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.

We like to let 'em slide.
Former Housing Authority inspector Laura Moore knows full well that rehab can be costly and labor-intensive. But the tear-down-and-rebuild cycle's wasteful and shortsighted, she counters, and "it's only the demolition and construction contractors who benefit, never the people in need of housing.

"The Housing Authority's like a black hole -- the money just goes whizzz," says Moore, letting the sound effect vibrate her indignation. "The easy money's in new construction. And until recently, the feds paid the local housing authorities for vacant units, so there was no incentive to rehab them."

Moore -- who has 22 years' experience in architectural review, compliance inspections, project management, housing rehab and community development -- was asked to reinspect the house at 5950 Enright last year, when the Housing Authority realized it was still standing. On Feb. 18, 1998, she recommended rehab, noting the solid foundation, intact tile roof, desperately needed six bedrooms and walls three bricks thick.

Moore wasn't surprised that the Housing Authority rejected her recommendation. A devoted rehabber and recycler, she'd been outspoken about bureaucratic waste and mismanagement (working appliances stored outside to rust and rot, headache balls swinging through brand-new kitchen cabinetry, credits with contractors going uncollected) throughout her four-year tenure at the Housing Authority. On Jan. 4, 1999, she was fired for "unauthorized removal of material from Housing Authority construction site."

"Guess what the unauthorized site was," she suggests dryly. She waits a couple of beats. Then she supplies the answer: "A Dumpster." And the stolen property? "Scrap insulation. People used to give me this stuff because they knew I was a scrapper." Asked whether Moore's account is true, theHousing Authority says the information's confidential but assures us that "the agencyconducted a thorough investigation and is confident that its decision was justified."

Moore figures the Housing Authority will now dismiss her criticisms as the rantings of a "disgruntled former employee." She says that's perfectly accurate: "I was disgruntled the entire time I worked there!"

Squinting up at where the stolen drainpipe used to be, Moore pans down to the water damage. She's agreed to revisit 5950 Enright and explain her rationale for recommending rehab. "Some of the wood on the porch ceiling got burnt," she notes, "but the deck itself is still there, the wood steps are solid, the brick columns are standing strong and the original tile roof's intact. Eaves need to be replaced; that's from sittin' there. Water damage. And the chimney brick needs a little tuckpointing, but that's minor shit.

"Somebody's stolen the meter," she observes. "Might need it to hook up their own electricity illegally, which is dangerous, but people do it." She walks around to the back. "This is concrete, this back porch, and look at this nice big backyard. Structurally, the house is fine. There's a crack by the steps to the basement, and they'd certainly have to clean out all the debris.... " She waves toward Frito wrappers and broken wine bottles. "Maybe somebody homeless has been sleeping here.

"Need a handrail to meet code," she mutters, returning to business. "But these are fairly new gutters, and the wiring's been upgraded." She points out the big baywindow, graceful stone brackets and metal stairway up on the chimney, unreachable remnants of elegance.

"It'd be a gut rehab," she says. "Tear out drywall, put in new wiring, because you don't know what's been damaged. Fire'll flow up a wall if there's nothing to stop it. But you've got an economic mix; you're a block from MetroLink; you're near the U. City Loop; it's a stable block; and they need six-bedroom houses more than anything. So why not take what you have and try to fix it?"

It's a moot point. The Housing Authority won HUD's blessing to demolish the house back on March 21, 1996. Already rated the most troubled housing authority in the country, the agency actually admitted, in their "Justification for Action," that "the management of scattered site units has proven to be a very difficult problem." Yeah, they knew it was now a national mandate to use scattered-site units "to minimize the impact of public housing on particular neighborhoods, and to better integrate public housing tenants into the general population." This was "a laudable concept in theory," they said, but "it has proven to be difficult in practice."

Finally, after pointing out the high utility costs of old houses, the Housing Authority made its closing point: "No offstreet parking is available for residents." Odd: The house has a driveway. And MetroLink's a stone's throw away. And most Housing Authority residents don't have cars anyway.Buried inside the Housing Authority's overall waiting list of 1,500 is a chronic, naggingly painful sublist of families who need five or six bedrooms. Just this past October, Linda Chatman and 10 children were the last family left in a Darst-Webbe high-rise, surrounded by empty, boarded-up apartments and scared to death they'd be hurt by burglars. They left and went to stay with relatives because the Housing Authority said they had no other options for them. The authority's operations director, James Heard, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "We don't have enough large units to go around. Anytime we have anything over four bedrooms is a rarity."

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