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New collection offers inclusive housing policies for St. Louis region

Molly Metzger

For decades, deeply entrenched policies have made Greater St. Louis one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the United States. In December, a new effort to change that drew policymakers from around the region to a briefing on strategies for broadening housing opportunity.

This week, the Center for Social Development released a briefing book developed from presentations given at the December gathering by masters of social work students as part of a class taught at Washington University’s Brown School.

“The purpose of this briefing book is to provide some ideas for policy change, specifically in the realm of housing and specifically in the majority-white, inner-ring suburbs of St. Louis,” Molly Metzger writes in the introduction. A Senior Lecturer in the Brown School, Metzger is Faculty Director with the Center for Social Development and the book’s editor.

At the December briefing, Mayor Laura Arnold of Webster Groves, Missouri, acknowledged that municipal policies have limited “who could reside where” and “what can be built in different neighborhoods.” Arnold served as the event’s moderator.

“We want to make sure that we have housing that is accessible to the people who are shut out now,” she said, “but we also want to make sure we maintain housing that is accessible to people who are in danger of being shut out in the future as prices continue to escalate.”

Those priorities informed the recommendations in the briefing book, including specific proposals on racially restrictive covenants, zoning reform, community land trusts, and linkage fees.

“Ideas for policy change”

Glimpses of a home’s history can be found in the property record. According to Fadya Al Hammam, Janeka Haden, Livi Logan-Wood and Joseph Roeder, the records for many of the region’s homes reveal prior owners’ attempts at racial exclusion.

Within the property deeds for residences built before 1948, it is common to find language that limits who may own the home – typically, prohibiting the home’s sale or transfer to nonwhites. Although the Supreme Court ruled that these racially restrictive covenants are unconstitutional, Al Hammam and her coauthors say that the language remains within the deeds of over 100,000 homes in the St. Louis region. In their contribution to the briefing book, they identify ways to eliminate the covenants and reasons why such efforts are important.

Other tools have been used to exclude “certain residents from certain neighborhoods,” write Olivia Borland, Casey Kohlstruk, and Lindsay Owens, and zoning has been a particularly effective. They recommend reforms through upzoning, a practice that involves altering municipal zoning codes to permit greater density in housing. Upzoning, their brief notes, can increase housing supply and lower costs.

But Borland and her coauthors caution that upzoning should be paired with property-tax relief and other inclusionary measures to prevent displacement of current residents.

Another option for broadening housing access and stemming cost has gained momentum in the St. Louis region and elsewhere. The brief by Amal Alzhrani, Brittany Kiefer, Da-yup Kim, and Gabby Eissner offers a primer on the use of community land trusts in pursuit of racial equity goals.

In such trusts, a nonprofit organization or municipality owns the land and allows individuals to build or purchase homes on it. Owners who wish to sell their homes are bound by the trust’s resale formula, which is designed to ensure that homes on the land remain affordable even as the owner realizes gains from improvements made. The trust retains ownership of the land throughout.

Kiefer and her coauthors illustrate the model’s operation by writing about the Columbia Community Land Trust in Columbia, Missouri. According to the authors, mortgage payments under the trust are lower than market-rate rents in the area and home buyers accrue $25,000 in equity, on average, over the first decade of homeownership. Compared with buyers in general, those associated with Columbia’s trust are more likely to be people of color.

In Columbia and many other communities, resource constraints impede affordable housing initiatives. Linkage-fee policies, Lillian Murphy, Stanford Cooper, and Russell Beckham write, may offer a solution.

Paid by real estate developers, project-based linkage fees “are a vehicle by which new developments contribute to affordable housing funds,” they write. The fees enable municipalities to build a pool of assets that can fund affordable-housing and equitable-residential development.

In their December presentation, Murphy, Cooper, and Beckham offered Boston’s policy as an example. The city, they said, imposes a linkage fee of $12 per square foot of development. Of that, $8 is dedicated to affordable housing.

Acknowledging the importance of public buy-in, Murphy and her coauthors offer suggestions in the brief for securing it and for implementing linkage-fee policies.

The shortage of affordable housing “is a regional issue,” Murphy said at the briefing. “Linkage fees could definitely help the affordable housing trust fund” in St. Louis County.

A regional colloquium

The December briefing drew an audience of policymakers from five municipalities and the state’s General Assembly, as well as representatives from the region’s nonprofit community.

Metzger and Arnold organized the event through the Center for Social Development’s Policy and Housing Opportunity initiative, in partnership with Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice and the Alliance for Interracial Dignity. They also taught the fall class together.

Arnold encouraged the audience to see how their communities could benefit from inclusive housing policy. “If a teacher in your school district, if one of your public works employees, or if the waiter at your hopping restaurant cannot find housing within your community,” she said, “that community’s not complete.”

She added, “The people who work in our communities deserve the opportunity to live there as well.”

Change can be challenging, and the region’s history provides an inertia that maybe difficult to overcome. Metzger sought to leverage that history.

“We’ve seen the history today in terms of racist housing policy,” she said. “This is a shameful history. But that shame, that feeling of guilt, is not the end point. That feeling of shame benefits no one. We are here to be honest about this history, to acknowledge it and move forward toward action.”