By: David A. Smith
Having just spent nearly half a month writing an exegesis of a town and its major employer squabbling over the downside of booming economic success, be prepared, gentle readers, for a shorter but no less obsessive examination of a town and its citizens coping desperately with failure – failure that is none of their making and, unfortunately, none of their unmaking.
Valarie Whitner and her partner Vincent Blount (sitting on railing) in the house she owns in Pagedale
Pagedale, Missouri. — This spring, officials in this tiny city near St. Louis ordered Valarie Whitner to replace her siding; repaint her gutters, downspout and foundation; and put up screens or storm covers outside every window and blinds or curtains on the inside.
A very small city with very big problems
Upon receiving such a laundry list from the local busybodies, any of us would naturally be ticked off at their presumption of superiority and ask them, none too politely, where they got off ordering gutters repainted or blinds on our windows, and while we might be tempted to walk across the street to exchange pleasantries with them about the cracked shingles on their house, there the matter would drop.
And that was before the list of demands moved on to her roof, fence and yard.
Except that in this case, the local busybodies were the city government, and each of their demand carried with it an or-else: upon penalty of municipal fines.
It started with hundreds of dollars in fines. Tickets for missing shingles, peeling house paint and an overgrown lawn.
Municipal fines have more than the usual force, because they can be attached to the property tax bill.
Sources used in this post
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (January 8, 2015; purple font)
Lincoln Institute for Land Policy (May, 2015; brick red font)
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (May 24, 2015; buff blue font)
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (August 10, 2015; forest green font)
Institute for Justice web site (November, 2015; brown font)
The New York Times (November 4, 2015; black font)
Huffington Post (November 20, 2015; turquoise font)
Fines attached to the tax bill are attached to the property, and hence threaten to take away your home if you do not comply.
Now, it seems, tickets aren’t enough.
Or even worse:
Pagedale officials are threatening to bulldoze Valarie Whitner’s home.
The Post-Dispatch first wrote about Whitner’s situation in May.
Whitner had $800 left to pay from a $1,810 tab and hadn’t heard any more from the city until last month. A notice in the mail said her property was one of 38 set to be torn down. No further explanation was given.
What motivated this escalating series of threats to Ms. Whitner’s property? Public safety, oppressive administration, or revenue raising?
Valarie Whitner, 57, a hospital worker, is a plaintiff in a civil rights complaint charging Pagedale, Mo., with using code enforcement and municipal court as “revenue-generating machines.”
[Ms. Whitner and Mr. Blount are not married, though they have lived together for many years and raised two children that are now in college. This becomes relevant – Ed.]
But the problems facing Ms. Whitner in Pagedale represent another issue: what many residents consider the abusive levying of fines or fees for minor non-traffic ordinances, often involving unsightly lawns or houses.
Certainly something happened:
[Over the last few years], Pagedale [has had a] 500% increase in tickets for code violations.
The story gained (brief) national prominence after a high-profile lawsuit was filed:
Not to be confused with the US Justice Department
On Wednesday, lawyers from the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest firm based in Arlington, Va., filed a civil rights complaint against Pagedale, which like Ferguson is in north St. Louis County.
The complaint, filed in United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, accuses the city of violating due process and excess-fines protections in the Constitution by turning its code enforcement and municipal court into “revenue-generating machines” to go after residents.
The complaint, which seeks class-action status, calls for an injunction against the city’s reliance on such fines.
This post isn’t about racism, though that is the lens through which the Administration sees many things, such as the 2014 Mount Holly, New Jersey case.
It isn’t about rogue cops nor self-interested municipal corruption, such as in dirty rotten Vernon, California.
Previous AHI post-essays on related issues
For that reason, this story is tragic.
Happy ending unlikely
But this post is also about government’s power over urban property, and homeowners of urban property.
Never forget that cities are businesses, which means they are economic organisms, and the first rule for any organism is survive. For an economic organism, the Law of Economic Gravity means that survival requires maintaining revenues to match expenditures. In a city with declining population and declining property values, scarcity is a chronic condition that weakens the body politic against the possibility of infection from foreclosure, which can spread like a plague.
To an economic organism known as a city, property owners are green sacks that can be taxed and cannot escape taxation, so we rely on city governments to be judicious, thrifty, and clever. But if thrift does not suffice, if cleverness fails, then they may seek to compel in a way bearing some characteristics of extortion.
You wouldn’t like anything to happen, would you?
For that reason, this story cautionary.
Maybe you too will be foreclosed when you grow up
But nearly all of the writing about Pagedale has missed the real story – the causes of Pagedale’s economic desperation, and the solution that may be at hand if its leaders but have the courage to be Sidney Carton.
It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done in office
Because of that, this story is absorbing and, dare I say, important.
1. Pagedale is poor and struggling
We begin, as we must, with a city that is small, poor, struggling, trying to grow, and failing to make municipal ends meet.
1a. Pagedale is small, and it is poor
In Pagedale, a city of 3,304 people that has been wracked by foreclosures, officials believe the future rides on what happens with derelict properties.
Later we’ll return multiple times to the challenges of Pagedale’s foreclosures, and why its local leaders are so terrified of them, but for now it is enough to set the scene.
Pagedale covers 1.19 square miles in St. Louis County. As of 2010, there were approximately 3,000 people living in the city, 93% of whom are African American, as are its mayor and the entire city council.
Homes in Pagedale are small, old, and cheap, averaging roughly $50,000 apiece.
Only a handful of homes over $100,000
The minimal sale prices shown on the bar graph above represent foreclosures, tax liens, and other abandonments.
The homes are small and plain:
825 SqFt to 1,275 Sq Ft, built 1925-1954
The homes are much of a muchness: mostly one-story, new-build bungalow-style, with cement steps up to the front door, 1-1½ baths, small lots, and built 65 to 95 years ago. Even today, they mutely tell the history of Pagedale (from the city’s web site):
The City of Pagedale evolved from rural farmlands located on the outskirts of the City of St. Louis. The area was first really subdivided in the mid 1800s, where around that same time, Page Avenue was extended from the City of St. Louis into what is now the City of Pagedale.
On Feb. 15, 1950, Pagedale was incorporated as a Fourth Class City.
The incorporation of Pagedale: from the 1800s to 1950
Pagedale’s incorporation, and the acquisition (and construction) of most of these homes, coincides with what modern urban historians have dubbed the Second Great Migration, where blacks migrated out of the old Confederacy into industrial opportunity in the North, Midwest, and West.
Jacob Lawrence, One-Way-Ticket, 1941
After its incorporation, the population began to grow. Local entrepreneurship was a major part of the growth in the City of Pagedale.
With the population growth and influx of workers and their families to the area came the necessity for public spaces and more family-oriented recreational activities.
But with the decline of American industry, especially in the heartland cities, the city stopped growing, and the people stopped being able to raise their standard of living:
Very few households above $50,000 a year
Median household income is $29,700, which is 35% less than Missouri’s $46,900 median income.
About a quarter of the residents live below the poverty line.
Judging by the bar chart above, perhaps one-third of all the households are unemployed or barely employed (household income below $10,000). As a result, home prices stopped rising.
Sales down, prices flat … and low
Home prices in Pagedale are less than half the Missouri average.
With population flat and home prices flat, the City of Pagedale did what any community would do: it sought growth.
[Continued tomorrow in Part 2.]