How Trump Can Save Our Inner Cities

Street after street, neighborhood after neighborhood, we toured St. Louis over a quarter of a century ago, stunned by how many vacant lots and abandoned homes there are.  It confirmed what we had researched: by the early 1990s, over 17,000 of these lots in St. Louis alone, and the numbers were growing.  It was like cancer throughout the city, lowering surrounding property values and drawing crime like a magnet.  Very few new homes were being built, not because there was a lack of demand, but trying to site-build homes on these lots was simply not practical.  What you built during the day was stolen during the night.  The facts were that the economics couldn't withstand full-time security.  Total new homes built in St. Louis that year: a dismal 27.

We believed we had the solution.  It was a pretty radical solution that would overcome the many problems of site-building; provide not only affordable houses, but truly attractive homes; and create a new industry in St. Louis with new jobs for the inner city and a training ground for high-skilled, high-paying jobs.  We were truly excited.

The solution is manufactured housing but with a new twist: build these homes in a plant located right in St Louis.  Beautiful Victorian homes or any style or size that the buyer wants that can be set up in 48 hours, with only finish work still required.  A new St. Louis could arise overnight.

St. Louis is a strong union town, so our first stop was to make a presentation to all the trade unions.  Unions have always been strongly opposed to manufactured housing, since the homes are made in rural areas with non-union labor.  The unions understood our plan and how it would benefit them and the city.  They also understood that before we could invest in a factory, we needed to do a test market.  They knew these would be non-union built initially, but here was a chance for them to do the installation set up and all the finish work.

The best part was that this was all additional work, work they weren't doing since homes weren't being built in the city anyway.  In addition to giving skilled workers a new market, the factory would serve as an incubator where they could train new plumbers, electricians, carpenters, roofers, and all the other trades needed.  The unions embraced the concept with absolutely no dissenters.  First part of mission accomplished!

The next step was the city.  The unions set up a meeting with the mayor.  We explained our concept, and the mayor immediately saw a way to reduce crime and blight; improve neighborhoods; raise property values; eliminate the expenses associated with trying to keep these lots clean; create new jobs; and turn these lots, which were a liability, into tax-paying assets, and at the same time attract people back to the city.

Not only was the mayor excited, but he told us he saw no reason why he couldn't go along with our request that these lots either be given to the new homeowners for free, or for no more than $1,000 per lot.  He recognized the necessity of keeping costs down to make these homes super-affordable while benefiting the city and the surrounding neighborhoods.

A press conference was held, the plan was announced, and the unions pledged $40 million in mortgage financing.  Meetings with various community organizations ensued, and the program was hailed as a real opportunity to improve neighborhoods and bring people back to the city and reverse migration from the city.  We set up a sales office in mid-town, and our company was named SHIP for St. Louis Housing Incentive Program.

Customers were virtually waiting in line, especially when they realized that they could chose any vacant lot anywhere within the city.  Homes were being designed, lots were being picked – what could possibly go wrong?  Well, as the saying goes, "you are only one unknown away from failure."

That one unknown was that the city's aldermen didn't want these new homes.  They didn't want new people in their wards.  These new people presented a threat – a threat to their re-election, as well as competition for their coveted jobs.  The aldermen did everything in their power to make certain this project would fail, including giving instructions to those whose jobs were to issue permits, to make the process so slow and so expensive that it was like quicksand.  Every step we took forward resulted in two steps backward.

The City of St. Louis was ruled by the aldermen; their power was greater than the mayor's and the unions' combined.  In two years, we were able to construct the grand total of only six homes, and there was no relief in sight.  After working on this project for more than three years, we simply closed our office and threw in the towel.

You might be asking, "Why are you writing this article?"  The answer is that we now have a new administration in Washington, an administration that says it wants to reinvigorate the inner cities – an administration that says it wants to create jobs.  Well, here is an opportunity.  What was lacking in St. Louis was someone more powerful than the aldermen.  That someone is the federal government.  Only the federal government can say, "Get out of our way, this is going to happen."

If the Trump administration will work with the private sector, plants can be built in major cities across the nation.  President Trump would make headlines by creating jobs and new housing, lowering crime, and giving urban dwellers reasons to believe that there is a bright future for their cities.  As our president would say, "this could be huuuge."

