Vacancies in St. Louis: Washington University Report is Nothing New to Black St. Louis

By Mary Adcock

In the Greater Ville neighborhood of north St. Louis, these five homes are vacant, four which are owned by the Land Reutilization Authority (LRA). Two are scheduled to be demolished. This block contains 14 vacant properties (Photo credit: Robert Cohen, St. Louis Post-Dispatch). 

If you walk through North St. Louis, you can see vacant buildings and trash piling up in the alleys. As potholes cause bumps in the road, you will see liquor stores and fast food restaurants instead of grocery stores.

In August 2019, Washington University released a report, Environmental Racism in St. Louis. According to the St. Louis Vacancy Collaborative, more than 90 percent of about 25,000 vacant properties and lots are located in majority-black neighborhoods. While some may blame these vacancies on a lack of concern from residents, many families have lived in these houses for decades. As the houses get older, their maintenance becomes more difficult.  Developers have also been purchasing property in these low-income neighborhoods. More houses fall into disrepair as landowners neglect the property, pushing residents out of their neighborhoods. 

The Land Reutilization Authority (LRA) owns about 12,000 vacancies in the city. St. Louis has started a Dollar House program, where about 500 sites are being sold for $1. While this is an exciting opportunity for affordable housing, many of these homes have been vacant for years and require intensive repairs. Those purchasing the land must prove the homes are safe, have been repaired and continue living in them for at least three years to keep the property. It also has the potential for businesses to buy the land for cheap and let it degrade or sell it to large businesses. 

This is especially true in north St. Louis near the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency site, a military agency that received this land free of cost so the city of St. Louis can keep those jobs in the city, instead of St. Louis County. 

What is happening is families, many of them black, who have been living in these homes for decades, are having their land seized through eminent domain or are unable to afford their homes anymore as developers prepare the area to become a business district with amenities to support the military project. While the job availability sounds good in theory, in reality many current residents of north St. Louis will probably not have access to these jobs due to disparities in education and poverty. 

As homes fall into disrepair, the cost of utilities rise among people who are already struggling to pay their bills. Old pipes and paint let lead flow into poor and black St. Louisans water, homes and bodies while power plants and demolitions of vacant buildings increase environmental irritants like mold and asbestos that can lead to asthma, heart problems, reduced lung function and premature death. Life expectancy among black St. Louisans in the Jeff-Vanderlou neighborhood is 18 years lower than white residents of Clayton. Children are affected too. While four of every one thousand white children are hospitalized, 42 of every 1000 black children in St. Louis are. 

The Washington University report calls for all St. Louisans to have access to safe and affordable housing, clean air, reliable and affordable public transportation, healthy and accessible food and neighborhood-based revitalization efforts.

Many organizations are already doing this work in St. Louis. The report was created on behalf of Action St. Louis, Arch City Defenders, Dutchtown South Community Corporation and the Sierra Club. 

North St. Louis is known for its urban gardens that give residents access to fresh produce, including Earthdance Organic Farm School, For the People-St. Louis, New Roots Urban Farm and Urban Harvest. For the People also assists residents with issues with their landlords, feed unhoused folks alongside Potbangerz and help St. Louisans access political education. Many hope to see empty lots revitalized with fresh produce where communities can gather together. 

“The intent is not to have it be another report or set of data points that sit on a shelf somewhere,” Kayla Reed, director of Action St. Louis said. “It’s connecting these points together with the hope that we actually move forward with action.” 

Environmental Racism in St. Louis Report: