Opinion: Maplewood, It’s Time to Plan for What’s Next

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In August of last year, the city of Richmond Heights adopted its latest comprehensive plan—an official city document establishing the city’s long-term vision, goals, and development. One of the main themes of Richmond Heights’ new plan is the issue of housing affordability. The plan’s housing section has seven stated objectives that focus on increasing the amount and diversity of housing in the city and encouraging the development of more affordable housing through new incentives, rental assistance, and the production of more small-scale multifamily housing.

Richmond Heights is not alone in devoting attention to updating its long-term vision and priorities. Kirkwood, Brentwood, and Ferguson have all updated their comprehensive plans in recent years. University City adopted its new plan, “We Make U City,” in January of this year. And Clayton is set to release their newly completed plan this month. Maplewood’s most recent comprehensive plan? It’s now 34 years old—and counting. So, yes, it is certainly time for our community to join our neighbors and start planning for what’s next. Luckily, Maplewood has an impressive track record of working to shape its own future—our thriving business district and top-tier public school system are testaments to what this community can achieve.

Still, there’s no doubt we’re behind our peers when it comes to figuring out what a future for Maplewood could look like now—and the fact that Richmond Heights has placed such emphasis on affordable housing could give us a clue of what we’re risking if we fail to catch up.

Maplewood’s well-known success story of recent decades means that—just like other cities that emerge from economic peril—we now face the stark realities of gentrification. Typically when struggling urban communities finally figure out how to regain their appeal and the tax base that comes with it, these same communities almost inevitably build that resurgence on the backs of vulnerable residents who are most in need. Elderly neighbors, low-income families, tenants, nurses, service workers, and residents of color are all at increased risk of being left behind when cities relentlessly chase higher property values and the people wealthy enough to pay them.

Maplewood’s successful school system and shopping district have made it a destination for middle-income families—add that appeal to our limited housing stock and not only has the cost to live in Maplewood skyrocketed, the number of vulnerable residents at risk of displacement has as well. All those brand new oversized houses that have gone up in recent years? The luxury apartments at Sunnen Station? Even Maplewood Commons? These are all important signs of growth—but they have also all displaced older, smaller, and more affordable housing. And high, ever-rising rents mean that working-class families are either kept out of Maplewood or have to struggle more and more each year just to stay.

Maplewood’s development has certainly been a success story—but it doesn’t have to be one based on displacement. We don’t have to become yet another city open exclusively to those wealthy enough to enter. Many see gentrification as the only path to success—but if we protect the affordable housing we already have. If we alleviate housing costs for the lowest income residents. And if we build more low-cost housing in more places. Then we can develop without displacing, and we can maintain the socioeconomic and racial diversity that makes us who we are—and differentiates us from many of our municipal neighbors. All it takes is planning for a future based on inclusive growth. And luckily, now is our chance. Around this time last year, Maplewood started the budgeting process for an update to our comprehensive plan. Soon it will be our turn to answer the question of what’s next.

Colin Bassett is an affordable housing advocate and serves as a zoning commissioner in Maplewood.

13 COMMENTS

  1. Colin …would it not be more helpful if you sat down and discussed with the people in other suburbs as to what they are doing about growing and retaining affordable housing in their areas…. I really don’t feel you can compare Maplewood to say Kirkwood or even our partner Richmond Heights… ..Maplewood is a unique entity. We are far more diverse in all aspects than our close neighbors. Have you spoken to and met with residents in both the expensive rehabbed homes as well as our low income and elderly neighbors in some of our rentals? Do you know the conditions in which they live? Do you know the reasons why the moved here? The PEOPLE are the key. From their input as opposed to the rhetoric in the legislation passed by other suburbs is how we can find our way into the future!

  2. Collin,
    Love your passion and I can tell you have put far more thought into this than I have. I like a lot of the ideas here. Can you help me understand this better? I always thought that rising home values in Maplewood were a benefit to anyone who is a homeowner in Maplewood whether they are low/middle/high income? I get that taxes go up when this happens and that can be a burden to the lowest income folks, but doesn’t that also mean that anyone in this position who sells their home also gets a much higher profit? I wouldn’t want to see anyone here forced into moving out because they can’t afford these higher taxes, but at the same time, do they not also get a much higher sale price than if Maplewood property values remained stagnant? I don’t know the numbers on any of this and readily confess my own ignorance here. I can definitely see how anyone renting here in Maplewood, would be impacted. I welcome any thoughts you have.

