In St. Louis County, Communities Join to Fight Suburban Poverty

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  • June 30, 2014

Sarah Jackson

In the St. Louis Region, because of a firm city boundary that was fixed by leaders here in 1876, much of the growth of the last two hundred years has had nowhere to go but into suburban communities that surround St. Louis proper. The region is highly suburban: 89 percent of the region’s residents live in the suburbs.

And although more than half of the poor population lives in suburbs nationally, the St. Louis region is ahead of this curve (or behind, depending on how you look at it) with almost three-quarters of its poor population living in suburban communities. The region saw poverty grow by 75 percent in only 12 years, and almost all of that growth (95 percent) took place in the suburbs. Today, nearly 119,000 poor people live in St. Louis County, almost 30,000 more poor residents than in the city itself.

The suburban county includes over 90 municipalities and more than 20 school districts, making cross-jurisdictional collaboration difficult. Despite these challenges, the region is piloting models that hold promise in combatting growing suburban poverty, thanks to some innovative local leadership here.

“None of this is splitting the atom or curing cancer,” says local leader Chris Krehmeyer. “The challenge is how do we direct resources in an integrated fashion in places, in geographies and then do that at scale.” Krehmeyer is the CEO of Beyond Housing, an organization that leads an innovative partnership among 24 inner-ring suburban communities, some with as few as five hundred or eight hundred people, located within the Normandy School District in St. Louis County.

The comprehensive initiative, called 24:1, began as an effort to address the foreclosure crisis and failing school district, and has since added the coordination of housing, jobs, economic development and health care.

We know how to solve some of these problems by themselves, Krehmeyer said on Stay Tuned, such as rehabbing housing, providing better health care, or improving social services. The challenge, he said, is whether “we have the political will and courage to say: ‘Can we provide enough?’”

For these small communities, like many across the country hit hard by foreclosures, the Great Recession, and growing suburban poverty, the ability to “provide enough” to effectively address these complex and related challenges hinges on capacity.

Unlike inner-city neighborhoods, which have dealt with poverty for decades, outlying suburban areas don’t have the same capacity to respond, both in terms of the local government and the nonprofits with community development expertise.

Some of these communities, Swanstrom said, “barely have a police force, let alone a housing planner.” Yet their collaborative work through Beyond Housing will allow them greater access to resources and comprehensive supports.

A targeted, comprehensive development strategy, 24:1 aims to facilitate collaboration across jurisdictional lines, to fight suburban poverty. Organizers are betting that their coordinated efforts will be more successful than single, fragmented interventions.

And they’ve had some notable successes.

The effort started in 2009 with a very community-driven planning process. Their website notes that they have held more than 52 community meetings as part of this process, with more than four hundred attendees. The partnership brings together mayors of the 24 municipalities, the school district, local nonprofits, UM−St. Louis, Washington University, and many other stakeholders in the region. Their community plan identifies 11 “impact areas” for future work including healthy residents, employment readiness and access, early childhood development, and community capacity building. They’ve helped bring community voice to recent controversies over school district governance and a controversial student transfer law.

Among their successes over the last 4 years include the investment of nearly $50 million in housing stock, the construction of a 16,000 square foot grocery store, and the creation of a youth impact continuum with the local school district including a universal college savings program. In 2014 they will begin construction on a movie theatre, health services facility and a 53 unit senior housing building.

Other models are worth noting in the region, including the work of the integrative workforce development initiatives at the MET Center with support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Centers for Working Families, and the county’s data- and metric-driven strategic plan, which includes a specific focus on concentrated poverty and community development.

“Comprehensive approaches have much better outcomes than if you try to do these projects one at a time,” said the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s David Erickson, who spoke in St. Louis along with Elizabeth last month.

Systems aren’t set up to work cross-sector, and Erickson says it takes one entity to act in a quarterback role to work with existing systems as they are and “cajole and bring them together so they can provide that type of intervention that’s so effective.”

Elizabeth and Alan borrow the quarterback concept from the 2012 book Investing in What Works for America’s Communities, a joint project of the Low Income Investment Fund (LIIF) and the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. In the book, Erickson and coeditors Ian Galloway and Naomi Cytron envisioned quarterbacks as high-performing local organizations whose job was to “identify and build on . . . areas of leadership and strength, as well as to build capacity in the gaps.”

In St. Louis County, Beyond Housing—which sees its role as that of facilitator, convener, and doer—is an example others should look toward.

Homepage photo credit: Beyond Housing

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