Tombstone Blues

Wealthy investors spend millions to resurrect the neighborhood near Bellefontaine Cemetery. They discover that money can't do everything.

Most of the tenants didn't pay rent, and as unpaid bills mounted, some apartments had the electricity cut. The power-less responded by stringing extension cords outside their windows to the apartment building's hallway sockets, getting their juice literally on the house.

Landlord Vincent Wooten yanked the plugs.

Big mistake.

Jennifer Silverberg
The nightmare property owned by first-time landlord Sonja Wooten is undergoing a gut rehab so it can be resold as condominiums.
Jennifer Silverberg
The nightmare property owned by first-time landlord Sonja Wooten is undergoing a gut rehab so it can be resold as condominiums.

"He accidentally pulled out a little window fan," says Sonja Wooten, Vincent's wife and a building co-owner.

"This guy who didn't belong there -- he was a squatter -- came running down with a butcher knife the size Jason had in Halloween. He started after us, me, my husband and my sister. We barricaded ourselves behind a steel door and waited for the police."

The Wootens and Sonja's sister, Vicky Chilton, bought the two-story, twenty-unit building at 4961 Rosalie Street in mid-2000. Constructed in 1929, the building is located just a half-block from Bellefontaine Cemetery on the city's North Side. Bellefontaine and adjoining Calvary Cemetery anchor a historic neighborhood with some solid properties and others that have seen better days.

Owning property there should have paid off, but two years later, Sonja Wooten compares the experience to a horror movie. Not only were tenants skipping rent, the building was being systematically looted. Thieves stole copper pipes, ceiling fans and countertops. When Wooten called the police to report drug activity or other criminal behavior, someone would retaliate by vandalizing the property.

During the summer of 2001, the landlords took a two-week vacation. When they returned, they discovered that the cement keystones above doors and ornate limestone cornices that had decorated the exterior of the building had been broken off and carried away. Wooten says the gaping holes in the walls and above doorways made it look as if the building had been hit with mortar shells.

The heavy cement and stone ornaments are valuable in the rehab market, but removing them is hard work. That the thieves could brazenly take them from a building full of people was the final straw.

"That's when we gave it up," says Sonja Wooten. "Do you blame us?"

The building they acquired for $150,000 sold a year later for $40,000. The buyer was Union West Florissant Housing Solutions Inc., a nonprofit housing corporation funded by wealthy donors from Clayton and Ladue. The nonprofit is targeting an eight-block area across from Bellefontaine Cemetery for up to $12 million of housing rehab and new-home construction.

Union West Florissant Housing Solutions' efforts began almost three years ago, but like the Wootens, the nonprofit has encountered major obstacles. The Wootens were hampered by deadbeat tenants and crime; Union West Florissant Housing Solutions faces a stifling mix of ward politics, City Hall impotence, racial defensiveness and donor naïveté. The wealthy donor group backing the nonprofit has found out that just showing up with lots of money and good intentions doesn't get the job done.

For these would-be benefactors, the problems center around acquiring about 80 vacant lots and buildings from the city's Land Reutilization Authority. The donors' problems had more to do with agitated residents at neighborhood meetings, consultations with suspicious ward politicians and a City Hall that seemed indifferent to their predicament.

The Wootens had street-level problems, compounded by their inexperience and naïveté.

"We were new in rental," says Sonja Wooten. The Wootens live in Jefferson County, but Sonja was raised in South St. Louis. When they hunted for property, they didn't exclude any part of the city, she says: "We were trying not to be blinded by any prejudices at all."

When they found the building on Rosalie, inspected the structure and checked the rental logs, everything seemed in order. "We looked at the numbers, and the numbers looked good," Wooten says.

So what went wrong?

Wooten says they underestimated the level of street-level crime in the area and overlooked another factor that may have played a role: The seller was black and they were white, and for the tenants, she says, race may have been an issue.

"Here we are, the white people coming into the neighborhood. Something happened," Wooten says. "It was really amazing. I don't know what the former owner did. I truly think it was a racial issue. You can't just go from one way and all of a sudden end up another way."

When Wooten is told that the "developer" she sold her building to is actually the donor group spending more than $1 million to turn rehabbed apartments into condominiums, she bursts out laughing.

"You've got to be kidding me," says Wooten between guffaws.

Told that the financial backers of Union West Florissant Housing Solutions are from Ladue and Clayton, she laughs: "That's as foreign as you can get.

"I thought I had a little bit of savvy, coming from the South Side, but I had no idea what we were up against."

What Wooten finds hard to believe is true.

Union West Florissant Housing Solutions is being bankrolled by wealthy county residents -- many of whom are graduates of St. Louis Country Day School, members of the St. Louis Country Club and parishioners of St. Michael and St. George Episcopal Church on Wydown Boulevard. They share little in common with the residents of the targeted area other than the same state capital, the same time zone and the same weather. The donors decline to divulge their names and thus far have avoided using public funds.

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