The Greening of McRee Town

There was nothing wrong with the Missouri Botanical Garden's downtrodden neighbor to the north that a bulldozer couldn't fix

In McRee Town, Finley paid $400 a month for her apartment. Her new home costs $625 a month. But for the next 42 months, the commission will cover the difference. Finley isn't worried about how she will pay the higher rent after the subsidy runs out. But John Pachak, who works with Father Kleba at Midtown Catholic Community Services, is concerned. He says many poor families will be forced to move to another neighborhood like McRee after three and a half years. Robnett argues that the program is giving people a chance at a better life. He adds that four people were able to take advantage of low interest rates and buy homes with the help of the Garden District Commission.

But to Kleba, the issue is bigger than the tenants who are now being relocated. In a city where two huge public housing projects recently have been torn down and where 5,000 people are on a waiting list for Section 8 vouchers, the destruction of more than 100 housing units for low-income people will mean fewer housing options for poor people throughout the city, he contends.

"No one is going to replace this housing for the poor," says Kleba. "People gotta live somewhere, and that somewhere will be overcrowded housing somewhere else, with family or friends. Then that neighborhood deteriorates and they have to spend millions of dollars years later to redevelop it.

Jack and Norma Cox say the Garden District Commission offered $33,000 for their twelve-bedroom house
Jennifer Silverberg
Jack and Norma Cox say the Garden District Commission offered $33,000 for their twelve-bedroom house
George Robnett, executive director of the Garden District Commission, believes the plan for McRee Town gives poor people a shot at a better life
Jennifer Silverberg
George Robnett, executive director of the Garden District Commission, believes the plan for McRee Town gives poor people a shot at a better life

"They'll be inventing another McRee Town."

When Jonathan Kleinbard begins talking about Jim Roos, his words become harsher and his voice becomes louder. "Jim Roos and I have a difference of opinion about what is adequate housing for underserved people," Kleinbard says frankly.

The two met in 1999, when Roos began his campaign to persuade the Garden District Commission to save some of the homes in the demolition zone -- namely those belonging to Neighborhood Enterprises or its nonprofit partner, Sanctuary in the Ordinary. Twenty-four of the 40 McRee Town properties owned or managed by the two businesses have been or will be acquired by the McRee Town Redevelopment Corporation. In May 1999 Sanctuary in the Ordinary invited Robnett and Kleinbard to tour several units managed by Neighborhood Enterprises. The plan backfired.

"The floors didn't have coverings," Kleinbard remembers. "There were two refrigerators and two stoves in one kitchen because the freezer worked on one and the refrigerator worked on the other and the oven worked on one and the range worked on the other, and they were all on extension cords. There were mattresses on the floor!"

Roos is still kicking himself for not visiting the homes before Kleinbard did. One tenant had just lost electrical service, which is why power cords were extended to a neighbor's apartment, he explains. The appliances belonged to the tenant. As for the bedding on the floor, Roos says the tenants didn't have beds, which is not unusual for poor people.

"We have skewed notions in this society where so many kids have their own bedrooms and private baths," adds Father Kleba. "They think it's child abuse to sleep on a cot. They don't know what a step up that is from living in a car."

Kleinbard had heard horror stories about Roos before he ever stepped inside his apartments. Several residents had sued Neighborhood Enterprises for lead poisoning. Roos' real estate license was suspended in 1997 for sloppy bookkeeping and the company was put on probation until 2000. He has been known to hang up on tenants when he's angry, and one irate renter shot up the front of his family home on Lafayette with an automatic rifle.

"I think [Roos] started out with a good mission, but somewhere along the line he started blaming the victims," one housing advocate says.

To others, Roos is a do-gooder who got in over his head. "Neighborhood Enterprises and Sanctuary in the Ordinary have been major slumlords in the past and have caused more problems than they'll ever solve," says Billie Chamblin, who lives in a two-family brick home in the 4100 block of Blaine and owns a tidy rental property next door. "But from what I've been seeing, [Roos] is trying to get with the program."

Compared to Kleinbard's button-down business mien, Roos looks relaxed in his Tommy Hilfiger shorts, short-sleeved plaid shirt and leather sandals. But "relaxed" is not a word anyone would use to describe him. "I have to remind myself to dial it down," he admits. During another conversation he apologizes and says, "I'm not trying to lecture you." But he is.

Roos graduated from Concordia Seminary in 1970 and has been buying and renting properties in the poorest parts of St. Louis ever since. "I planned to change the world through my activism," he wrote in an autobiographical letter for his 40-year high school class reunion. He quickly produces the letter from a meticulously catalogued file cabinet that may well contain every piece of correspondence he has ever written or received. He still has notes from conversations he had in 1975, five years after he founded Neighborhood Enterprises.

In 1987 Roos ran for Eighth Ward alderman and lost. In 1993 he sued the city for racial discrimination and again lost. "In Christ, I have been made over so that work with housing poor people and improving poor neighborhoods pleases me," he wrote in the letter for his reunion. But he admits that bad business decisions and a mountain of debt overwhelmed him in the 1990s, and he didn't have money to fix his buildings. After much of his debt was forgiven and he formed Sanctuary in the Ordinary, he says, he has been able to turn the business around.

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