Quality, affordable housing along with well maintained streets and sidewalks, coupled with consistent municipal services such as trash and recycling collection are the elementary foundations of a strong neighborhood. However, there are many additional basic amenities that when present not only make neighborhoods more desirable places to live, but also make them stronger and more sustainable neighborhoods in general.
In many urban areas basic commercial services are severely lacking. For instance, grocery stores that sell a wide range of healthy foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains are often nonexistent or are located miles away from city residents in more suburban areas. Often filling this void are gas station convenience marts that overwhelmingly sell heavily processed, low quality, packaged snacks. Despite the fact that the USDA has specific criteriavendors must meet in order to be approved to accept SNAP benefits, more and more convenience marts in the St. Louis metropolitan area are being approved even though their selection of healthy foods is severely lacking. This leaves the high concentration of children and families receiving SNAP benefits in the City of St. Louis, North County and East St. Louis with extremely limited access to healthy foods, further contributing to the public health epidemics disproportionately affecting these residents.
This lack of commercial enterprises in urban areas also makes completing everyday errands very challenging. With a lack of pharmacies and drug stores in many urban areas getting a prescription filled for the occasional, acute illness or for the maintenance of a long-term health condition can be difficult and can contribute to “patient noncompliance.” The same is true if one needs to purchase any number of over-the-counter items. This lack of retail also makes it harder to purchase everyday household items, personal care products, school supplies, and clothes for one’s family. For those residents dependent upon public transportation, particularly in St. Louis where the public transportation infrastructure is underdeveloped and underfunded, completing these errands may require multiple bus and/or metro transfers and hours spent simply trying to get from one’s neighborhood to the parts of town where one can access these retail opportunities.
Further contributing to the personal financial instability and the overall economic health of neighborhoods in many urban areas is the lack of banks and credit unions in these areas. It is crucial that residents can relatively easily get to a bank and are able to establish credit, checking and savings accounts. Forming a relationship with a bank can be instrumental in securing mortgages and home and business loans. Access to banks and credit unions is particularly important in low income neighborhoods where check-cashing, payday loan, and title-loan establishments significantly outnumber community banks and credit unions. These establishments use a number of predatory practices and charge outrageously high fees and interest rates for their services. These establishments have no interest in helping residents become financially stable and are often a factor that contributes to residents living pay check to pay check. Currently Missouri has some of the weakest payday loan laws in the country making the state a haven for these large, out-of-state lending companies.
Those living in urban areas often have significantly lower median household incomes than the average median income in other locations. This is clearly the case in Missouri where the median income in St. Louis City is $33,221, whereas in St. Louis County it is $56,280. For decades, this disparity in income has justified the lack of investment by commercial ventures in these areas. However, current research is finding that because of the higher population density in urban areas and the lack of competitors serving this population, this is a market with purchasing power that is often nearly equal to that of surrounding areas that have higher median incomes per capita. Civic leaders need to make it a priority to attract commercial investments to urban areas. This would greatly affect the stability of neighborhoods by making them more desirable places for residents to live while also spurring economic growth in these areas.