How lawyers are helping north St. Louis advocates deal with their neighborhoods’ biggest problems
Tonnie Glispie-Smith points to a particular duplex on her block as a turning point for her West End neighborhood in north St. Louis. It was just one vacant property among many causing safety concerns and other issues for Glispie-Smith and her neighbors. But this one really stood out.
The police kept being called out to it, with squatters and drug overdoses a perpetual problem. At one point, Glispie-Smith recalls, a woman ran out of the duplex saying she’d just been raped. Another time, a gun was found in the yard.
Even after trying to take the property owner to court, Glispie-Smith wasn’t seeing progress. Then she connected with Peter Hoffman, managing attorney for the Neighborhood Vacancy Initiative, an effort of Legal Services of Eastern Missouri.
Hoffman was eager to help. After Glispie-Smith gave him a tour of her neighborhood and he heard more about the duplex situation, he asked if she could put him in touch with the property owner. He offered to help the owner explore options.
“From that point, Peter was able to get the property sold for this gentleman, and now it’s renovated into a beautiful duplex and not causing any issues anymore,” Glispie-Smith told St. Louis on the Air.
For Glispie-Smith and her neighbors, it was a much-needed jolt of hope.
“What it resulted in was people were able to see, ‘Oh, we can really do something about this,’” Glispie-Smith said.
Since then, the Neighborhood Vacancy Initiative has partnered not only with Glispie-Smith’s West End neighborhood but three others in north St. Louis. The initiative, begun in early 2018, uses lawyers working for free to help neighborhood advocates tackle disinvestment and displacement, provide vital home-repair assistance, and hold predatory and absentee landlords accountable.
“Everybody sees the physical blight — the broken windows, the trash, the overgrown weeds, the dumping, the missing gutters,” Hoffman explained. “But often what underlies that is this legal blight. Sometimes that’s a title problem, a mistake in a legal description, an heir’s property issue, where maybe an owner died and they didn’t have a will that was probated. So all of these properties end up being stuck in legal limbo. And you almost need a lawyer to get involved [to] help get that property put in the right direction.”
Last month, Hoffman and his team announced they’ll be expanding the Neighborhood Vacancy Initiative, thanks to a $371,000 federal Pro Bono Innovation Fund grant.
“This program — to really have pro bono lawyers support neighborhoods — is relatively new. ... It started just as me as the only attorney, a pro bono lawyer,” Hoffman explained. “But thanks to the support of the city and of the Legal Services Corporation, which is a big federal funder, we are now one of the top, largest pro bono projects in the country.”
The initiative relies on pro bono partnerships with various St. Louis law firms, each providing services to a particular neighborhood. Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner works with the West End, Husch Blackwell with Academy-Sherman Park, Thompson Coburn with Old North, and Stinson in Hyde Park.
The new grant will bring law firm Lewis Rice into the effort, pairing its team with the Park Place Housing and Economic Development Corp. (which serves the Fountain Park and Lewis Place neighborhoods). Hoffman hopes to recruit at least one additional law firm over the next two years.
For engaged citizens like Glispie-Smith, having legal help can prove pivotal.
“If the neighborhood has reached out to that property owner and said, ‘Hey, what’s going on here? You need to do something with this property,’ 99% of the time I think the owner will respond to that,” Glispie-Smith said. “But for the ones that are truly stuck, and we can’t get that owner to be responsive, then sometimes we have to go to court.”
She said she’s been working with Bryan Cave associate Tim O’Connell on issues in the West End.
“I can reach out to him just to run various things by him,” Glispie-Smith explained. “[For example], we had an apartment building that caught on fire. And a lot of times in our neighborhoods, when buildings catch on fire, they just stay like that, and they stay burnt out. So we reached out to them to say ‘What can be done about this?’ just in case the person doesn’t take the building completely down or the house completely down.
“So it’s just good to have that relationship that we can either call or email that person, and they’ll get back to us to give us some information and just listen. And they’ve attended neighborhood meetings so they understand what’s happening in the neighborhood and where they can fit in as well.”
Glispie-Smith added that, in her view, more than property values are at stake. Her goal is “improving our way of life and safety,” she said, citing two different incidents in recent years where girls walking in north St. Louis were dragged into abandoned houses.
“I have my daughter — 17 now — but I’m thinking about all those things. She should be able to walk outside safely, without having those things happen,” Glispie-Smith said.
Hoffman noted that the Neighborhood Vacancy Initiative is focused on preventing new vacancies along with addressing properties that are already a problem.
“Maybe an older homeowner [has] been in the neighborhood a long time, and they want to take advantage of maybe the neighborhood starting to turn the corner and see investment,” the attorney said. “But maybe they have a title issue, they can’t get a bank loan, or they can’t get minor [or] major home repair from the city.
“So we do a lot of curative work. … And then we also, thanks to this pro bono support, we’re able to do clinics in the community and help residents with things like estate planning so that their property can be passed on to the next generation, and we don’t have another abandoned house contributing to these problems that Tonnie just described.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.