Bringing Down the House

Neighbors want to buy and fix it. A building inspector recommends saving it. And yet the Housing Authority insists on tearing down 5950 Enright. The story of a house -- and a city's demolition craze.

The house sat empty for nine years. "Apparently the agency, for whatever reason, decided not to repair it," says Cheryl Lovell, the Housing Authority's director of redevelopment and a possible successor to interim executive director Thomas Costello. (She only arrived late last year and so, in classic Housing Authority tradition, bears neither responsibility for nor comprehension of her predecessors' acts. Five people have spun through the revolving door of redevelopment director since 1995. Turnover, discontinuity and the lack of accountability are integral parts of Housing Authority history.)continued on page 20HOUSEcontinued from page 18

Costello was pulled from retirement for a six-month stint as interim director, paddling foam in the wake of Janice Washington's troubled regime. He has now presided, diligently, wearily, for more than a year-and-a-half, and he tends to respond to criticism by simply admitting the agency's nationally documented mistakes, over and over again. "It certainly shouldn't have sat that long; that's just crazy," he says of 5950 Enright. "When I came back here, there was all this mess. We are getting some (of the houses) demolished, unfortunately, but that's the only remedy for them. And we are trying to set up a management program, so eventually all the units will be managed by neighborhood groups. Then you have a neighborhood involvement, managers who will watch the store better than the bureaucracy."

That bureaucracy was on duty in 1995, when somebody broke into 5950 Enright and set fire to the floor. The fire department reported the fire as "deliberately set," yet their report indicated no need to investigate further. Such fires are common in the city, and the mischief's almost impossible to trace.

Eight months after the fire, on Sept. 15, 1995, the house was condemned. Later that month, the Housing Authority submitted a demolition application for the entire Cabanne development, claiming "obsolescence due to physical condition" and "obsolescence due to factors affecting the marketability, usefulness, and management of the property." In their justification for condemning 5950 Enright, the agency claimed that "the cost of correcting the fire damage and making the unit habitable exceeds the cost of a comparable new dwelling."

By the time the house was condemned, the Housing Authority had already collected $84,194.98 in fire-damage reimbursement from the insurance company. The damage was never repaired, though -- where'd the money go? "The previous administration used insurance proceeds to offset insurance costs," explains Lovell, who estimates that the insurance check was cashed sometime in 1995.

Costello says the insurance money's irrelevant. The current replacement cost allowed by HUD for a six-bedroom "detached unit" is $151,756, so any rehab of the house "could not have cost more than $151,756." And it would have? The insurance company didn't think so.... "The building was already condemned. The decision was, it wasn't a good use of the money, it didn't fit into any plan in the area. That area's under development by a nonprofit group now, and we're trying to cooperate with them."

In other words, the public sector's looking to the private sector to fix their mistakes. Yet a private company wouldn't be caught dead allowing a vacant, deteriorating house to lower a block's property values. In successful neighborhoods such as Soulard and the Central West End, redevelopers often opt for rehab to preserve the historic character of a neighborhood. And when they do demolish, they do so as soon as possible and start pouring the new foundation immediately thereafter.

Not everyone in the public sector shies away from rehab, either. As 9th Ward alderman, Martie Aboussie helped transform the Benton Park area with judicious historic restoration. "Years ago, we tore down a lot, because that was the mentality back then," he says. "But in Benton Park, we got a lot of good neighbors involved; we had the alderman and the neighborhood association and a housing corporation that went around looking at various buildings. And we were fortunate in that we didn't have a lot of vacant property.

"If you have a lot of ground and one building in the middle, rehab's not practical," remarks Aboussie. "But when you have a block that's relatively stable and two or three vacant buildings, it might be to the advantage of the community if those buildings are saved. That's the approach we took, and it paid off. You raise the value of the block, and it gives the people an incentive to do something on their own home."

Aboussie is now director of public safety for the city, overseeing a long list of condemnations and demolitions in areas with less cooperation, fewer resources, less foresight. But in the 9th Ward, his influence lingers. "Martie made decisions to conserve and keep both residents and buildings," notes Carolyn Toft, executive director of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis. "You start with what you've got. It's very short-sighted to think of demolition as a cure, and it's just not going to work to reinvent the city as the suburbs. It's a bad, bad decision."

For the Housing Authority, rehab lost its appeal when everybody else stopped pumping money into urban renewal, leaving the agency with the thankless task of managing and maintaining sites scattered through precarious neighborhoods. For the private sector, rehab's glory days ended in 1986, with the demise of the federal tax credit for historic reinvestment. Combine public and private disenchantment with other variables -- the dip in community-development block grants during the Reagan years; the rise in interest rates; the falling confidence in the possibility of urban renewal; St. Louis' stubborn race segregation; the outward impetus of sprawl; the consumer market for modern, low-maintenance convenience -- and it's easy to see why so many of St. Louis' famous redbrick houses have been allowed to crumble.

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