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Bill would ask St. Louis voters if owners should pay to convert multifamily homes

Dorothy Hunter grew up in this red brick house, built in 1905, in the Tower Grove South neighborhood of St. Louis. Today, it's occupied by a another family. (March 15, 2017)
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
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Homes line the streets of the Tower Grove South neighborhood in south St. Louis, an area that has experienced some of the highest conversions over the past five years by rehabbers flipping multi-unit buildings into single-family homes.

A bill introduced Friday by St. Louis Alderwoman Megan Green would allow a public vote on whether the owners of multifamily buildings should pay to reduce the number of units.

The provision would charge people in some neighborhoods $10,000 to remove dwelling units in a single building. That would include converting a duplex into a single-family home, or converting a four-flat into a duplex.

The money from those fees would contribute to a fund to create, improve and maintain affordable housing.

Home prices are rising in parts of the city, said Green, whose 15th Ward includes parts of south St. Louis. When people buy multifamily homes and convert them to buildings with fewer occupants, the conversions deplete housing stock in those neighborhoods.

That forces some lower-income people to move away from popular areas of the city that have historically boasted a mix of races and incomes, she said.

“We can’t maintain that diversity, and we can’t maintain being an inclusive community if our housing decisions aren’t allowing the people who have historically lived in our community to stay in our community,” Green said.

The surcharge wouldn’t apply to some parts of the city with lower average housing prices, she said.

It also would not apply to owners who provide the post-converted property to people making less than 60% of the city’s median income.

“We really wanted to target something in the neighborhoods that are seeing more gentrification, like Tower Grove, like Shaw, like Fox Park and Benton Park, which are seeing a lot of these conversions happening,” Green said.

The city assessor’s office estimates St. Louis has lost more than 300 homes in the past five years as property owners converted them to single-family dwellings.

The assessor’s office also found about two-thirds of those conversions occurred in just eight of the city’s 79 neighborhoods: Tower Grove South, Tower Grove East, Benton Park, Fox Park, Shaw, Dutchtown and Benton Park West.

It’s vital the city pays attention to multi-unit conversions and lack of low- and medium-income housing in south St. Louis, said Annissa McCaskill, the executive director of Dutchtown South Community Corporation, an organization that develops and advocates for affordable housing.

“The simple fact is, if it’s a fourplex and it's being converted into a single-family home, what happens to the other three families that are there or who could have been there?” she said. “It’s a matter of displacement, and it adds to our unhoused issues.”

However, McCaskill isn’t sure the proposal is the way to correct the problem. The bills’ sponsors hadn’t contacted her before it was introduced Friday, she said.

She’s willing to consider a housing surcharge initiative but is concerned it would affect groups like hers working to develop affordable living spaces.

McCaskill also would like to see the city invest in rehabbing vacant homes to increase St. Louis’ housing stock.

“Of course we want more money to go toward affordable housing, we just don’t know much about this mechanism,” McCaskill said.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

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