    • Hi Jon– thanks for this question. Yes, property values going up is financially beneficial for property owners. I think the two complications you point out are accurate. First, property taxes do increase based on property values in the area, and it’s certainly true that this is a problem in Maplewood, particularly related to very large new homes being built in neighborhoods where the homes are otherwise smaller/older. The high property value for the new homes means that both property values and property taxes increase for the surrounding homes. For people who own those smaller/older homes in the area, it’s a double-edged sword because if they sell their home it’s a win (higher selling price) but if they don’t sell their home it’s a loss (higher taxes). Lower-income families and elderly residents suffer the most here because they may not be able to afford the higher tax rate. They can sell their home will likely have to leave Maplewood for somewhere cheaper. These residents are priced out due to the increasingly high cost of housing. This is very common in gentrifying neighborhoods. (Actually, the zoning commission and city council are currently working on an ordinance update to try to mitigate this sort of displacement by slowing down the construction of new over-sized homes. Talk to one of your council members or come to a zoning meeting if you are interested in learning more.) Second, as you note obviously increased property values become a burden on renters. This impact is across the board (whether you’re rich or poor your rent is going up), but we know from regional and national data that Black residents are more likely to be renters and are more likely to suffer housing cost burden (which is when someone has to pay a really large amount of their income just for housing). This means that Black residents are disproportionally impacted by increasing rents and are more likely to become housing and food insecure.

      But to your main question about whether rising property values are a benefit or not… it’s certainly complicated. As noted in one of my other replies, it’s certainly good when a community can grow, develop, and attract more investment. Cities need a healthy tax base in order to operate and offer quality services to residents. This is something Maplewood has been really good at and is a core part of Maplewood’s success in recent decades. But rising property values also contribute to one of the defining features of gentrification, which is that only higher income people can afford to move into the city (middle and lower income people are kept out due to the cost of housing). When you combine this influx of higher income residents with the displacement of lower income residents (as described above), you get the worst impacts of gentrification: a city that has displaced or increasingly burdened many of its lower income residents and replaced them with high income residents. The town becomes “wealthier” but it ends up only benefitting those wealthy enough to live there. Others get left behind.

      It’s a complicated and challenging dynamic. There are no quick, easy, or one-size solutions. That’s why my op-ed piece focuses on the importance of long-term planning, which is something city hall, city council, and the whole community can partake in together to find the right answers and solutions everyone. Hope this helps!

  3. Colin,
    Where do you intend to build more low-cost housing without displacement? I hope you are not quietly refering to the former Immaculate Conception school / church building; for this building currently supports a large community of people of all ages, economics and desires and needs.

    How to advocate for low-income housing? That is your question? I think this is part of a much, much larger question of how to keep/create a good, safe, fair town for us all. I think one must respect what is here first. Recognize the value here; then, fix the problems here. This does not include tearing down what is working well. It means coming up with innovative solutions without destroying the good of Maplewood.

    • Hi Patty! Thanks for your comment. No, I was not referencing the IC redevelopment. That is not a zoning matter, and of course important community buildings get input from the city’s appropriate elected and appointed officials prior to redevelopment, which I’m sure we both support. As I mentioned in this op-ed, one of the key points I hope to make is that we need to “protect the affordable housing we already have.” That sort of existing, lower-cost housing becomes vulnerable when a community begins to gentrify, so the city (particularly in its long-term planning) should take steps to actively protect it instead of just hoping it stays on its own. That is a core topic the zoning commission has been learning about in recent years and I support the city’s continued efforts to make progress on preserving the lower-cost housing we already have.

  4. I am interested in Colin’s ideas in advocating for affordable housing. What are they, Colin?

    I think, if this article is in reference to demolishing one of the most historic buildings in Maplewood (and in support of that?), that it would be most helpful to state that. If it is not, I still would like to hear your suggestions for keeping and advocating for affordable housing.

    I have watched for about 25 years as I have seen an ongoing redevelopment of Maplewood. I, personally, don’t quite like gentrification. I have hoped all along that I have not been part of that process. I did come to Maplewood and restore a falling-down home, however, so I may have helped the future gentrification. I have watched as many friends have left because they could not afford the rents. How does one reverse the gentrification that has already happened? I think one does not. Can all of the people who have moved here in the last 10 years be asked to leave? I don’t think so. So, we work with what we have. What are your ideas? Thank you.

