Grant Will Support Free Legal Help In St. Louis Neighborhoods With Vacant Properties | St. Louis Public Radio

Grant Will Support Free Legal Help In St. Louis Neighborhoods With Vacant Properties

Oct 21, 2019

In 2018, Mayor Lyda Krewson’s office found that of the 129,000 properties in the city of St. Louis, about 25,000 were vacant and abandoned.

Beginning this month, residents and community organizations in four high-vacancy neighborhoods will have extra support in reducing that number. 

Legal Services of Eastern Missouri (LSEM) received a two-year grant from Legal Services Corporation to expand its efforts with its Neighborhood Vacancy Initiative (NVI).

The West End, Hyde Park, Academy and Old North St. Louis neighborhoods will benefit from about $316,000.

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The high-vacancy areas will receive legal support from volunteer attorneys with St. Louis firms. 

“Vacancy in St. Louis is an enormous problem,” said Peter Hoffman, managing attorney of the Neighborhood Vacancy Initiative. “Vacancy not only presents a challenge, but it also presents an opportunity to think differently about development in the region.”

Hoffman wants to keep residents at the forefront of the program. He said the funding will allow the initiative to provide free legal assistance aimed at reducing vacancy, promoting neighborhood stability and community-driven revitalization. 

'Radical collaboration'

In April 2018, NVI began helping low-income residents in the city deal with vacant homes and buildings. According to its annual report, more than 30 clients received legal assistance with titles and estate planning. Also, attorneys filed about 40 lawsuits against absentee property owners. 

“Through the radical collaboration between people of diverse backgrounds, perspectives and skills, we can start to build a framework that supports the equitable development of our cities' historic neighborhoods,” Hoffman said.

Krewson hopes LSEM’s restoration efforts will curb violence in the four high-vacancy communities and bring life back to the areas plagued by a high number of dilapidated homes and deserted buildings. 

With the help of other partnerships, the city destroyed 28 properties in 2016. 

In 2017, 149 structures were demolished. The city flattened 358 properties in 2018, and this year it will demolish about 700 vacant homes. Still, Krewson said demolition is not always the city’s first choice.

“I’m very excited about this possibility of having more volunteers, more efforts of this problem of addressing vacancy,” Krewson said.

Eradicate and preserve

Though the funds give direct access to legal aid to residents and neighborhood associations, Hoffman said there will be challenges.

“There has been a lack of a housing market in a lot of the communities we serve for a very long time,” Hoffman said. “Real estate has been transferred over-the-counter, and there are lots of title issues, but even if we are able to clean up the title issues and find someone who wants to redevelop a house, that financing piece is something we will have to work on within the next coming years.”

Neighborhood associations are working closely with the attorneys to educate their residents on how to resolve land title problems and proper estate preparation.

Fatimah Muhammad, vice chair of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association, said her community members are hoping the grant money will eradicate the vacant properties and preserve historic properties in the neighborhood.

Muhammad said that about 30 years ago, Hyde Park residents started to see the impact of what deserted homes did to property values and home insurance rates in their community. 

Some community members were apprehensive about the initiative, but Muhammad said residents are now more open to collaborating to rehabilitate their area.

“There was fear of gentrification, but change brings gentrification,” she said. “But we will help maintain those homes and make sure those that have been here and seniors have the wherewithal to keep their properties up to code and help with taxes.”

Muhammad said funds from the grant can help the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association with research and legal filings, but she needs her community to come out and voice concerns at association meetings in order to make the most of the services.

Andrea Y. Henderson is part of the public-radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City and Portland, Oregon. Follow Andrea at @drebjournalist

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