential residents and investors, and create a community that sees despair instead of hope. In Dutchtown, the vacancy issue consumes more than just homes, with the gorgeous Cleveland High School sitting boarded up with broken windows and fire damage.
“If people are living in uninhabitable conditions, they move,”Alderman Boyd, St. Louis Post Dispatch
Vacant schools and homes pose incredible harm to communities, not just in reducing safety, but also pushing other long-term residents out. Combined with dampened new investment, these neighborhoods end up in vicious feedback loops as families move to other neighborhoods or outside suburbs.
This phenomenon is finally being tackled in St. Louis, both at the governmental and communities levels. With institutions like the LRA, city efforts like Prop N.S. that invests tens of millions in structural stabilization in low-income communities, and non-profits working tirelessly to reverse the feedback loop, progress is more visible than ever. One such non-profit, the St. Joseph Housing Initiative, is doing just that and more. Maureen McCuen, Executive Director of the SJHI, spent some time talking to Missouri Metro last week to detail their community-driven efforts to reduce vacancy, revitalize neighborhoods, and support new low-middle income homebuyers.
To accomplish its mission, the STJI works to rehabilitate vacant and historical properties in Dutchtown. McCuen emphasized that although Dutchtown holds incredible architectural assets and a diverse, densely populated community, it has a below average level of owner-occupied homes when compared to St. Louis City and Missouri more broadly.
As many of our readers know intimately, home ownership can often come with many surprises. We discussed in a recent article how low-income and predominantly Black communities in St. Louis have experienced predatory mortgages that purposefully leave out interest, insurance, and property taxes resulting in a massive and unexpected bill at the end of the year. Even without discriminatory and predatory lending, mortgages require a history of good credit and are but one of many expenses attributed to home ownership.
When purchasing a home, most buyers will have an inspector tour the property and identify potential problems with major home systems and interior assets. Even then, the most capable and experienced inspectors can miss major items and even if something looks perfect, systems can simply just break, particularly if they are old, without any sign of defects.
That is why it is common to have unexpected and often expensive repairs in the first couple years of ownership. For families or individuals without a safety net or substantial savings, these issues can threaten their ability to sufficiently maintain the home or, worse, might threaten their other financial obligations should they choose to get the issue fixed. Perhaps it might be a leaky roof, broken water heater, dying A/C compressor, or the need to tuck point (replace mortar between bricks), each of which might result in a $1,000.00+ bill.
Although these homes are intended for low-middle income families, St. Joseph Housing Initiative works to make sure that the interior finishes and amenities are durable, modern, and welcoming. While they might not find granite countertops or other luxury materials, the homes are well above average and, in my experience as a former REALTOR®, downright refreshing in homes of this price range. The kitchens sport stainless steel appliances and the houses have gorgeous decks, nice vinyl flooring, and open concept interiors worthy of an HGTV short.
St. Joseph Housing Initiative seeks to ease the transition for their buyers, making sure that they touch every single major system in the home, leaving no major surprises that might mean financial ruin for their buyers. Combined with their credit consulting, they have introduced an innovative initiative dubbed the “First Neighbor” program, which introduces the new hombuyers to their new neighbors McCuen describes this program as a thorough effort to ensure that their buyers are successful and integrated into the community.
The First Neighbor program is a group of current residents that support their new neighbors and maintain a long-term relationship with the new buyers. They serve as friends and mentors, and the group contains a variety of skills, talents, and interests among its members that can help their neighbors in a pinch. For the families or individuals that have never mowed a lawn before, they’ll find the necessary tools and mentorship handy through the program. Or, if they don’t know how to hang something on a plaster wall or when the dumpsters are emptied, they will find all the answers they need.
Dutchtown is a large neighborhood, so one home here or there might not feel like a substantial difference. With that in mind, St. Joseph Housing Initiative is working to cluster their properties together. As a cluster, the multiple homes together are able to create a better feeling of security and contribute to a better, more hopeful built environment free of broken windows and vacant properties. The hope is that this will continue to reverse the feedback loop that had for so long forced residents away.
St. Joseph Housing Initiative is looking to complete its 8th home in the start of 2021, and their goal is to rehabilitate 10 homes by the end of the year. Powered by volunteers and 100% funded through donations, the St. Joseph Housing Initiative has a bold and comprehensive plan that McCuen hopes will keep growing and make a tangible difference in the city. Providing a safe, healthy, and inspiring home and surrounding environment for their buyers is at the core of their mission. Combined with the efforts of neighboring groups and non-profits, Dutchtown is ready for a renaissance, and it will be one of its own making.
If you are interested in donating to or volunteering with the St. Joseph Housing Initiative, visit their website here. Missouri Metro thanks McCuen and the SJHI for taking part in our latest Dutchtown feature and for their hard, dedicated work to revitalize St. Louis communities.