5/11/2007

Jim Roos fights against eminent domain: St Louis MO Post-Dispatch, 5/2/07

By Jake Wagman

Jim Roos has a briefcase covered in bumper stickers and a box full of buttons featuring his signature issue — fighting eminent domain.

He's a nonstop activist: organizing protests at City Hall, testifying in Jefferson City and commissioning a two-story mural condemning the seizure of private property.

But Roos is also a property owner and real estate manager, and his own buildings — some cited for broken windows and crumbling porches — have been a target for the very thing he crusades against.

Critics say landlords such as Roos are part of the problem, the reason eminent domain is needed to revive struggling sections of the city. Yet those who have been threatened by eminent domain call him a relentless advocate for property rights.

Either way, Roos, 63, a seminary graduate, fights eminent domain with religious zeal, becoming a visible figure in one of the state's most contentious issues.

Questions have been raised over whether Roos' stance is for the greater good or to protect his own self-interests. It could be a little of both, he suggests.

"I don't like to get pummeled myself," he said, "but I hate to see someone else get pummeled."

Roos grew up on a farm in southwestern Minnesota and came to St. Louis to attend Concordia Seminary. Instead of becoming a minister, Roos formed a "housing ministry" — Neighborhood Enterprises Inc. — which today manages or owns about 200 moderately priced apartments in the city, most of them on the near south side.

He can be found on most days in his office in the Gate District — it's the building with the anti-eminent domain signs in the window — or in his pickup with his dog, Indy, in the back.

Roos represents something of a gray area in the heated fight over eminent domain.

Although the battle lines have been drawn along high-profile cases — such as the proposed condemnation of prime land in downtown Clayton that last week was sent to the state Supreme Court — eminent domain is often used to help urban areas on the verge of a comeback. Those are the kinds of areas in which Roos operates, where a handful of properties potentially stand in the way of larger development.

For Roos, using eminent domain for any private development is an "injustice." Let the free market do its job, he says.

"What eminent domain is is absolute power," Roos said. "You have the powerful joining the powerful — the developers and the politicians."

But St. Louis officials, working to restore a city with old housing stock and vast amounts of abandoned properties, think limited eminent domain is a key tool for redevelopment.

That's why Mayor Francis Slay's office has campaigned to keep eminent domain, telling a state task force in 2005 that "we can't let one owner stop a project that is wanted and needed by the rest of the city."

McRee Town acquisition
Roos had been battling eminent domain long before it reached the national stage, making it an issue in his unsuccessful run for alderman in 1987.

It wasn't until about 15 years later that Roos was the subject of eminent domain himself. A city-backed commission, led by the Missouri Botanical Garden, used eminent domain to acquire nearly two dozen buildings Roos owned or managed in the McRee Town neighborhood.

That's when Roos said he first became a "victim." To hear him tell it, McRee Town, left alone, would have been the next Soulard.

Not so, says veteran Alderman Joe Roddy.

"It was a neighborhood in a free fall," said Roddy, who cited the area's high crime rate.

Today, the neighborhood is home to a suburban-style subdivision — Botanical Heights, with homes listing for more than $300,000 — which Roddy points to as evidence that eminent domain can work.

The real problem, Roddy claims, is property owners such as Roos, who, Roddy says, "manages property so poorly that it becomes detrimental to the neighborhood."

"He is probably one of the best cases you can have for using eminent domain on occupied housing," Roddy said.

Indeed, Roos' properties have drawn complaints for graffiti and trash buildup. This year alone, city inspectors cited Roos' properties for several infractions, including broken or missing window panes, a collapsed fence, a collapsed porch, a partly collapsed wall and improper display of address numbers.

Even the "End Eminent Domain Abuse" mural, which can be seen heading north where Gravois Avenue becomes Tucker Boulevard, has been cited. Last month, the Department of Public Safety issued Roos a notice for having an "illegal sign" and ordered it removed.

Other than the mural, Roos says that the buildings cited by the city had the violations before he purchased them. Roos says his rental units are "decent," though not glamorous.

"It's ordinary housing," Roos said. "But durable, safe."

Bohemian battlefield
Roos has recently focused his activism on Bohemian Hill, south of downtown, where a building he operates is among a collection of homes that have been "blighted," a precursor to eminent domain.

Despite protests organized by Roos, the developer who is building on the land around the area said that using eminent domain "is not even in our thought process. Period."

"That's what's been so frustrating with people like Jim Roos," said Chris Goodson, who is bringing a grocery and a Walgreens to six vacant acres in the area. Goodson, president of the city Police Board, was also on the governor's Eminent Domain Task Force.

"I find it curious," Goodson added, "that where you find blighted areas in the city, you usually find Jim Roos' properties."

Still, it's easy to understand why Bohemian Hill residents are confused.

In January, property owners received a "notice of intent to acquire" from a development firm working for the city. Though the letter emphasized it was only a "preliminary statement of interest," it came with an enclosure titled "When A Public Agency Acquires Your Property."

One of the residents who received the letter was Christie Hutchins, who purchased her home about five years ago. She praised Roos as a "tireless" advocate who "fights for the little man," helping neighbors understand the complex process of eminent domain.

"I can see why the city people hate him so much," Hutchins said.

So can Roos, who has proved a politically savvy adversary. He requires his tenants to register to vote and is helping circulate a petition for a state constitutional amendment limiting eminent domain.

If the past is any indication, Roos will be a tough opponent to shake. He says that many years ago, an angry ex-tenant once riddled Roos' house on Lafayette Avenue with bullets.

"One of the members of our church asked, 'Why are you still there?'" Roos recalled. "Well, they missed."


St Louis MO Post-Dispatch: http://www.stltoday.com