Friday, February 1, 2019

Backers of Tax Hike for Vacant Homes Blast Mayor's Office for Seizing Control

Posted By on Fri, Feb 1, 2019 at 9:41 AM

A community group says City Hall is bungling the launch of a program designed to shore up vacant homes. - FLICKR/PAUL SABLEMAN
  • FLICKR/PAUL SABLEMAN
  • A community group says City Hall is bungling the launch of a program designed to shore up vacant homes.

The grassroots community group that worked to persuade voters to raise taxes to shore up vacant homes in St. Louis has a message for City Hall: Don't mess this up.

In fact, the group is speaking out in desperate hope of derailing Board Bill 222, which could see fast-track passage as early as this morning at the city's Board of Aldermen.

Kevin McKinney, executive director of the St. Louis Association of Community Organizations, or SLACO, says the mayor's chief of staff had a warning for him in a meeting yesterday afternoon: "If the bill gets voted down, we'll blame SLACO."



Says McKinney, "SLACO will take that. We want to see this done correctly. And that may take longer than trying to ram it down people's throats."

It's SLACO that put the work into Prop NS, a ballot proposition that eked out passage by the narrowest of margins. By raising a very small tax on property owners — roughly $3 on a home valued at $150,000 — the proposition gives the city the authority to issue about $6 million in bonds every year for seven years.

SLACO believed the city would use the money to pay to fix up some the vacant homes owned by its Land Reutilization Authority, or LRA. With roughly $15,000 of investment per home, it believed those homes could be attractive to buyers and help the city eliminate its glut of 3,400 vacants.

But instead, McKinney charges, the city appears to be pushing through a plan to use the money to fix up as many as 200 homes that are already under option by developers and other prospective buyers.

McKinney says SLACO first became aware of the city's plans on December 12, and immediately cried foul. "I said, 'You can't just give Prop NS money to people who have properties already under option,'" he says. "That's not what the people voted on."

City staffers, however, insist that they don't have a plan involving those properties. LRA staff put that list together to begin a process of pricing out various components, they say; those are not necessarily the properties that will get the money from the bond issuance. (And indeed, several entities with properties on the list have since stated that they had no idea they were being included and no intention of asking for funds.)

Beyond that, they say that the board bill is merely the first step — a way to get the bond issuance started. There's no reason, they say, for SLACO to derail that.

Steve Conway, the chief of staff for Mayor Lyda Krewson, acknowledges that things got heated in his follow-up meeting with SLACO yesterday. But he blames the group. "They come in and just scream and slam on the table and yell at me," he says. "I have nothing to do with that."

Conway charges that Prop NS was "poorly written," and that the city has had to play clean up. He says he's intent on getting the bill fast-tracked because there is no reason to delay. The comptroller, he says, is insistent that the bill's language can't change.

He suggests SLACO is overstepping. "The group here, they want to control the process, control where the money goes, and that's not what the ballot language said," he says. "In the mean time, they're delaying the city from putting in place the program to get this money into people's hands." 

As for McKinney, he would like to see the city slow down, to develop a good process that involves community stakeholders, seeks to fix up properties that don't already have a prospective buyer, and — critically — provides transparency.

"The process might take a month [to develop]," McKinney says. "But these homes have been sitting vacant for years. What's a month, two more months? Let's do it right."

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at sarah.fenske@riverfronttimes.com

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