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.

Rehab's prohibitively expensive, and people want new construction anyway. That's the current wisdom from the experts, the policy-makers and the contractors, who quote costs per square foot that can hit $100 just for basic restoration. The bigger and older the house, the wider the gap. Tear it down and start fresh. Even if you do have a long list of people waiting for housing, rehab's a waste, because it's always gonna cost more than new construction.

"That's a myth," snaps Toft. "We are not dealing with a prairie here. There have continued on page 22HOUSEcontinued from page 20been several waves of settlement. And the last time something was demolished in the city, I guarantee you, everything was left in the ground. So the startled developer comes back saying, 'Golly gee, I need another $18,000 worth of gap financing per house, because guess what, there's a foundation and all sorts of other stuff down there.'"

Landmarks' business is historic preservation, and they've pushed hard for historic rehab credits that even small-homeowners could take advantage of. "There's no question there are buildings that are true safety hazards; they adjoin another property and they're half-down already," concedes Toft. "But we need to get ahead of this. It's past time to put money toward stabilization, not just board-up. The LRA (Land Reutilization Authority) cannot acquire a property until three years of back taxes have gone unpaid, and heretofore there hasn't been any organized way to say, 'OK, this building can probably be stabilized.'"

Tangled ownership patterns also complicate the passage between public and private sectors. So does the large number of older residents with a nasty habit of dying without leaving a local heir to manage the property. (That's how the Enright house came into the public domain in the first place, with the death of Wildred Long.)

Finally, there's the $64 million-per-square-foot question: How do you fight the human propensity, common to private homeowners and public landlords alike, to defer maintenance? "The building division could cite more owners for repairs; the fines could be higher," offers Toft. "You need good neighborhood organizations, aldermen on the alert and some sort of philosophy that rehab will make sense."

You also need to keep the city's housing stock desirable -- its neighborhoods a stable mix of public and private, affordable and premium -- by containing sprawl. ("Most of the blacks who could afford it moved to the suburbs," shrugs Michael Lewis, talking about the changes on Enright and the urgent need to keep the block stable.) St. Louis used to have more than 850,000 residents; it now has fewer than 350,000. "We are building 10,000 new housing units a year in the metropolitan area," notes Mark Tranel, "and for most of the '90s there was essentially no population growth." A senior research analyst in the Public Policy Research Centers at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Tranel notes that "many other older urban areas have had their population expand, with people moving in, immigration." Some have even devised nefarious ways to contain their populations. But here, until very recently, our metro area's population has held steady, and the migration's been a free flow outward. The crude "sprawl formula" says that for every unit built in the outlying areas, there's one that gets walked away from.

Now, immigrants are starting to increase the city's population, and economic conditions for urban revitalization are starting to improve again. Block grants have regained at least their original face value, if not real value, after their downward slide in the '80s. A state historic-reinvestment tax credit passed, and in the last session, Missouri legislators proposed a pair of bills extending tax credits to low- and middle-income homeowners in distressed areas who choose to rehab.

As for the impracticality of rehab in the public sector -- which spent the largest chunks of its maintenance budget on cosmetic repairs to the high-rises it's now tearing down -- even the pessimists admit that the outlook varies. Rehab's viability is a function of how long the building's been vacant, how much maintenance was allowed to slide and how well the structure was originally constructed. "If it's kept up with, kept structurally sound, it should be OK," concedes Jim Lutz, housing-development specialist at the not-for-profit Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance. "You gotta make sure you don't let the seal break. Once the weather gets in and you start to have structural damage, nothing good can happen. If you keep up and budget for that.... But that requires a level of commitment from the owner."

That level of commitment hasn't existed in the Housing Authority, and it hasn't existed in St. Louis, where there are too many houses for the population, vacant houses deteriorating and lists of people waiting to be housed. "Baltimore has had some success maintaining their housing stock," says Lutz, "but they had the city, state, large corporations and philanthropic organizations all putting resources into maintaining neighborhoods. In Cleveland, they made neighborhoods, often of smaller frame houses, the centerpiece of community revitalization. Savannah (Ga.) has had success keeping people in the city, keeping historic houses up and having affordable housing, but they had a concerted long- term effort to maintain the properties."

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