By Lindsay Toler
By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Village Voice Writers
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
Michael Lewis stares over at 5950 Enright Ave. and shakes his head ruefully. He's lived on Enright for 33 years, and most of the families he knows have been there at least 20. "That's the only Housing Authority house on this block," he says. "Wasn't a bad house -- they just put the wrong people in. The last ones, they were a wild tribe." His companions chuckle deeply. "At least 10 or 15 grown folk, and about 20 kids," Lewis elaborates. "They needed to leave. But when they left, the house just sat empty. Everybody on the block been inquiring to buy that house."
The real-estate ad would write itself: Six bedrooms, three stories, large fenced-in yard, bay window, gracious hardwood floors and oak trim, wide sturdy front and back porches, walls three bricks thick. Part of the historic neighborhood named for French settler Jean Pierre Cabanne, who traded furs as fast as they'd fly. Two minutes' walk to the MetroLink station, 10 to the University City Loop.
But then excited families would come and see the burned, water-damaged, long-abandoned structure, seaweedy string hanging down from the torn planks of the porch roof. They'd notice the graffiti (unreadable, ending in "dog") decorating the brick on the east side of the house. They'd see shards of old wine bottles sparkling in the basement stairwell.
The St. Louis Housing Authority let 5950 Enright Ave. sit unoccupied for nine years while vandals chipped away at anything removable (the back door, the porch light, the fence gate, the electric meter, the downspout) and set a fire just to please the devil. Now the agency's proclaiming the house an unsalvageable eyesore and allocating money to demolish it.
Told the standard answer -- that the structure's too damaged for the Housing Authority to sell responsibly -- former neighbor Charles "Chucky" Watson shakes his head. "We got some professional contractors over here that said different. My uncle's an architect; he said the foundation's good. The guy next door to us is also a contractor, he retired from Anheuser-Busch, and he wants to buy it. But every time we tried to call down to the Housing Authority, they gave us the runaround, wouldn't even tell us that they owned it. It was a big mystery till they put the sign up."
The sign -- official, brown, uncompromising -- reads, "St. Louis Housing Authority. Private Property. No Trespassing." Though it won't stop arsonists, thieves or vandals, the sign does help trace the responsibility for this charred, stripped, long-vacant edifice to a government agency that's charged with providing safe, affordable housing; an agency that's constantly urging tenants to care responsibly for their homes. And for the many large families in limbo, whose children are apportioned to relatives and friends while they wait for subsidized housing, the sign is a reminder that once upon a time, such places used to exist.
Ask the Housing Authority why 5950 Enright must be demolished and you'll hear it's inevitable: The house has fallen apart, it's cheaper and more practical now to tear down and rebuild.
Ask why the house was allowed to fall apart in the first place, and you'll get no good answer.
The story of 5950 Enright starts in May 1893, when Charles H. Gleason sold a 50-by-177-and-a-half-foot plot of butterfly-dotted meadowland -- land that was once part of a Spanish land grant -- to Abel J. Prosser, a dentist living at Westminster Place. Prosser and his wife, Ettie, paid what was then the sizable sum of $3,687.50 for the land and sat on it, figuratively speaking, until 1911, when they sold it to Henry W. Schmale, an ambitious bookkeeper who worked down on Chestnut Street.
Schmale took title on May 9 of that year, and on the very next day he applied for a building permit for a two-story, $10,000 brick residence. His ambitions grew, beanstalk-fashion, into a nine-room, three-story house with an oil burner and hot water, not to mention a tile floor and a refrigerator. The minute the last doorknob was screwed into place, he sold the edifice to a widow, Pauline J. O'Donnell.
The house must have brought O'Donnell luck: She promptly remarried, to J.E. Rutledge, president of Rutledge and Taylor Coal Co. He lived at 5950 with her for a while, but in 1914 they moved to Hillcrest. The house went to a stenographer spinster, Frances A. Cousins, and then to a manager, George W. Adams, who sold it in 1916 to Wildred R. Long.
Now, finally, the house would have abiding owners. The Longs -- first Wildred; then his widow, Mary; then their two sons, Wildred and Donald -- presided there for the next half-century. Originally the street was baptized VonVersen, in homage to the daughter of eccentric Irish philanthropist John Mullanphy. But the Longs saw it renamed, in a burst of patriotic homage, for the first St. Louis soldier to die in World War I: Thomas Enright.
It was Mary Long who, just four years before her death, fenced the deep backyard. (Later the city would widen the alley, eating the back of her $125 fence as well as the protruding garage.) The sons took turns living in their legacy. But when Wildred the elder died in 1966, Donald the younger sold the house to the city's Land Clearance and Redevelopment Authority, which turned it over to the Housing Authority.
