Timothy B. Lee

I didn't care for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's article on eminent domain activist Jim Roos. I have to admit I take the article personally because I've known Roos for two years and have found him to be one of the hardest-working advocates for the rights of ordinary people I've ever met.

The story is a "he said, she said" story in which city officials' trumped-up allegations against Roos are reported alongside Roos's responses. Since most readers don't know any of the parties and aren't going to do research for themselves, this gives the (erroneous, in my view) impression that there must be something shady about Roos or the Post wouldn't have published such a critical article. Here's an example:

Roos' properties have drawn complaints for graffiti and trash buildup. This year alone, city inspectors cited Roos' properties for several infractions, including broken or missing window panes, a collapsed fence, a collapsed porch, a partly collapsed wall and improper display of address numbers.

Even the "End Eminent Domain Abuse" mural, which can be seen heading north where Gravois Avenue becomes Tucker Boulevard, has been cited. Last month, the Department of Public Safety issued Roos a notice for having an "illegal sign" and ordered it removed.

Other than the mural, Roos says that the buildings cited by the city had the violations before he purchased them. Roos says his rental units are "decent," though not glamorous.

"It's ordinary housing," Roos said. "But durable, safe."

Is Roos is telling the truth that his citations are only for buildings he's recently purchased? I'm willing to bet he is (which would be an effective rebuttal to Roddy's insinuation that he's a slumlord) but the reporter didn't check, something I expect he could have done fairly easily. Instead, he just repeated Roddy's allegations and left the reader with the impression that Roos is probably up to something shady.

The story also glosses over why Roos is running housing in slums in the first place. Like most cities, Saint Louis has a shortage of affordable housing. Low income people have difficulty finding housing that's "durable, safe"—and affordable. Roos provides such housing. And having seen both his office and his home, I can say with confidence he's not getting rich in the process.

So what does the city do to help out?

A city-backed commission, led by the Missouri Botanical Garden, used eminent domain to acquire nearly two dozen buildings Roos owned or managed in the McRee Town neighborhood.

That's when Roos said he first became a "victim." To hear him tell it, McRee Town, left alone, would have been the next Soulard.

Not so, says veteran Alderman Joe Roddy.

"It was a neighborhood in a free fall," said Roddy, who cited the area's high crime rate.

Today, the neighborhood is home to a suburban-style subdivision — Botanical Heights, with homes listing for more than $300,000 — which Roddy points to as evidence that eminent domain can work.

That sounds lovely except for one little detail: poor people can't afford $300,000 homes. The city has "solved" the problem of poverty in McRee town by forcing the poor to move to a different neighborhood. I'm sure that counts as "progress" for Mr. Roddy, because now they're probably out of his ward and no longer his problem. But it's not progress for the city as a whole. In fact it's the opposite of progress, because what affordable housing remains will be more expensive and more crowded than ever.

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