Originally submitted by Megan Betts and published November 29, 2017 in the
St. Louis American
Over the last several months, the neighbors of Tower Grove South worked to establish a private Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) negotiated between community residents and stakeholders, and a small developer implementing a housing project in the neighborhood’s Morganford business district.
For St. Louis, this is new territory. No other agreement of this nature, privately negotiated between community members and a developer and including direct legal accountability to the neighborhood, had been completed.
Unfortunately, on Wednesday, November 7, the Housing, Urban Development and Zoning Committee of the Board of Alderman made sure that residents’ voices would be silenced, by refusing to pass 15th Ward Alderwoman Megan Green’s Board Bill 101 requesting tax abatement for the proposed development. The reason given by the committee chair and members: the CBA.
For hours, the committee grilled Alderwoman Green about the legitimacy of this CBA, making accusations of a conflict of interest, stating that community residents are unqualified to negotiate over development in their community, and making statements that similar processes would halt development in the city.
This is despite the fact that the only thing actually holding up the development was the committee’s refusal to send the bill to the full Board of Aldermen. While community benefits agreements would certainly change the development landscape, their main effect would be creating a culture where development includes considerations for racial equity in its processes, goals, and neighborhood impact.
In the case of the Morganford CBA, the community came together through a coordinated engagement process designed to identify the neighborhood’s concerns surrounding the development. They used this opportunity to respond to a clear need for affordable housing, resulting in a $60,000 commitment from the developer for a neighborhood nonprofit to provide long-term affordable housing in a neighborhood that has seen escalating housing costs.
Despite the alderpersons’ accusations, this privately negotiated agreement has nothing to do with the cited state conflict of interest law. There was no demand of money to the alderperson or quid pro quo of a donation to any private group when beginning the process. Elected officials often require developers to meet with the community and consider their needs. The only real difference between this and the business-as-usual practice is that the community did the negotiating. CBAs are in use in numerous states with similar laws and none have found them to be illegal.
Equitable St. Louis is a coalition of community, civil rights, and labor organizations seeking to empower residents to drive racially equitable development in the St. Louis region through the use of Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs). We believe that these agreements must meet three core principles: They must be community-based and negotiated, legally binding, and enforceable by the community.
The Morganford CBA, though not perfect in its process and implementation, meets these basic tenants. Again, this was a first, but it will certainly not be the last time that local communities demand accountability from developers.
At the following HUDZ committee meeting, the same alderpersons reiterated their desire to add language to all redevelopment bills that would prevent projects with CBAs from receiving any tax incentives, until they say otherwise. The Board of Aldermen has no power to limit the right of contract in situations where neither party is breaking the law. The city is not a party to this CBA, therefore there was no reason for the HUDZ committee to review it. Aldermanic committees have never opposed alderperson-negotiated deals that pay for items on their ward capital fund to-do-lists, nor have committees given an equal level of review and scrutiny to all of a development’s other contractual obligations.
Preempting the negotiation of CBAs is not the way to build a more equitable St. Louis. Stopping CBAs from being negotiated, in the absence of a city-wide ordinance, is an irresponsible and inflammatory reaction to communities demanding equity and greater accountability.
Megan Betts is a member of Northside Neighbors United, a coalition member of Equitable STL, and community organizer from the St. Louis Place neighborhood.