Street after street, neighborhood after neighborhood, we toured St. Louis over a quarter of a century ago, stunned by how many vacant lots and abandoned homes there are.  It confirmed what we had researched: by the early 1990s, over 17,000 of these lots in St. Louis alone, and the numbers were growing.  It was like cancer throughout the city, lowering surrounding property values and drawing crime like a magnet.  Very few new homes were being built, not because there was a lack of demand, but trying to site-build homes on these lots was simply not practical.  What you built during the day was stolen during the night.  The facts were that the economics couldn't withstand full-time security.  Total new homes built in St. Louis that year: a dismal 27.

We believed we had the solution.  It was a pretty radical solution that would overcome the many problems of site-building; provide not only affordable houses, but truly attractive homes; and create a new industry in St. Louis with new jobs for the inner city and a training ground for high-skilled, high-paying jobs.  We were truly excited.

The solution is manufactured housing but with a new twist: build these homes in a plant located right in St Louis.  Beautiful Victorian homes or any style or size that the buyer wants that can be set up in 48 hours, with only finish work still required.  A new St. Louis could arise overnight.

St. Louis is a strong union town, so our first stop was to make a presentation to all the trade unions.  Unions have always been strongly opposed to manufactured housing, since the homes are made in rural areas with non-union labor.  The unions understood our plan and how it would benefit them and the city.  They also understood that before we could invest in a factory, we needed to do a test market.  They knew these would be non-union built initially, but here was a chance for them to do the installation set up and all the finish work.

The best part was that this was all additional work, work they weren't doing since homes weren't being built in the city anyway.  In addition to giving skilled workers a new market, the factory would serve as an incubator where they could train new plumbers, electricians, carpenters, roofers, and all the other trades needed.  The unions embraced the concept with absolutely no dissenters.  First part of mission accomplished!

The next step was the city.  The unions set up a meeting with the mayor.  We explained our concept, and the mayor immediately saw a way to reduce crime and blight; improve neighborhoods; raise property values; eliminate the expenses associated with trying to keep these lots clean; create new jobs; and turn these lots, which were a liability, into tax-paying assets, and at the same time attract people back to the city.

Not only was the mayor excited, but he told us he saw no reason why he couldn't go along with our request that these lots either be given to the new homeowners for free, or for no more than $1,000 per lot.  He recognized the necessity of keeping costs down to make these homes super-affordable while benefiting the city and the surrounding neighborhoods.

A press conference was held, the plan was announced, and the unions pledged $40 million in mortgage financing.  Meetings with various community organizations ensued, and the program was hailed as a real opportunity to improve neighborhoods and bring people back to the city and reverse migration from the city.  We set up a sales office in mid-town, and our company was named SHIP for St. Louis Housing Incentive Program.

Customers were virtually waiting in line, especially when they realized that they could chose any vacant lot anywhere within the city.  Homes were being designed, lots were being picked – what could possibly go wrong?  Well, as the saying goes, "you are only one unknown away from failure."

That one unknown was that the city's aldermen didn't want these new homes.  They didn't want new people in their wards.  These new people presented a threat – a threat to their re-election, as well as competition for their coveted jobs.  The aldermen did everything in their power to make certain this project would fail, including giving instructions to those whose jobs were to issue permits, to make the process so slow and so expensive that it was like quicksand.  Every step we took forward resulted in two steps backward.

The City of St. Louis was ruled by the aldermen; their power was greater than the mayor's and the unions' combined.  In two years, we were able to construct the grand total of only six homes, and there was no relief in sight.  After working on this project for more than three years, we simply closed our office and threw in the towel.

You might be asking, "Why are you writing this article?"  The answer is that we now have a new administration in Washington, an administration that says it wants to reinvigorate the inner cities – an administration that says it wants to create jobs.  Well, here is an opportunity.  What was lacking in St. Louis was someone more powerful than the aldermen.  That someone is the federal government.  Only the federal government can say, "Get out of our way, this is going to happen."

If the Trump administration will work with the private sector, plants can be built in major cities across the nation.  President Trump would make headlines by creating jobs and new housing, lowering crime, and giving urban dwellers reasons to believe that there is a bright future for their cities.  As our president would say, "this could be huuuge."