‘We should be doing more’: In St. Louis and KC, fixing vacant property could reduce violence | Law and order

Walnut Park East residents tired of dilapidated neighborhood

James Nick mows the lawn at his rental property on Thrush Avenue in the Walnut Park neighborhood of St. Louis on Friday, July 23, 2021. “What are people supposed to do, that are trying to keep their properties clean?” Nick asks. He says he has issues keeping tenants long term because of the pests, like rats, that abandoned properties bring into areas. Photo by Colter Peterson, [email protected]

Walnut Park East residents tired of dilapidated neighborhood

A home is reflected in the broken window of an abandoned property along Genevieve Avenue in the Walnut Park neighborhood of St. Louis on Thursday, July 22, 2021. The abandoned property is one in a chain of five vacant and dilapidated houses on the street. Residents complain that the buildings are dropping their property values. Photo by Colter Peterson, [email protected]

ST. LOUIS — Ten people were killed in Nikki Howard’s neighborhood just last year. On her stretch of Genevieve Avenue, along the northeastern end of the Walnut Park East neighborhood, nearly 75% of the homes on the block have been abandoned. Some have been left to crumble for decades, though longtime residents remember when their street was cared for — and safer.

Howard operates a small barbecue stand next to a vacant home hardly a block from where she was shot eight years ago. As she works, a slight limp from the gun injury is noticeable. Her left calf bears the scar from where the bullet entered and exited her leg.

“I took a bullet for Genevieve,” she said with a smile, flipping ribs on a charcoal grill.

Across St. Louis, gun violence festers in neighborhoods riddled with vacant properties. The city has counted 25,000 of them. And the burden is not shared equally. North of Delmar Boulevard, which divides the city along racial and economic lines, 30% of properties are vacant, compared with 3% to the south.

All but one of the top 10 neighborhoods for shootings had higher-than-average vacant lot rates, according to a Kansas City Star analysis of data from the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive and the city’s land bank. Four of the top 10 neighborhoods had the highest rates for both shootings and vacant properties.

Public health researchers have shown that the built environment of a community — including negative features such as vacant lots and abandoned buildings — has an impact on the risk of gun violence. It is part of an overall picture of well-being in a neighborhood that includes factors such as income, housing, food security and education. Cleaning up and maintaining neighborhoods can reduce gun crimes, studies show.

And in recent years, St. Louis has committed tens of millions of dollars to doing just that.

Voters in 2017 approved a $40 million bond issue for rehabbing vacant houses and buildings owned by the city’s land bank. In June, a new land trust was established with a $1 million grant from the state and matching funds.

Those investments are needed to lift up communities harmed not only by high vacancy and crime but also poverty, said Neal Richardson, executive director of the St. Louis Development Corp.

“We should be doing more,” Richardson said. “Right now in the city of St. Louis, there are some streets, blocks and entire areas that are vacant. And that just creates pockets of challenges and dark spots within our city for crime to happen.”

On the other side of the state, Kansas City has not dedicated as many resources.

“Not many people recognize that the way a neighborhood looks and violent crime can relate,” Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas said. “When we come to the solution side, we don’t actually think about how, if we fix something like vacancy and housing, we can lower our violent crime.”

Fully repairing generations of structural racism and systemic disinvestment in either city, experts say, would mean reinvesting hundreds of millions of dollars. Some even put the figure as high as $1 billion.

Even so, Howard believes Walnut Park East in St. Louis can again be a safer, thriving place to live and raise a family.

Walnut Park East residents tired of dilapidated neighborhood

Nikki “Chassidy” Howard jokes with Frank Dunbar as she gives him his food on Genevieve Avenue in the Walnut Park neighborhood of St. Louis on Thursday, July 22, 2021. Nikki lived on Genevieve until 2015 when she and her son were shot in front of an abandoned property on the street, both survived. Photo by Colter Peterson, [email protected]

Someday she would like to convert one of the nearby vacant buildings to a brick-and-mortar restaurant serving rib tip sandwiches and chicken wings. She draws hope from the efforts of two neighbors, Troy Gardner and Sundy Whiteside, who remember what the neighborhood was once like and share a vision for its future. Both are longtime residents, and Whiteside is a leader in the St. Louis vacancy effort.

“It’s so hard to see this neighborhood look like this,” Howard said. “I really want this to one day be a community, and these two women are the reason I’m hopeful that it will. You still have people that stick around and care about this community.”

Life on Genevieve

The neighborhood was not always like this.

In 1975, when Troy Gardner’s mother bought a house on Genevieve, the neighborhood was thriving.

Every house on the block was cared for. Front lawns were mowed. Neighbors looked out for one another. Half of the residents were Black and the other half were white.

In the decades since, Gardner has seen how white flight, redlining and disinvestment have devastated this part of the city. She’s lived in her mother’s former home since the 1990s and now shares it with her dog, Cupcake.

Gardner, 67, is one of few residents remaining on her block. Across the street, six houses sit vacant and crumbling. The house to the left of hers hasn’t been occupied for 20 years, and it shows.

Walnut Park East residents tired of dilapidated neighborhood

Troy Gardner and her dog, Cupcake, sit on the front porch of her house along Genevieve Avenue in the Walnut Park neighborhood of St. Louis on Thursday, July 22, 2021. Gardner used to enjoy sitting on her front porch with Cupcake but a recent uptick in shootings and other violence has left her scared to sit out front. A bullet recently damaged an area right behind her chair. Photo by Colter Peterson, [email protected]

Around the corner on Beacon Avenue, the Johnson family used to own a candy store. But that has since been abandoned, and Gardner tries to avoid that block because it isn’t safe.

As families and businesses moved out, gun violence moved in behind them.

Bullet holes now dot Gardner’s home, including one over the headboard in her mother’s old bedroom. Another punctured the storm drain just above her rocking chair on the front porch. She has awakened at night to the sound of automatic gunfire, 60 rounds at a time.

She was dropping a slice of pie at a neighbor’s house last year when she had to throw herself to the ground to avoid bullets flying down the street.

“For the first time in my life, I am scared,” Gardner said. “I have never once been scared. But I am now, and I am so tired.”

Up the block is Whiteside, whom Gardner has known since she was a young girl. Together they are working on making their little corner of the world a better place.

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Several years ago, Whiteside knocked on the door of a stranger’s home in an affluent section of south St. Louis.

When the homeowner answered, Whiteside told a story of a sinking ship.

She was seeking voter support for a bond issue to rehab thousands of vacant homes in St. Louis. This was part of a citywide effort Whiteside had joined in 2015 through the St. Louis Association of Community Organizations

In talking with voters, Whiteside would compare St. Louis to a large ship with a hole in one side. While people on the side with the leaking hole are frightfully aware of how the ship is sinking, those on the other side remain oblivious.

Her point: Even if residents in one neighborhood don’t live with the same struggles as the other, all of them should care because it affects the whole region.

“We have to think of ourselves as a big unit rather than just 79 individual neighborhoods,” Whiteside said. “So when something happens over here, we have to work together to bring solutions and not make it the burden of one geographical area.”

Walnut Park East residents tired of dilapidated neighborhood

“I don’t like that we have to beautify the side no one sees,” says Bruce Jameson as he repairs a privacy fence that was damaged by falling limbs on an abandoned property on Genevieve Avenue in the Walnut Park neighborhood of St. Louis on Thursday, July 22, 2021. The fence belongs to Troy Gardner who is aggravated the fence was broken but hasn’t asked for the abandoned house next door to be torn down, because it adds some protection from bullets. Photo by Colter Peterson, [email protected]

She and fellow organizers were campaigning for Proposition Neighborhood Stabilization, also known as Proposition NS, a $40 million bond to fund improvements on vacant homes owned by the St. Louis Land Reutilization Authority.

The measure passed in April 2017, but a lengthy court battle followed. It wasn’t until last year that money became available to fix properties. The $40 million is distributed over roughly seven years. Each year, about $6 million will go toward fixing 200 vacant homes.

