Gateway journalism review - 2016

Rent strike to Canfield Green

By William H. Freivogel

The shiny redevelopment plan for Canfield Green sits in front of Richard Baron, the St. Louis developer who has built successful housing all across the country.

“Southeast Ferguson Transformation Plan” it reads.

It is filled with inviting artist renderings of what Canfield Green and Northwinds apartments will look like after they are transformed with front porches, bike paths, trails and greenways.  What they will look like after the project addresses the barricaded streets, unaccredited schools and a creek that floods basements leaving mold behind.

But no one is going to turn these artist renderings into concrete and glass.  The Southeast Ferguson Transformation Plan is not going to be built in this place where Michael Brown lived and died.

To hear Baron tell it, the project isn’t going to be built because there is not enough political will.  Not enough will in Washington, not enough will in Jefferson City, not enough will in Clayton.

“We could get no support anywhere,” he said. “I met with the HUD (Housing and Urban Development) secretary three times and could get no help there. I actually had contacts in the White House to see if we could get any help….I had an interest from some of the Civic Progress companies (St. Louis’s top corporations) who were willing to step forward and put some real investment into this program but their feeling was if the administration and the governor’s offices weren’t willing to be active partners with them they were not going to do this by themselves.”

Baron described his meetings with HUD Secretary Julián Castro.  Baron isn’t an unknown quantity to Castro. When Castro was mayor of San Antonio, Baron worked on projects in the city.  On top of that, Baron brought along, Henry Cisneros, Bill Clinton’s HUD secretary. 

“I went into the first meeting with Henry Cisneros who was Castro’s mentor…Henry comes in there with me and we are sitting all around the table.  He said Mr. Secretary you need to move on this….I think you need to go to the White House on this….I saw Castro several times afterward. He said, ‘Richard I tried to find resources, but we don’t have ability to help much….and I said surely the White House has a swat team….He looks at me….

“The administration did not understand…What better opportunity with this administration to do transformational work in distressed neighborhoods. (Sen. Barbara) Mikulski went through the same thing after Baltimore (the Freddie Gray riots).  Sen. Mikulski was here yesterday, they’d say.” She didn’t get money either.

Baron gathers that the administration “felt that (Attorney General Eric) Holder and the Justice Department with the kind of report they issued and the settlement agreement and changes in the police department, in their view that was their intervention in Ferguson.”

It wouldn’t have ended there with a Bill Clinton or Lyndon Johnson in the White House, says Baron.  They would have been on the phone “with the head of the Ford Foundation and saying I need you guys to go to Ferguson… I want to partner you up with the corporate community in St. Louis.”

Nor did Gov. Jay Nixon take a leadership role, says Baron. Baron never met with Nixon although he met with aides.  They said “if the feds aren’t going to do anything you can’t ask us to do anything….everybody was waiting on the next guy. Nixon is pathetic….He’d come by for (campaign) money and I would get into it with him on desegregation….I’ve been around this guy for a long long time and he is just terrified by the black community….He just can’t begin to relate.”

The St. Louis rent strike

When Baron heard about the death of Michael Brown his thoughts went back half a century to his days as a young legal services lawyer during the St. Louis rent strike.

When he arrived in St. Louis in 1968, straight out of law school, he represented people in traffic cases in north St. Louis county.  So he wasn’t surprised by what he read about abuses in municipal courts in Ferguson and other towns.

But it was the legal abuses during the rent strike that he found stunning.

“Four or five weeks after I started at Legal Services — I didn’t even know the way to the courthouse - I was interviewing Janet Dorn, a very nice woman.  Her case worker told her she shouldn’t have to pay rent so she stopped paying.”

But the magistrate courts were granting judgments evicting renters without having served the renters court papers.

In Dorn’s case, the notice of a court hearing was posted in two police stations, a firehouse and the Civil Courts building. Baron says the magistrates were “taking money judgments against hundreds and hundreds of people” who had no idea their cases were even in court.

Baron sought the advice of Joseph Simeone, a former judge and law professor.  Simeone told him the legal fight would have to wend its way through several courts. “I told him we can’t wait months, so I go home with the Missouri Rules of Procedure and find some obscure provision that in extraordinary situations the Missouri Supreme Court will take jurisdiction.  So I go in on Monday and write up an appeal.  Everybody is saying, Baron you’re a shit disturber.  A week later we get a telegram from the Missouri Supreme Court and they want arguments in two weeks.

“Geez I was just out of law school a couple of weeks….I had never taken a trial course in law school at all.”

But Baron won a unanimous decision that Dorn and others were entitled to personal service of the hearing - not just some notice tacked on a bulletin board in a firehouse or police station.


Black Jack

In 1969 the Inter Religious Center for Urban Affairs (ICUA) began planning Park View Heights to provide housing for low- and moderate-income people trapped in St. Louis.

The group settled on 12 acres on Old Jamestown Road in unincorporated St. Louis County, and the Federal Housing Administration indicated it would provide federal funding.

Within weeks, a citizens group formed to incorporate Black Jack and block the housing project with an exclusionary zoning law. The courts found that opposition “was repeatedly expressed in racial terms” by the leaders of the incorporation movement. “Racial criticism of Park View Heights was made and cheered at public meetings.”

By this time Baron was general counsel of the ACLU.   The lawsuit against Black Jack went before U.S. District Judge Roy Harper, a Truman appointee whose decisions often went against civil rights.  Baron recalls Harper telling him, “you know any idiot with $35 can file a lawsuit in federal court.”

One day, Harper called Baron into his chambers. “He said, ‘Ihave two opinions I’m about to issue. I have one in one typewriter and the other in another.  You know Mr. Baron this hocus pocus about civil rights is ridiculous.  The only count in your petition where there might be damages is because you have lost your use of this property as multifamily….I’ll be glad to give you a trial in 6 to 8 months or I can basically throw out the whole case.  I’ve written up an opinion to that effect.”

Harper warned Baron he could not take an immediate appeal, adding that he and the famous judge Learned Hand had personally written the rule that barred immediate appeals.

Baron appealed anyway and the case went to Judge Gerald Heaney, well known for his pro-civil rights opinions.

In 1974 Heaney wrote the 8th Circuit appeals court decision against Black Jack.. He said those challenging Black Jack need to “prove no more than that the conduct of the defendant actually or predictably results in racial discrimination; in other words, that it has a discriminatory effect.”  This was a big victory because it is easier to prove something has a discriminatory effect than that it has a discriminatory purpose.

Heaney wrote that Black Jack’s action had to be seen in light of St. Louis’ long history of housing segregation.

Black Jack’s exclusionary zoning was “but one more factor confining blacks to low-income housing in the center city, confirming the inexorable process whereby the St. Louis metropolitan area becomes one that ‘has the racial shape of a donut, with the Negroes in the hole and with mostly Whites occupying the ring,’” he wrote.

Black Jack’s ordinance was illegal and the city had to pay $450,000 to Park View Heights.

The housing project never got built, but the court ruling echoed over the next decades in federal appeals courts across the country. Ten other federal appeals courts endorsed Black Jack’s “disparate impact theory of housing discrimination.” Finally, a year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed, citing Black Jack in its opinion.

Recalling those times Baron says, “I would suggest that the same mentality of the residents in this North County area that led to the creation of the City of Blackjack to stop the development were alive and well in Ferguson that led to the court system, racial profiling, etc. Nothing changed!”

Police-reform crusade

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