St. Louis suburb gets new housing, hope

Friday, August 24, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

PINE LAWN  — You can't afford major home repairs on the salary of a grocery clerk, and so Linda Bates had a big problem.

"My front porch was falling down. It was just raggedy. My bathroom was falling in. My basement had mildew," said Bates, who lives with her 10-year-old daughter and a disabled adult son. "I would have had to move out of the home I loved."

The problem is a common one in Pine Lawn, an impoverished older suburb made up of little houses, some well kept and some tumble-down. There's little spare money in a North County town where 27 percent of people are poor, according to the 2010 census, and 38 percent of people receive food stamps.

So Bates walked to City Hall and asked for the mayor. Mayor Sylvester Caldwell sent her to Beyond Housing, a nonprofit working to restore neighborhoods. They handed her a $20,920 gift to fix up her house. She doesn't have to repay it.

"It's a godsend for people like me," she said.

It's also part of a multimillion-dollar experiment in urban resuscitation. Take a bedraggled place on a slow slide to ruin. Build new housing and fix up some of the old. Hire a school liaison to work with struggling families in a neighborhood where single-mother families outnumber married parents by 2 to 1.

The plan is to start the town on the mend, then hope people notice. Tempt private capital with the scent of hope and profit, and see the revival take off on its own.

Two blocks from Bates' home, Beyond Housing just completed 10 new houses on Beachwood Avenue. They cost $160,000 each to build, but the group will sell each one for $90,000 to $95,000.

It plans to build 31 rental homes nearby. The organization has lent or given money to 40 other homeowners for home repair.

"You have to buy the idea that this community is going to be better," says Chris Krehmeyer, president of Beyond Housing. "If private capital doesn't come in, then over time it will fail."

City Hall joined the push.

"They've been cleaning the alleys out," neighbor Elizabeth Collins said. "They would draw rats and raccoons and everything else. You couldn't even walk through. Then they took a bulldozer to it, and that did it."

This sort of housing-driven revival has been tried in other places around St. Louis in recent years. It may be too early to judge the results, but those behind the efforts say the evidence is encouraging.

Beyond Housing built 90 houses in Pagedale, a similar town. Two years ago, the new building attracted a Save-A-Lot supermarket and a bank — the sort of private investment that is a key to success. Federal tax credits helped finance the project.

"In 25 years, we had not seen any housing built in the city," Mayor Mary Louise Carter of Pagedale said. "At one time, I had 100 vacant lots. Now you have houses and real estate taxes and electric and gas taxes. It started like a ball rolling."

Habitat for Humanity built 65 homes on five blocks in the troubled Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood in St. Louis starting in 2008.

Crime reports actually rose soon after the homes were built.

"This was most likely due to increased vigilance and crime reporting by new homeowners who refused to turn a blind eye," according to a report by Economic Geographers, a consulting firm that studied the results. By last year, however, crime had dropped by half.

Such efforts don't work if they just build houses, said Sarah Coffin, director of the Urban Planning and Real Estate Development Center at Saint Louis University.

Nonprofit groups run out of money.

"You have to create capacity at the grass roots, so that when they leave it doesn't all collapse," Coffin said. That means getting neighbors and school officials aboard.

Beyond Housing's approach is to find a nugget of life in a neighborhood and build on it. In Pine Lawn, that was the new Barack Obama Elementary School. The new houses and repair projects are all within a short walk.

New houses and a new school create a comeback image, said Krehmeyer. That should help raise property values, prompting other homeowners and landlords to fix up their own properties.

"You have to believe that, if we keep driving dollars into this neighborhood, it's going to get better," said Krehmeyer.

Beyond Housing has a secret Santa, a private family foundation that insists on anonymity. It has so far put $1.6 million into Pine Lawn housing and also helped finance the Pagedale homes. The Federal Home Loan Bank of Des Moines, a quasi-federal agency, provided the fix-up grants.

The Pine Lawn and Pagedale projects are part of a bigger effort to revive prospects for the Normandy School District, which includes 24 small North County suburbs.

Homes are sold far below costs, but Beyond Housing's land trust keeps a degree of control. It keeps ownership of the land underneath the houses, leasing it to the homeowner for 99 years. The land trust loans the money to the purchaser and promises to buy the homes back when owners are ready to sell at a price that rises 1.5 percent per year.

Neighbors seem happy with the effort. Bennie Jackson spent nearly all his 40 years living on Beachwood Avenue. His home is brightly painted and well-kept. But it sits next to an abandoned two-story house that worries him.

"I wired the door shut. It would just spring open at night time," he said, looking at the empty home.

A big tree in the front yard fell on a neighbor's car, prompting the town government to haul away the wreckage. But there's nothing he can do about another tall dead tree in the abandoned home's backyard. He's afraid it will fall over on his house.

Much of the rest of the block was in the same state of ruin, he said, until Beyond Housing tore down vacant wrecks to make way for its new houses.

He thinks that might mean money in his pocket some day.

"Say we wanted to rent or sell our home," he said. "I think it will be a whole lot easier without those vacant, derelict eyesores."

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