According to the United States Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the city of Saint Louis has an estimated 21.5-percent residential vacancy rate. This rate compares unfavorably to the 12-percent rate for the nation as a whole and aligns closely with those found in Cleveland, Ohio, and Buffalo, N.Y. In raw numbers, this amounts to 38,743 empty housing units within the boundaries of Missouri’s second-largest city.
With vacancy pervasive throughout our community, St. Louisans may often logically conclude that said emptiness is the direct consequence of the stark reality that persons simply do not want to live here in the same numbers that they once did. In fact, it would be difficult to argue that losing nearly two-thirds of the city’s peak population would have a negligible impact on the appearance of the city’s landscape.
But does so much property necessarily remain vacant from a lack of market demand for single-family homes, larger yards, and new business locations, or could vacancy be the product of market distortion by a governmental agency?
At the urging of a colleague, I attended my first ever hearing of the St. Louis Land Reutilization Authority (LRA) on Wednesday morning, looking for an answer.
Within moments of its commencement, the meeting shattered every expectation that I had for a body with the following statutory mandate (emphasis and link added):
The land reutilization authority is hereby created to foster the public purpose of returning land which is in a nonrevenue generating nontax producing status, to effective utilization in order to provide housing, new industry, and jobs for the citizens of any city operating under the provisions of sections 92.700 to 92.920 and new tax revenues for said city.
Instead of operating in a manner consistent with its above-enumerated legislative intent, the LRA appeared to operate according to a morass of opaque cultural practices that stand divorced from any legislative language. Indeed, the insistence by the assembled commissioners that prospective buyers of tax-foreclosed properties have the express written support of the alderman representing the ward that is home to the vacant property struck me as patently absurd. (After all, the word “alderman” does not appear in Chapter 92 of the Revised Statutes of Missouri.) Five people attempted to purchase property from the LRA this month without a letter of support from their alderman. Of those five, four offers were rejected, because the LRA purportedly treats a lack of aldermanic support as a reason to reject a prospective buyer’s offer.
After witnessing Wednesday’s proceedings and perusing the many purchase offers on the LRA agenda, I can say with great certainty that much of the vacancy subject to the LRA’s jurisdiction in St. Louis city is not a consequence of a lack of private demand for property; rather, much of it derives from government legitimation and infringements on the free market.