It's been said repeatedly in the past few weeks that Sikeston is at a crossroads. I agree with that. I just don't see it quite the same way that some people do who want to raise taxes.
Today, I'd like to discuss some of the background, and what I consider to be the critical choices for the LCRA.
Very soon, we'll be coming up to the third year of our Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority (LCRA). It's time to get it off the starting block.
There are many reasons to clean up the blighted neighborhoods of our community. They provide a haven for criminals, and a breeding ground for lawlessness. That's not a matter up for debate. We know this.
Beyond that, we know that the people we seek to attract to Sikeston with new jobs do not ignore these neighborhoods when they tour Sikeston. So, we can't either. We have to clean them up, period.
But there's one thing we don't need to do in my opinion. We should not be providing an exit strategy for Section 8 slum landlords, financed by taxpayer dollars.
I was Mayor when the idea for LCRA surfaced, and because I personally asked the voters to approve it on the April 2001 ballot, I feel an obligation to refresh some memories about why it was we started it.
The problem we faced was dealing with what I termed "orphaned" properties. Typically, these were homes in which the mother and father had passed away and the children had been scattered to the four winds. No one knew who owned them, no one was responsible for them, and they went to seed posing a fire, health and crime hazards for everyone around them.
The goal was to gain control of these structures and demolish them. There were other ways to acquire these properties, but they took too long (the example I used at the time was one property it took us 18 months to acquire). An LCRA, we were told, was the fast track.
One key point though needs to restated. We did not need an independent authority to buy derelict buildings and pay for their removal. The City Government could have done, and could now do, that. They have all the authority they need to do more. The LCRA was not created to negotiate to buy properties. It was created to seize them.
Some compensation is required after the seizures have taken place, and thus some initial funding was required. But no one I knew thought that this was to be a bailout for slum landlords. As I see it however, that is what's now being proposed.
Most of these buildings, according to LCRA Chairman Mike Bohannon, were once Section 8 dwellings. There are a good many of us who believe the growth of Section 8 housing in this community, to a scale that surpassed all reason, is a large part of how we got in this mess in the first place. So let's focus on Section 8.
Over the years, there have been several efforts by able, thoughtful people to reduce the number of Section 8 vouchers in this community. It is very difficult. Fundamentally, if you try to approach Section 8 from the demand side, you can forget it.
So let's turn our thoughts to the supply side and the Landlords. Section 8 Housing results in a more rapid depreciation of residential structures used for it. Right, wrong or indifferent; that's a fact. It's been demonstrated so many times, in so many places, it doesn't need to be proven again here.
The people who get into the business of buying dwellings and renting them out Section 8 therefore, should be aware that while their rents may be higher, their repair costs will also run higher, and the life expectancy of the structures they buy will be shorter. It's a business and that's the trade-off.
If repairs are needed to bring rental properties up to code however, that's the responsibility of the landlord not the taxpayer. If these structures are so far gone that repair is not economical, then the demolition of those structures is likewise the responsibility of the landlord, not the taxpayer.
The people would own them have milked every last bit of use from these properties, and allowed them to depreciate in the fullest sense of the word. So just what then do the taxpayers of Sikeston owe them that we should pay to relieve them of their obligations under the law?
In my opinion that would be outrageous. Worse, it would be counter-productive to Sikeston's long-term interests.
A case in point might help. Mississippi County recently reduced their number of Section 8 vouchers. When I asked the Missouri's Director of HUD, Roy Pierce, how and why they could do that but Sikeston could not; he said it was because Mississippi County lacked the inventory of housing for this purpose. It wasn't a lack of demand, it was a lack of supply. Any lights going off?
Cleaning up the slums is going to be a tough, dirty business. If we actually want to do it, and stop just talking about it, we have to run the risk that some slum landlords might actually get their feelings hurt.
I strongly believe that if we simply enforce our laws, we too can reduce the inventory. To repeat, property owners have a legal obligation to maintain their property, period.
We tried to put some teeth in the law the last time it was observed that it was being ignored by the city staff. We established mandatory fines. Now, however, our Municipal Court has found a way around that by assessing the fines, but allowing defendants to make them in low monthly payments. Once again, enforcement of our property maintenance code has become a farce. The same appears to be true with our rental ordinance.
But, please don't blame the code enforcement guys. They would like to do their jobs. It's the people above them who won't do theirs.
It bears repeating, Section 8 does not designate a structure as qualified, it designates people as qualified. If one structure is torn down as unfit for human habitation, the voucher holder simply moves onto the next one. All they have to do is find a landlord in a new neighborhood willing to rent to them.
The current concentration of dwellings rented Section 8 is in the southwest, in the Clayton Addition. Entire neighborhoods to the east are susceptible to infiltration, and a rapid depreciation of property values. Hundreds and hundreds of families are at risk of losing the equity in their homes. Some of these neighborhoods are not as nice now as Clayton was before it went.
Enforce the law though, and we won't have to take the existing derelict buildings off the landlords' hands. Enforce the law and some landlords might decide to get out of the Section 8 business altogether and not merely shift their holdings eastward. Enforce the law and we won't have to raise taxes on the people of Sikeston.
We've lived with scoff-law landlords for decades. Somehow or other they've always managed to have friends at City Hall and dodge their obligations under the law. They've gotten away with it because most of it was on the West end and too many of the rest of us didn't really care to take them on (mea culpa).
What the LCRA is talking about though is to spend upward from $2,200,000.00 to buy them out, reward them for their behavior, and give them some public money to head to the next neighborhood to start all over. Is that the intent of the LCRA board members? No, I truly don't think so. But, that will be the consequence of what they're proposing. In my opinion, that's bad public policy on so many levels it's difficult to count them all.
To finance this largess, the city proposes doubling our general purpose sales tax. Thank god for Mel Hancock.
We don't need more Section 8 vouchers, we need fewer. We don't need more Section 8 landlords, we need fewer. If we subsidize the landlords of the past, we'll get more of them in the future. What they've done may be legal, but we have no reason to make it more profitable.