This was the boom time of urban renewal. Public money was available to stabilize cities, and the various tax credits and subsidies made creative, respectful redevelopment projects seem not only doable but worth doing. The Cabanne neighborhood, just beginning to slide, was caught and steadied. To the east, Enright would become a hotbed of crime, and property would continue to deteriorate in a rough parallel to the lives it contained. But residents of the 5900 block sum up its difference in a single eloquent sentence: "Fathers were still around." continued on next pageHOUSEcontinued from previous page
So the Housing Authority selected a deserving family and offered to fix up 5950 Enright for them, the first in a series of experiments with single-family houses for public assistance.
When Willie Mae Bankhead first saw her new home, back in 1965, it was "a mess. Hadn't been painted, everything was dirty and vines had grown up over the windows." She'd heard that "somebody died in the house." She didn't care. John and Willie Mae Bankhead had nine kids smooshed into a three-bedroom apartment on Hamilton. And now, the order had come to demolish their apartment building, which had been declared unsafe after a young girl fell to her death from the third story. The chance to live at 5950 Enright was a godsend. "And once they started fixin' on it," recalls Willie Mae, "it got prettier and prettier." Her favorite room was the dining room: "I'd never had one! And in the living room, there were these little shelves, I think they used to have glass doors.... "
Her youngest boy, Kenny Bankhead, was only 6 when they moved in. He doesn't remember the shelves, he remembers his family's picture being in the newspaper: the honorees in a happy public-housing experiment. And then he remembers somebody on the block cutting the freshly rewired electricity because they didn't want such a large family -- especially one on public assistance -- moving in. "I guess they figured, 'This is going to destroy the neighborhood,'" he remarks. "It was still a mixed street; we had Caucasians on both sides and in front of us. Some African-Americans had moved in, but I guess they were anti-sociable, felt we weren't the right people."
The Bankheads changed their minds: A big family, after all, meant somebody in every age bracket for the other kids to play with. And Willie Mae wasn't scared of whites; she even got to be friends with some of the doctors when she went to work at the now-defunct Faith Hospital, starting on North Kingshighway and then transferring to Faith West out at Olive and Mason. "Our house was always open," grins Kenny, "but my mother didn't like us hanging out on the front porch. We knew she'd be in by 4 o'clock, so somebody would yell, 'Miz Bankhead is gettin' off the bus,' and whoever your company was, you had to get rid of them."
She had to work: Her husband left them less than a year after they moved into the dream. Willie Mae should've seen it coming -- John didn't want to sign any of the papers to move into the house, didn't help her move at all. But then he'd come to stay, for a time. Until the nine, then 11 kids got to be too much for him.
So when she needed the yard cleaned up, Willie Mae had a party. "I just baked some cookies and made Kool-Aid, and the kids did all the work," she says merrily. Kenny, who's since become a preacher, is convinced "it wasn't nothing but the Lord blessed us." They managed those first months without electricity because light flooded their yard from the used-car lot across the alley. They absorbed Willie Mae's sister from Mississippi, and her six children, into their household for five years. The neighbor kids flocked to their house, too, and the parents stopped minding.
"We roller-skated in the basement, built clubhouses out of wood in the backyard, got together big bike rides and baseball games," muses Kenny. "Played catch-a-girl -- never caught one. But we captivated an audience." And then, he finishes grimly, "We growed up."
William Bankhead, the most quiet and "home-dwellin'" of the brothers, was picked off by a gunshot from a roof in 1982. About half-a-year later, John and Dennis Bankhead were both shot in the back of the head at a corner market near the old neighborhood. Payback's all Kenny can figure; he says they'd clashed with a teenager over an undelivered bag of marijuana the week before, giving him an angry shove. "I tried to retaliate, find the people," he adds, jaw clenched. "I started drinkin' heavier, too, trying to stop reminiscing about my brothers and the old days. And I couldn't."
One night he went to his mom's church and heard what he needed to hear. That was 14 years ago. Now he's 40, married, with kids of his own and an elder in his church, busy "gutting and reviving a home for battered women in Wellston."
After the Bankheads left in 1980, the house on Enright was vacant for two years. Then another Housing Authority recipient, Inez Cole, moved in, replaced two years later by Dorothy Hunt, who left in 1990.
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.
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."
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."
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."
Watson, who grew up on Enright, says he'd buy 5950 in a flash, rehab it so his two sons could grow up there. "Last of the big brick houses," he murmurs. "When that house was up and running, it was sweet.
"This block here used to be the block," he adds, grinning. "We were so eager to come home from school so we could get out and play foursquare or football or kickball.... Sure, people smoked their weed and drank their beer, but it was secluded; it wasn't out in the front. Everyone over here knew you -- if you were late, you got two whippin's, one from the lady down the street and one from your mama. The police'd stop at the top of the street and look down and just keep on ridin', that's how good this street was.
"If taxpayers are paying for all this, how come taxpayers can't buy the property?" he asks. "You got houses all over the city still fixable, and guys willing to put their own money into it. I thought they were trying to bring the city back.