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.

Asked how long the waiting list is now, Costello offers good news: A mere five families need -- and are qualified for -- five or morecontinued on next pageHOUSEcontinued from previous pagebedrooms. The trick is the caveat: If a familyso much as owes on a utility bill, they're not considered qualified. When we first asked Maria Moore, the Housing Authority's intake manager, she said there were 12 families on the list (she'd included the six families not yet technically "ready to move"). When we reminded her that the list was much longer than that a few months ago, she said, "Yes, we have deleted those just this month for one reason or another." Did the deleted families find adequate housing? "Could be," she said dubiously, then told The Riverfront Times to talk to the Housing Authority PR department.

Asked how many large families have been housed by the Housing Authority this year, Costello promises to check but predicts that "it probably isn't going to be very many." (According to Moore, a grand total of two families have been housed in five-bedroom units in 1999.) Costello acknowledges that "there aren't many units in stock anywhere with six bedrooms" and that there are no plans to replace the house at 5950 Enright with new construction. This year's building projects are 127 units at Murphy Park and 152 in the new mixed-income Darst-Webbe development -- none of them large enough for big families.

So what's happening to create housing for those folks? "Well, nothing at the moment, progress-wise, because nobody on the private side is building that size units," replies Costello. "That's a lot of individuals. It's a management problem." So where are these unmanageably large low-incomefamilies supposed to live? "Well, it's very difficult. Some go to temporary types of housing; some have the family divided up."

Meanwhile, housing professionals come down from Chicago and remark on the amazing quality of St. Louis' historic redbrick housing stock -- at least, what's left of it. The city counts 1,700 condemned buildings and knows the list's out of date the minute it's compiled: Housing stock's falling apart so rapidly, the annual inspections aren't fast enough to keep the list anywhere near current, reports Ken Walk, spokesman for the public-safety division. Once a house is condemned, boarded up and labeled "V&V" (vacant and vandalized), demolition's the next step. In 1998, public safety's building division razed more than 300 buildings, a 50 percent increase over the previous year's rubble. They're planning to demolish more than 400 in the coming year.

The other half of the picture is the Land Reutilization Authority, which inherits land and buildings when owners foreclose on the taxes. The LRA currently owns 46.5 million square feet of land in the city, including 2,228 buildings. At last count, 913 of them were slated for demolition, and about 100 more join the list every year. There's not enough funding to demolish even 200 a year, says spokesperson Ivie Clay; last year they managed 177.

So the city's demolishing privately owned homes, the LRA's demolishing publicly owned homes and the Housing Authority is demolishing its own property. This year, for example, the authority is taking down 758 units at Darst-Webbe and 88 at Clinton-Peabody. (According to Laura Barrett, director of the not-for-profit agency Housing Comes First, the Clinton-Peabody units are in fine shape physically, but the Housing Authority says the development's impossible to police because it doesn't have through streets. Costello says he can't comment because of litigation -- the residents are suing the Housing Authority.)

Units in Walnut Park, meanwhile, were slated for demolition because they were "currently vacant and have been vacant for a long period of time." According to a Housing Authority report, "These units were part of a previous home ownership project which was unsuccessful in producing home buyers and now need to be demolished." Now eyesores, they have outlived their "reasonable expected life-cycle as public housing." Three more projects already are approved for demolition -- 45 units at Cabanne Courts, 314 at Carr Square and 112 at Webbe Elderly, plus scattered sites like 5950 Enright -- and they're doing a "feasibility study" that might let them tear down more.

Does Costello -- whose first stint as Housing Authority director coincided with the leveling of the infamous Pruitt-Igoe -- deserve the nickname "Demo-man"? "I don't want to be Dr. Doom, but I think it's real simple," he says. "When you have a product or situation that is not working, and there is no hope that it will work, (demolition's) almost inevitable." How many single-family detached properties does the Housing Authority rehab? "None," replies Costello. "We only have 14 in our whole stock." Including 5950 Enright? "No. The Enright one is out of our inventory. It's condemned; it's being demolished."

To fund the promised demolition, because the original insurance money's already been spent, the Housing Authority will use the leftovers of a Community Development Agency grant awarded for another demolition project in the same area.

Soon the big old house on Enright will be reduced to a bare lot, a stark contrast to the homes draped with blue tarps or studded with ladders as families pour sweat equity into the rest of the block.

The Housing Authority's Cheryl Lovell figures one of the neighbors on either side will buy the empty lot eventually. But the thought makes Chucky Watson groan. "We don't need any more lots. We need houses. You see all those lots two blocks down? We call those streets twilight zones. Looks like somebody just sucked the life out of that block."

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