Try Selling More Vacant City Property
Yesterday, Saint Louis city aldermen spent more than seven hours discussing cuts to the city’s budget. They made cuts to trash pickup, and to overtime pay. Then, Post-Dispatch reporter David Hunn dryly wrote, “they began transferring money into programs they preferred: for more lifeguards, building demolition and vacant-lot grass-cutting crews, as well as unspecified programs for the Affordable Housing Commission and crime prevention ‘professional services.'”
I know that there’s no simple solution to the city’s budgetary situation. If Saint Louis needs more money for building demolition and grass-cutting on vacant lots, though, perhaps the city should step up its efforts to sell its vacant property.
The city owns more than 10,000 vacant properties, and most of them are owned by the Land Reutilization Authority (LRA), an agency tasked with getting that property back into private productive use. Yet we found that the LRA had been rejecting roughly one out of every two offers to purchase vacant city property. Why? The most common reason was that the property was being held for “future development.” Unfortunately, the future development would frequently fail to materialize, and the city continues to hold these vacant lots (and pay to cut the grass).
Please, city aldermen, let’s try something different. If the city sells more of its vacant property, it will collect more in sales revenue, and more in property tax revenue. Additionally, the city won’t have to pay to cut the grass on the lots sold. Why not try? Why not take a chance on individuals with offers today instead of waiting for something “better” in the distant future?
“Speculating” is a dirty word in Saint Louis city. There is a fear that people will buy up city property and hold it vacant for many years. Unfortunately, though, when the city turns down offers today in the hope for something “better,” it is acting as a speculator itself. But a government speculator is worse — government employees deciding to hold land vacant for years don’t feel the financial consequences the way a private investor would, and so have much less incentive to find a productive use for the land. It’s time the city stopped speculating and instead let private individuals take on the risks and rewards of city development.