How is it that the City of St. Louis owns so many empty buildings and vacant lots? Here’s a little history:
Since 1950 or so, the City has lost 60 percent of its population — nearly 500,000 people. These people left behind thousands of acres of property, both lots and buildings, many of which ended up being owned by City agencies, like the LRA, when nobody else bought them and the taxes weren’t paid. Our Planning Director asserts rhetorically that this was an abandonment greater than the flight caused by Hurricane Katrina, but without the subsequent federal funding boom to address the problems.
The City’s current residents now pay for all that abandoned property’s up-keep: $5.2 million a year just to mow the lots, haul away debris, and board up the first floors of abandoned buildings; another $3 million a year to demolish the most dangerous structures. But, the problems are still far larger than the available resources. For the past six years, my primary focus has been to preserve and sell what we can. We have sought — and received historic status for thousands of buildings throughout the City, making their rehab eligible for tax credits. And we have also worked to identify and demolish those structures that cannot be saved or that have no rehabilitation potential, placing a priority on demolishing those buildings that present immediate public safety hazards.
Our efforts have had some positive results. There were 2,500 abandoned buildings in the LRA-owned inventory in 2001. Today, there are only 1,500 — with many of the once-vacant buildings acquired, safely rehabbed, and productively re-used by private individuals and businesses. We expect the positive trends to continue, but it is not going to happen overnight. Today’s City residents will continue to pay for years to maintain the properties of private owners who abandoned them.
Not every vacant property causes problems, but some properties ruin entire City blocks. If you live near a problem property (whether the LRA owns it or not), you should tell us. We will do the best we can to address the issues the property raises.