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Neighborhood Vacancy Initiative marks successes, mulls expansion

Neighborhood Vacancy Initiative

Rehabber Collin Garrity enters a vacant house on Chippewa Avenue in the Marine Villa neighborhood of St. Louis. Photo by Chuck Ramsay for Legal Services of Eastern Missouri

Legal Services of Eastern Missouri’s Neighborhood Vacancy Initiative this month marks two years of renovating or demolishing vacant properties in St. Louis communities, increasing a sense of local pride while improving the safety and viability of the neighborhoods.

Local residents work with the Neighborhood Vacancy Initiative to fill the holes in their communities. The initiative helps to track down and litigate against absentee property owners, facilitate property sales and transfers, organize community associations, find funding for repair projects and assist low-income homeowners in estate planning, among other services.

Since its inception in April 2018, the initiative has opened more than 150 cases on behalf of local groups, about 50 of which deal with vacant and dilapidated properties. Almost two dozen cases resulted in affirmative litigation against absentee property owners living as far away as Israel.

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson’s office estimated in 2018 that the city contained about 25,000 vacant properties, many of which cause safety and fire hazards, lower surrounding property values and diminish residents’ sense of wellbeing.

“[The problem is] not just that there’s a lot of vacant buildings, but it’s the impact that has on quality of life, public health and mental health. It affects not only folks who live near vacancy but also the community as a whole and our entire region,” said Tara Aubuchon, vacancy coordinator with STL Vacancy Collaborative, a coalition that works with the initiative to address vacancy and promote community engagement.

“Legal Services has been a key partner . . . participating in our working groups and providing their legal expertise about everything from code enforcement to anti-displacement and vacancy prevention,” she said.

LSEM Executive Director Dan Glazier said the initiative aligns with the agency’s mission to help low-income people access legal representation and aid programs.

“To get in there and try to bring these neighborhoods back, house by house, building by building, that is key, and it connects to much of what else we do,” he said.

The initiative expanded to five staff members in October after receiving a two-year grant of $316,000 from Legal Services Corporation, the national nonprofit organization that provides funding to legal aid organizations around the country. The grant will benefit the West End, Hyde Park, Academy and Old North St. Louis neighborhoods, where the initiative’s work will be supported by volunteer attorneys from Stinson, Husch Blackwell, Thompson Coburn and Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner.

Attorney Peter Hoffman participated in a similar project in Kansas City before returning to St. Louis, his hometown, as the initiative’s founder. He’s worked with more than a dozen community organizations to form associations, draft development plans and interact with absentee property owners.

Neighborhood Vacancy Initiative

Scattered debris remains in a basement room in a vacant house on Blair Avenue in the Hyde Park neighborhood of St. Louis. Photo by Chuck Ramsay for Legal Services of Eastern Missouri

Hoffman said vacant housing is a common problem in post-industrial cities, but St. Louis has exacerbating issues such as its relatively cheap real estate market.

“A lot of times, I’ll file suit and hear from an out-of-state owner who purchased a large portfolio of properties. They, quote unquote, ‘flipped’ one or two, made their money back and the rest of [the properties] don’t have any value so they kind of let them go,” Hoffman said. “Because they are out of state, it’s really hard for municipal code enforcement or local prosecutors to hold those absentee property owners accountable.”

Tonnie Smith, a West End advocate, worked with the initiative to address a property frequently broken into on Clemens Avenue. She was apprehensive for her teenage daughter to pass the house on her way to walk the dog or babysit for neighbors.

“There are certain houses where we say, ‘Don’t walk by there,’ because we know [there are] people who are on drugs in those houses illegally,” she said.

Smith decided to take action after a woman allegedly was raped inside the house. A gun was found in the backyard, where neighbors often saw used needles, she said.

Community residents sent a letter to the property owner without response. It took contacting the city’s nuisance officer to reach the property owner, who finally called Smith.

“I said, ‘You can sell this property, and Peter Hoffman can help you with it to get this under control,’” Smith said. “[The owner] was an older gentleman, and there was a titling issue. Peter worked it all out with him. If it were not for [Hoffman], the property wouldn’t have been sold, and now it’s currently under renovation.”

The initiative helped to organize the West End South Community Improvement District, which is raising money to establish a sculpture park in two vacant lots to promote the Central West End Historic District. It also helps low-income homeowners maintain their residences through estate planning and home improvement projects. Helping elderly people legally leave a residence to their progeny after their death allows families to remain in longstanding homes.

“[Beneficiary deeds] don’t take very long to do, and it’s also a very good project for private attorneys to work with us on a pro bono basis,” Glazier said.

Litigation filed against property owners has garnered more attention, but some of the initiative’s most important work is in estate planning due to the high volume of need for the service.

“We are proud of everything we do, but I think the fact that we’ve been able to help neighborhoods to become more stable by allowing that clean transfer of title or allowing people to stay in their communities is something we’re really proud of, too,” Hoffman said.

The initiative still has a long way to go to meet needs in the city and eventually expand into the county. It will require additional partnerships and even more pro bono work, which already has added up to 4,200 hours in less than two years.

“We’d be really interested in trying to work with community groups who are struggling with vacancy in St. Louis County,” Hoffman said. “We think there’s more opportunities for pro bono involvement outside of the four firms who have partnered with four neighborhoods under this grant. . . . We’re working on increasing our own capacity to be able to get more attorneys involved and working on these cases.”