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$6 million program to restore homes begins in St. Louis

CITY HALL – The battle against derelict buildings in St. Louis just got a new leader and $6 million-a-year war chest. 

On Monday, Sean Thomas started work as leader of Project NS, a city effort to shore up salvageable homes owned by the Land Reutilization Authority.

In April 2017, voters approved Proposition NS (Neighborhood Stabilization), which authorized a small property tax increase allowing the city to sell up to $40 million in bonds for stabilizing residential property. That measure said that up to $6 million of the bond revenue should be issued a year.

According to the City Charter, Proposition NS needed a two-thirds vote to win. It won only 59 percent. But the city sued, contending that the measure had passed because it received the four-sevenths majority required by the state Constitution. The city won the suit.

The start of Project NS is one indicator Mayor Lyda Krewson mentioned at a news conference on Friday that the city was winning the fight against vacant buildings. Another indicator is that for several years now, the Land Reutilization Authority has sold more properties than it has acquired through tax sales. 

“We’re looking forward to that to be able to invest in roofs or tuckpointing, to make those buildings watertight, so that they are more attractive to someone who wants to buy a building but doesn’t want to take on the prior expense and difficulty of roofs, gutters and other work,” Krewson said of Project NS.

Thomas has been executive director of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, said Jacob Long, Krewson’s communications director. That group is a  not-for-profit, neighborhood-based community development corporation committed to bringing back Old North St. Louis.

Long said Thomas would not be available for an interview until he had been on the job for two or three days. 

Krewson said the city would use private contractors to do the work. 

The mayor also noted that 2019 was the fourth year in a row in which St. Louis sold more properties than it took in taxes. Last year, the LRA sold 552 properties and took in 272 through tax sales. 

“That’s in the right direction,” Krewson said. “We know we have too many vacant lots, but it is a trend in the right direction over those last four years.”

In addition, the city saw growth last year in the number of derelict buildings torn down. About 800 structures were demolished in 2019. About 350 were torn down in 2018, 150 in 2017 and 28 in 2016.

“These are buildings that have been in LRA’s inventory for a long time and are in very, very bad shape,” Krewson said. “Nothing good happens in a vacant building. Living on a block with the back off the building or the side has collapsed, you are very appreciative and encouraged by the fact that the city is taking that LRA building down. Because it improves the quality of life.”

Asked whether that is hollowing out neighborhoods that already are missing many of their houses, Krewson said, “That’s not particularly good, but that is better than having four or five buildings off of them.” She noted that a lot of illegal activity happens in those buildings. 

The mayor also said that about half of the city’s vacant buildings were owned by private owners. The city’s Building Division is working to hold them accountable, she said.

Jim Merkel

southsidemerkel@gmail.com Born and raised in St. Louis, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of four books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis. For more about Jim, visit www.jimmerkelthewriter.com.

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