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St. Louis Equity Fund celebrates 25 years of providing affordable housing

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 13, 2013 - If this article were to appear in the Ladue News or Town & Style, you might find it decorated with lots of pretty pictures of the people who turned out for the St. Louis’ Equity Fund’s 25th anniversary party Thursday (Sept. 12) at the Randall Gallery downtown. And such a handsome and stylish lot they were.

We will instead dwell on brick and mortar, not flesh and blood. At the gallery Thursday, you could find photographs of new and restored buildings that gave hope and promise to thousands of St. Louisans in need of affordable housing and services. Many were built in pockets of St. Louis that suffered from neglect and now are on the way back.

This is thanks to the St. Louis Equity Fund Inc., (SLEFI) which got started in 1988 with $75,000 in seed money from Civic Progress. The fund has been led since August 2005 by John J. Wuest, who joined on shortly after he retired as vice chairman of Heartland Bank. (Full disclosure: Wuest is my neighbor and a backer of the Beacon.)

Wuest is also a drummer who plays locally with a jazz band. That works metaphorically as he is the guy who drums up millions of dollars in support and investment for affordable housing. The running total since inception of the fund: $313 million in investments, which have leveraged $588 million for 4,160 units of affordable housing.

Wuest served as master of ceremonies at the anniversary bash in an affable and understated way as he either called to the microphone or cited captains of industry, lawmakers, consultants and advisers who helped make the Equity Fund a success. Clearly, it took a village to restore villages throughout St. Louis.

Though everyone involved is wonderfully well-intentioned, this isn’t charity work. What SLEFI offers, according to its website, are “low risk investments that provide a market rate of return and a steady source of equity to partners and developers in the St. Louis region.”

In other words, the development of affordable housing has to be a good deal for everyone, not just the tenants, but the folks who put up the dough. Tax incentives help lubricate the gears.

Twenty-five years in business and homes for more than 4,000 families suggest that it is working. Wuest calls SLEFI “a nexus of collaboration.” You can see the results of this collaboration by clicking on this link and taking a tour of SLEFI’s projects.

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