Last week the Bel-Nor Board of Aldermen crammed into their tiny meeting room with about 25 residents, both black and white.
The discussion centered on the tiny North County town’s decision to combat deteriorating properties with an aggressive inspection program that would result in citations and possible fines if the required repairs were not completed by early fall.
About 300 of Bel-Nor’s 668 households were put on notice, including mine.
The Bel-Nor Board of Aldermen welcomed various opinions. They are trying hard to protect the beauty and future of the community. The feeling was, this strategy is the best way to protect a town that’s withstood decades of decline experienced by nearby North County towns.
Most at the meeting were in favor of the fines, saying people had to be responsible, just like everyone else. Others remained quiet.
There is no extension option built into the process. So, if you need more time to raise the cash to make the required repairs, there’s no way to appeal the city for an extension. Instead, they were reassured by a Bel-Nor police officer that if you had to go to court, the judge would show leniency if you were making progress.
Bel-Nor told me my house needed some paint. No argument there – it does. And I’m sure my neighbors think so, too. I’m not yet sure how much that is going to cost. The problem is that I have little saved for that project and no equity in my house to borrow money at a low-interest rate, so I’m not sure where the money is going to come from if I want to stay out of municipal court.
And I’m sure there are several people in the community who are in the same situation.
Surely, there has to be a better way for diverse communities struggling with housing values in North County than punishing its residents for financial factors out of their control.
In April, my mentor and colleague Dr. Jason Purnell of Washington University wrote about creating consciously inclusive communities – one of 11 recommendations in the report “Segregation in St. Louis: Dismantling the Divide.” He urged people to consider diversity and inclusion as assets that could stabilize and strengthen communities. Indeed, neighborhoods that were welcoming to all and created supportive systems for everyone could chip away at a century of policy promoting racial segregation.
Bel-Nor is an outlier when it comes to our region’s pervasive problem of black and white segregation. The town is about 48 percent African-American and 46 percent white. It’s not like some “diverse” towns or neighborhoods where whites and blacks don’t live on the same streets. African Americans and whites truly live side-by-side in Bel-Nor.
But, Bel-Nor is struggling to stay solvent, and some of its residents are struggling too. When the Great Recession hit, Bel-Nor took a hit in housing values. After Mike Brown was killed, Bel-Nor took another hit. A few walked away from their houses because they were tens of thousands of dollars underwater. A man down the street lost his home to the bank and stripped out all of the crystal doorknobs and the Central AC compressor on his way out the door. Opportunistic landlords swooped in on depressed home values and converted houses into student rentals. And, some housing declined.
Indeed, all of these factors point to the possibility that Bel-Nor, though diverse and blessed with beautiful housing stock, could transition to another poor North County disinvested community.
I love my town, and I don’t want this to happen. I want it to remain diverse. I want it to remain pretty and maintained. And I want it to thrive. Preserving the housing is critical. But I don’t want people ostracized in the process. I want people to feel included and part of a real community.
At this meeting, I asked the group to consider doing away with punitive fines and consider more inclusive, supportive and creative solutions that don’t ostracize its vulnerable residents in the courts – or put others in jeopardy of leaving or walking away.
I urge them to keep thinking about this.
This could include working more closely with homeowners on tiered improvement plans so the repairs get done over time. Better partnerships with families could help them find needed credit and resources. Even creating a swap system of yard and exterior upkeep work between families with different skills could help.
On a bigger policy scale, lobbying could yield incentives that encourage stability in transitional neighborhoods so people don’t leave – maybe by offering residents in these neighborhoods college tuition breaks in state schools, or arrangements with UMSL and/or WashU to entice investment in neighborhoods that house faculty. (WashU is already offering staff and faculty incentives to buy home in certain parts of the city).
Or, the Board of Aldermen could actively lobby on the recommendations in “Segregation in St. Louis: Dismantling the Divide.” They include St. Louis County establishing an Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Or the creation of a Greenlining Fund so people can borrow money to improve under-appraised homes. They could consider applying for support for home stabilization through community reinvestment groups. And they could start talking about how our differences make us stronger if we stick together.
Neighborhoods certainly benefit from well-maintained housing, and Bel-Nor leaders are tackling hard issues. But better policy and inclusive and caring relationships can also build strong, stable communities. There is a better way if we start demanding it.
Nancy Cambria is the communications manager for the Washington University initiative Health Equity Works (formerly For the Sake of All).