Bringing 114 Homes in North St. Louis County Back to Stability

It’s been a year since Beyond Housing acquired partial ownership and took over property management of the Stratford Commons apartments in Pine Lawn. In those 12 months, it launched extensive improvement projects in partnership with the majority owner, the Housing Authority of St. Louis County.

Through the collaboration of multiple Beyond Housing departments, volunteer groups, and external partners, the complex’s trajectory is completely different than it was in March 2023.

Every interior aspect of the 114 affordable housing units has been evaluated, along with the exterior landscaping, streets, and even the Dumpsters, said Senior Director of Housing Cory Dickens. Management oversight and security have been strengthened, expired leases have been cleared up, and all the residents—both existing and new—have completed intake interviews as part of Beyond Housing’s transformative service model.

“We’ve had some really moving stories of families coming in to Stratford Commons,” said Dickens, whose department manages Beyond Housing’s 600-plus rental units. “Stratford has different demographics than our other properties, including more unhoused applicants.”

The complex is nearing its 85% occupancy goal as of the end of February, up from only 64% when Beyond Housing took over. At that level, Dickens explained, Stratford Commons was not generating revenue. It had no reserves and no cash flow.

Moreover, 33 of its units were part of a $1.7 million insurance claim for water damage that had rendered them unlivable. The apartments were in non-compliance with regulations at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Missouri Housing Development Commission, and the City of Pine Lawn. All the leases were expired, some dating back to 2019.

Beyond Housing’s team was prepared for those challenges, Dickens said. But they were caught off guard by almost half a million dollars in unpaid invoices, including $264,000 to the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District.

Overlapping Urgent Priorities

Dickens and her staff of 20 have deep experience dealing with a myriad of contingencies in Beyond Housing’s portfolio of affordable housing. They’re experienced with rolling up their sleeves—and inviting others to join them.

They identified the lack of cash flow and the financial obligations as the biggest challenge and secured a $500,000 loan from the Housing Authority of St. Louis County to address immediate needs. Meanwhile, they followed up on the insurance claim, which took 60 days to be wrapped up. Still, the settlement only covered returning the units to their previous condition; it was not sufficient for all the work the units needed to be habitable, which included an additional $65,000 in repairs and $15,000 in appliances.

At the same time, other members of Dickens’ team were focused on rectifying the leases. Because residents need to meet income guidelines to qualify for apartments, all residents need to recertify every year. “All of the leases were expired, some going back three years. We got that handled in 60 days,” Dickens said.

From March of 2023 to the end of February 2024, the complex has seen 35 incoming tenants and 16 departures, including six management terminations for lease violations, Dickens said. Stratford Commons had developed a negative reputation due to criminal behaviors—sometimes as many as five or six incidents per month.

In addition to the long list of urgent issues, the complex had serious exterior aesthetic and safety issues due to neglect. “Even the Dumpsters looked like they had been set on fire,” Dickens said.

Pulling Partners Together

Beyond Housing’s internal staff responded quickly after they stepped into partial ownership and management. To date, its 10-member maintenance team has completed over 400 backlogged work orders in addition to the major renovations. Its forestry team was awarded a $25,000 grant for tree mitigation work, which is currently in progress. And when its development team contacted volunteer organizations about beautification projects, they took the invitation to roll up their sleeves literally, trimming bushes, clearing the fence of debris and trash, cleaning up the playground, and planting flower beds.

The progress that’s been made to bring Stratford Commons up to satisfactory standards is very evident to Shannon Koenig, the Housing Authority of St. Louis County Executive Director and CEO. “We appreciate Beyond Housing’s management of the complex this past year, and we’re heartened to be on track to provide the residents with the housing experience they deserve,” she said.

As part of Beyond Housing’s transformative service model, all families living in homes owned by the nonprofit complete a Family Stability Index to identify what services and supports could benefit them. Dickens credits Intake Specialist Angela Hopkins of the Transformative Service Department with completing the survey with all the residents who stayed in the apartments as well as those who started moving in once the renovations were complete.

The assessment covers several areas, from employment and income to basic needs, transportation, child care, education, and more. Based on the results, Beyond Housing follows up with referrals. A notable success at Stratford Commons: Eight of the new residents were referred to Home Sweet Home, a nonprofit that provides basic household furnishings to families who are transitioning into a place of their own after a period of housing insecurity.

But given the scope of the work the complex needed, Dickens and her staff also reached out to external partners about more intransigent problems. Addressing crime was a top priority—and they came up with a creative solution that has proven extremely effective. With permission from the Missouri Housing Development Commission, Beyond Housing was able to convert one unit to a residence for a police officer from the North County Police Cooperative.

“The most impressive accomplishment for Stratford Commons is a 100% reduction in crime,” Dickens said. “We have had zero instances of crime since he moved in last September.” Between the officer, a state-of-the-art monitored camera security system, and residents who feel a renewed sense of community, “we’ve got a lot of eyes on the property now,” Dickens added.

To overcome the neighborhood’s perception as a high-crime location, Beyond Housing’s IT team went to work on online, distancing itself from the previous management company and the bad reviews it received.

Inside the facilities, Beyond Housing has put in $750,000 in efficiency upgrades. Ameren, a longtime Beyond Housing partner, made a $500,000 in-kind donation of new furnaces and air conditioner condensers for all 114 units. An additional $270,000 from the Housing Authority loan has gone toward resource-saving amenities such as low-flow showerheads and smart thermostats. Ameren estimates that the upgrades will result in annual residential cost savings of $23,585.  

“This story is a perfect example of what can be achieved when compassion and property management intersect; it creates much-needed positive change in our communities,” said Katrina Sommer, Interim Chief Operating Officer at the Housing Authority of St. Louis County.

Additional repair work is ongoing. For example, Beyond Housing is currently replacing hundreds of blinds and window screens to bring the apartments into compliance with regulations. The next step will be addressing the parking lots and sidewalks. And a $200,000 Community Development Block Grant from St. Louis County will facilitate roof and tuckpointing at the YWCA and early education center in Stratford Commons.

One of the most satisfying physical successes for Dickens was replacing the unsightly Dumpsters courtesy of Republic, the new waste management contractor for the complex. But at the end of the day, for her it’s all about helping people who might not have otherwise qualified for housing get into a safe, stable environment.

Among the newcomers to Stratford Commons, one in particular stands out. Due to a health condition, the resident had gone from having a perfect payment history to losing her home. “If anyone else had seen her rental history, they would not have approved her,” Dickens said. “That is ultimately why we do what we do.”

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