Wrecking Ball

The developer wants to raze it; the landlord wants to save it; the tenant just wants help

Jul 24, 2002 at 4:00 am
What's happening at 3006 Eads Avenue, east of Grand Boulevard and west of Jefferson Avenue, isn't a headline-grabber, but it does show the essence of the housing dilemma faced by the city.

Expensive new houses. Old brick homes. Developers with a plan. Poor people without much hope. Lots of money changing hands, with uncertain consequences.

The two-story brick flat, originally built to provide four housing units, has been converted into three units, with one side set up for a large family. The rents range from $270 for the smallest unit to $550 for the largest. Next door is a newly built single-family house that is on the market for about $200,000.

That house is part of the St. Vincent development -- which, like most efforts in the city, is really more of a redevelopment. Starting at Jefferson, new lower-end rental units were built. As construction crept west toward Grand, the focus shifted to larger single-family houses. Existing owner-occupied houses were spared if the owners didn't want to sell, but most of the land was cleared.

The developer wants to tear down the flat at 3006 Eads. The Charles F. Vatterott Construction Company and the St. Louis Association of Community Organizations are jointly developing St. Vincent and have been granted eminent-domain powers for all rental properties in the area. The developers are completing the necessary legal machinations for the takedown. The court has set the sale price of the property at $64,000, more than double the original offer of $29,000. Once the money is paid, the tenants, including Rebecca Massey and eight of her children, will be evicted.

Jim Roos wants to stop that from happening.

Roos is the director of Neighborhood Enterprises Inc., a not-for-profit company he founded 30 years ago. Described in its brochure as "a business and a ministry" that manages more than 200 rental units in the "inner city," the company offers units with reasonable rents. Roos manages the flat where the Masseys live.

Wrapped up in one skinny, gray-bearded, righteous and rancorous package, Roos is the city's best hope and worst nightmare. He's helping provide what the city desperately needs -- affordable housing for the working poor -- and trying to halt what the city desperately needs -- new housing for people who can pay a high mortgage note.

Roos admits that the flat on Eads has been a bit of a problem property; some of the Massey children are suspected of vandalism during the construction of nearby houses. But he believes that has stopped and says the Masseys deserve to stay.

"When you have 200 or 300 families renting from you, there's going to be some families who are out of line, who are disorderly. That's just life," says Roos.

Meeting and listening to Roos, it's clear that he oozes with good intentions. But he's running out of options. So he started sending letters and making phone calls to the new owners of the upscale homes next to the old brick flat, asking whether the Masseys could stay.

One of the owners he contacted was the Reverend Carl Cunningham, who lives catty-corner from the flat. It turns out that, years ago, Cunningham lived across the alley from the Masseys, over on Waterman Avenue. He remembers the children and is sympathetic to their plight. It's fine with him, Cunningham says, if the flat remains and the Masseys stay.

"That's one coincidence, though I call it providence," says Roos. Maybe so, but it'll take more than that level of providence to reverse the courts.

Even if all the owners of the new homes say it's OK -- and that's unlikely -- they have no legal standing in this matter, according to Gina Ryan, director of SLACO.

"This property has already been condemned," says Ryan. The only delay has been finding funds to pay for the property, and that will take place in August. "This is not negotiable."

Roos has met with another of the developer's representatives, Greg Vatterott, and lobbied Alderman Lewis Reed (D-6th Ward), but he's not received much encouragement.

In contrast to Roos' altruistic ambitions, Massey has a more immediate and pragmatic concern: survival.

Rebecca Massey has eleven children. She has worked a succession of low-paying jobs. Her three oldest kids no longer live with her. Her fifteen-year-old is in a group home because of excessive truancy from school. The rest of her children, ranging in age from one to thirteen years, live with her on Eads. She receives about $545 from Social Security for her thirteen-year-old son's disabilities and $498 from what she calls "welfare."

"You probably heard that a lot of ladies are having to get off welfare when they've been so long, five years or something," says Massey, who is 35. "My time is up next month. I got that, trying to find a job, trying to make sure the kids stay on track when I go get this job, then daycare for my youngest two, which are one and two. So, y'know, there's a lot of things I'm having to deal with and try to deal with it by myself."

In the stark reality Massey faces, the sociological struggle between a developer and a well-intentioned landlord fades into background noise. She has September to face -- with eight kids, the possibility of eviction, maybe a new low-paying job with the need for daycare -- and all she'll have for sure coming in the mail is $498 a month. Whether the flat on Eads gets torn down is just one more adjustment.

"That's why I say it really doesn't make me a difference if they keep it or not," Massey says. "It's just the idea of me getting notice and if then somebody can help me find somewhere else that's going to be big enough for us. Right now we're in a four-bedroom; we're making it."

Because the St. Vincent development was touched by federal dollars, the Masseys will get relocation benefits. They'll probably end up in another old brick flat, on land the city wants to redevelop.