North St. Louis group wants to reclaim vacant properties, fill them with homeowners
Community leaders in the Baden neighborhood of north St. Louis are going to court to compel absentee homeowners to repair vacant properties or release the houses to people willing to renovate them.
The Revitalization of Baden Association is working with Legal Services of Eastern Missouri to secure the homes from their absent owners. The neighborhood association also is seeking help from carpenters, plumbers and others who specialize in renovations to work with potential buyers or to purchase the homes themselves.
People who live in the Baden neighborhood want to see more homeowners there, said Gloria Gooden, the association's housing and economic development director.
“We have a desire to return the neighborhood back to its original state, which was mostly property owners,” Gooden said. “We're thinking that if you're a property owner, you have more invested in the neighborhood.”
Potential homeowners would need to finance the renovations and would have to pay any delinquent taxes. Gooden said the total costs could run up to $40,000. Homeowners would also need to agree to live in the house for at least three years before the title of the house is turned over to the owner.
Gooden said the neighborhood association made an intentional effort to focus on future homeowners rather than renters. Its members want to attract people who can live in the neighborhood and be active in the community.
“Most of us have been there for 20, 30, 40, 50 years and our children grew up on that street,” Gooden said. “If this is a resident, they have more of a vested interest in the neighborhood and the development of the neighborhood than a renter would probably have.”
The houses are privately owned, often by people who live out of state or out of the country, Legal Services of Eastern Missouri staff attorney Rachel Waterman said.
“That lawsuit allows our client, which is the neighborhood organization, to become a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the owner, which will compel the owner to fix up the property and make it code compliant,” Waterman said. “If they don't, it gives the neighborhood an opportunity to do that themselves, and in exchange for doing that work, take title to the property.”
Baden had one of the highest rates of Black homeownership in St. Louis until the 2008 foreclosure crisis, Waterman said. The crisis allowed many predatory investors to buy the houses at low costs and leave the houses neglected.
“Often we'll see that the properties for maybe a decade have just flipped between different [limited liability companies],” Waterman said. “So a Florida LLC will hold it for two years, do nothing with it, and then flip it to a Wyoming LLC who holds it for three years and then it goes through foreclosure again. Then the same process happens so they kind of get caught in this loop. And as they get worse and worse, it's unlikely that anyone is going to be able to rehab them.”
Waterman said the courts will often grant plaintiffs a default judgment if the owner doesn’t appear in court. The neighborhood association can then seek to rehab the property.
Gooden said she would like to get the neighborhood back to a state where the homeowners have a bigger role in her community.
“Before, the neighbors knew each other, they would come over, we would sit out in the yards and talk and laugh and do with each other, we knew each other on a more personalized level,” Gooden said. “We looked out for the well-being and welfare of each other and that's what I really would like to see the neighborhood get back to.”
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