    • Hi Patty, thanks so much for this thoughtful comment. I really appreciate you sharing—and asking me to share my ideas. As noted in my other reply, this op-ed is not referencing or discussing the IC site. (I realize that’s an important topic for our community and luckily there are other posts and public sessions where folks can share their input.) I started researching gentrification two years ago when I joined the zoning commission—it’s such a fascinating and perplexing topic. I’m no expert but I have devoted all my volunteer time to this issue and grown into a strong, informed advocate for Maplewood. I’m grateful for having an opportunity to serve our community by doing my part on our commission. What you’re describing about feeling so helpless in the face of gentrification is a really common feeling. Gentrification is confusing because in part it’s a very good and welcome growth process (every community wants to see ongoing investment and thriving residential and business districts). But gentrification can also make it impossible for lower-income residents to stay. The rents and property taxes become too high; homeowners get buyout offers they can’t afford to refuse. And newer, often wealthier people move in. I am one of those “gentrifiers” in Maplewood—I bought a small house at a high market rate I could truly barely afford, and when I did the street I live on became a tiny bit more gentrified because the price I paid meant that the value (and property tax rate) of nearby properties also went up. This process happens on repeat in every gentrifying neighborhood everywhere. It can feel inevitable—but it’s not.

      Long-term planning actually plays a big part—if Maplewood’s new comprehensive plan identifies both the good and bad parts of Maplewood’s gentrification, then the city can set out new priorities that will guide future decision-making and support reasonable, strategic development that continues to allow Maplewood to grow and thrive but without displacing our most vulnerable residents and without making Maplewood inaccessible to working class folks like laborers, service workers, and first-responders. Luckily, city planners and urban designers have spent recent decades developing standard practices to combat the unwanted outcomes of gentrification—and it’s the job of local experts and city officials to figure out the right mix of these strategies that make sense given each community’s unique realities and priorities. There’s no one-size, silver bullet solution. But there are lots and lots of strategies that the zoning commission, city council, and city hall have been learning about and need to keep talking about and implementing in the years ahead. Here are a few basic ideas that many communities find helpful: (1) encourage new residential growth that creates more (not less) housing; this is known as “missing middle” housing and often takes the form of things like duplexes and townhomes, which are smaller and more affordable and help create diverse housing stock that’s good at accommodating different needs (such as those of both young families and elderly neighbors), unlike the sort of new housing stock we typically get which tends to be enormous single-family houses that sell often sell in the range of half a million dollars; (2) encourage multi-use development that allows housing and other uses (like business or shopping) to exist together; this sort of mixed-use development is helpful because it means you can get more housing out of areas that don’t typically have housing, which means you don’t have to displace the older, existing housing, and it’s also very popular because it makes neighborhoods very lively and walkable; (3) one last idea is to use the power of the city government to make use of existing state and federal funding for low-income housing and housing assistance; the more we are able to use this funding to help vulnerable and low-income residents the more likely we are to mitigate one of the worst outcomes of gentrification, which is the displacement of workers, low-income families, and the elderly due to not being able to afford high costs of housing.

      I truly love this topic and I am always open to learning and sharing more. It takes us all working together to make a difference! Please always feel free to reach out. You can find me on facebook and my email is csbassett[at]gmail.com.

  5. Colin have you contacted the people in the suburbs you mentioned about how they are going about creating affordable housing?
    Do you not think it would be more to the city’s advantage to bring the many existing affordable dwellings we already have (and we have far far more than average) up to humane standards thus making both desirable and affordable for city employees and others? Look at what we already have and work from there!

    • Yes, Mary, I agree. One of the points I made in this op-ed is that we should “protect the affordable housing we already have.” It’s that existing, lower-cost housing that is quite vulnerable to the impacts of gentrification. Because it costs less, property developers and corporations can make more profit by purchasing it and turning it into higher cost housing. This is something we have spoken and learned a lot about on the zoning commission in the last two years. It’s a very complicated and challenging issue, but one I believe we can achieve as a community. Note, though, that if we don’t do anything and just hope the existing lower-cost housing continues to exist and be low-cost, we’re going to eventually lose it due to high rates of gentrification in Maplewood. Common sense affordable housing measures call for two distinct steps that must be pursued together: protecting existing affordable housing and creating new affordable housing without displacement.

      • I still would like examples of how you would achieve your goals. Rather than broad statements, I would like specifics. Thank you.

        • That’s not Colin’s strong suit, though.

          I think he prefers faculty lounge lingo based on his prior diatribe pre-mayoral election. It always bothers me when someone talks about unity but then says and does things to alienate and offend others who may otherwise see areas for compromise.

  6. Absolutely. I have been a resident for 19 years and have become deeply concerned about gentrification. I could not afford to move to Maplewood now. We bought a home for my daughter in 22 and could not afford a starter home for her in Maplewood. We need/must have affordable housing for the people who work in our community. It is not optional.

  7. Colin. Although we disagree on some issues, I believe your voice is an important one to have on the zoning commission. Thanks!

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