In May 2014, Chis Krehmeyer, president and CEO of Beyond Housing, was among the panelists invited to respond to the release of “For the Sake of All,” the landmark report on health disparities in the St. Louis region led by Jason Q. Purnell of the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University. Though fierce in his pursuit of relevant data to improve his home region, Purnell is by temperament calm and diplomatic. Indeed, despite the distressing evidence of inequity and human suffering embedded in the report, the event discussing the report was calm and diplomatic overall.
Krehmeyer showed the most emotion among the panelists. At one point, he slammed the report against the table and said it made him angry – and it should make everyone angry – to see all of this evidence that black people earn less, suffer more, and die younger than white people in the St. Louis region.
“For the Sake of All” became the canary in the coal mine of the Ferguson uprising that erupted less than three months after the release of the report. As mostly poor, mostly young, mostly black people took to the streets of Ferguson and stayed there for more than a year, Krehmeyer’s anger at the evidence in the report seemed prophetic. In fact, many more people became aware of and angered by inequity in the St. Louis region.
“We need to do this all together intentionally,” Krehmeyer said at the May 2014 event. “The reality is that is really hard to do. To do this work is really hard, and it will make us uncomfortable at times.”
More than five years later, Beyond Housing is still doing this work of improving and empowering distressed communities in North County. The St. Louis American spoke to Krehmeyer about the work.
The St. Louis American: Beyond Housing has been working on community development in some of the least nourished areas of the community for decades. What signs do you have that you are having a positive impact?
Chris Krehmeyer: After 10 years of significant investment in the families and structures in the 24:1 footprint (the boundaries of the Normandy Schools Collaborative) to the tune of $200 million, we are starting to see some long-term signs of success in the population of our community. In particular, the cities of Pagedale and Pine Lawn that had experienced consistent population loss since 1970 have seen their populations stabilize at the 2010 totals, according to the most recent census data from 2017. Both communities have average incomes significantly below St. Louis County averages but have seen a tremendous amount of investment from Beyond Housing since 2010.
The stabilizing of the population, we believe, is the first sign that enough work has been done to show residents that things are changing and that they can stay in their community or move into these two places. We fully understand much more needs to be done, but are cautiously optimistic about this important data point. Our efforts to build deep and trusting relationships to serve families more effectively will continue, as will our construction and rehabilitation of residential and commercial structures.
The St. Louis American: What's interesting is that right in the middle of this spread of years (2000-2017) is 2014, the year Ferguson popped. How has the Ferguson unrest impacted your work – good and bad, ugly and sublime?
Chris Krehmeyer: Michael Brown was a real person to our community. He graduated from Normandy and had many friends and family here. The good that transpired for us was the acceleration of police and court reform. Both were beginning in the 24:1 footprint prior to Michael's death and subsequent unrest but the political movement that followed allowed reforms to happen quicker, and that is an absolute positive for our community. In particular, the creation of the North County Cooperative Police Department and the creation of two court hubs has professionalized both areas and stopped the prior transgressions that were occurring in a few parts of our community.
One downside was the fixation on Ferguson the geography as opposed to Ferguson the metaphor that was much more than police killing an innocent young man. The issues that were prevalent in the pocket of multi-family housing in that part of Ferguson are even more apparent in many other parts of the region, including parts of 24:1. The funds spent in Ferguson the geography early on seemed to assuage any regional guilt and prevented some larger conversations about all the issues the Ferguson Commission laid out. Our proximity to Ferguson, our neighbor to the north, certainly hurt UMSL, as they lost significant student enrollment that they are just now bouncing back from.
Lastly, there have been new funding opportunities opened up to us as we tackle Ferguson the metaphor and all the complex problems that poverty brings to a place.
The St. Louis American: Before Ferguson the metaphor, Beyond Housing and 24:1 was doing the work, and The St. Louis American was doing the story (which, for us, we like to think, is helping do the work). We were somewhat bitterly amused as Ferguson was popping off to see black community leaders we have covered for many years make their first appearances in other local media. What has it been like seeing much of the region feel like it’s discovering problems and proposing solutions for the first time when your organization has been right there in near North County all along?
Chris Krehmeyer: It is hard getting attention to work that is not viewed as a crisis or some one-off feel-good story. Comprehensive community building requires to first care about places that you probably don’t know or where you have never been. Then you need to have an attention span a little longer than a 15-second commercial to understand what it will take to “fix” decades of systemic, institutional racism and how that will benefit everyone in the region.
Getting people to care is a really hard challenge. We have constructed an economy and communities to allow separation from all that you view as negative. If my life is OK. why should I care about Wellston, Pine Lawn and Pagedale?
Lastly, to have people understand there is no magic pill for the communities we serve is also an uphill battle. There is no one thing to do. It has to be all the component parts that make up successful communities that need to be in place. We can make neighborhoods better, make schools better and strengthen families if we have the regional courage to commit the resources to get it done.
The St. Louis American: You and I have had an ongoing discussion for years, so I know that you have been calling for collaboration for years. If someone reads this and wants to invest, either time or money, in what you are doing, what do you need and where might it come from?
Chris Krehmeyer: We need charitable contributions and long-term, patient capital. We don’t need debt. Opportunity Zones don’t work for our work.