The reutilization authority, which is staffed by the St. Louis Development Corp., will provide up to $30,000 to repair a single-family home or $50,000 for a multifamily unit or commercial property.

The money can’t make the homes new again but is meant to stabilize them so they can be sold to homeowners, rehabbers or small developers.

One crucial part, Whiteside said, is that the people in the neighborhoods have a say over which properties are selected for rehab. Anyone can nominate a property, which is then assessed to see what work needs to be done and the likelihood of the fixed-up home selling at auction.

The price of the homes is supposed to remain affordable. A rehabbed home in Walnut Park would sell for around $500, Whiteside said. The idea is not to entice gentrification but to retain residents and give them the chance to be homeowners.

In June, a $1 million grant from the Missouri Department of Conservation and matching dollars from public and private sources established a St. Louis Community Land Trust.

That will create a mechanism for community ownership, with a board primarily made up of residents of the neighborhoods. That way, plans will be made with neighborhoods in mind and the people who live there benefit, said Laura Ginn, a strategist for the St. Louis Land Reutilization Authority.

Whiteside serves as board president of the St. Louis Association of Community Organizations and co-chairs the Vacancy Collaborative’s advisory committee. She sees more that needs to be done and wants more long-term and sustainable funding for improving vacant land.

Walnut Park East residents tired of dilapidated neighborhood

Abandoned properties are seen from an empty lot on Genevieve Avenue in the Walnut Park neighborhood of St. Louis on Thursday, July 22, 2021. Residents complain that the buildings are dropping their property values. Photo by Colter Peterson, [email protected]

Ginn estimates that to clean up all the vacant property in the city’s land bank, it would cost $100 million a year for five years, and then $15 million a year after that for maintenance.

Kansas City

The numbers are just as staggering in Kansas City.

“I would estimate it’s at least a billion dollars worth of investment needed to help historically disinvested communities in Kansas City,” said Geoff Jolley, executive director of the Greater Kansas City Local Initiative Support Corp.

“And when I tell funders that, they get real nervous,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘But we’ve put a few million dollars into this.’ But a few million dollars isn’t going to change a neighborhood that has had years of lack of intention and investment.”

For money to be spent wisely and bring effective change, advocates and researchers say they must work with neighborhood leaders who know their community best.

The nonprofit Urban Neighborhood Initiative has recommended that Kansas City create a bond issue similar to St. Louis’ Proposition NS.

Neighborhood leaders have long been trying to address vacancies and blight. It was one of the first things Dianne Cleaver heard about when she became president of the Initiative in 2013.

“All of our neighborhoods were very concerned about their vacancies because they breed crime and blight,” Cleaver said.

Two ZIP codes with the most vacancy in the city — 64127 and 64130 — are also home to neighborhoods that experience the most gun violence, according to a Kansas City Star analysis of land bank addresses and shooting locations.

In 2015, the Urban Neighborhood Initiative started a program to rehab vacant lots and buildings in 10 neighborhoods, including Blue Hills, Ivanhoe and Manheim Park.

When Vacant to Vibrant started, Cleaver said, roughly 50% of the land in the 10 neighborhoods was vacant. Now it’s down to 39%.

Kansas City doesn’t have nearly as much publicly owned vacant land as St. Louis — the city’s land bank currently manages nearly 3,000 vacant properties of all kinds.

But Kansas City has not invested in solutions the way other cities have.

Some efforts in recent years, including a citywide sales tax for development on the Prospect Corridor and a housing trust fund, have included goals of rehabbing vacant properties but also were focused on other priorities.

A housing trust fund established by the Kansas City Council in 2018 received no funding until last year, when the city put in $12.5 million in federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan. The trust fund is meant to focus on housing, not vacancy specifically.

“We are calling for a more comprehensive approach instead of these piecemeal approaches. They are piecemeal because we have piecemeal powers,” Cleaver said. “So we have to find a way to get significant dollars into this issue, then you can begin to look at more comprehensive approaches.

“Funding really is the biggest challenge; it’s not like the city doesn’t want to address this issue.”

Katie Kull • 314-340-8087

@KatieKull1 on Twitter

[email protected]