by Dan Bauman and Megan Favignano
In 1958, Juanita Hibbett and her husband moved into what Hibbett describes as a modest, but comfortable, house on the 400 block of Catalina Avenue in Webster Groves. Hibbett and her husband raised their four children in the home. In 2011, Hibbett sold it to Webster University for $315,000, but she continues to live in the home.
“I was getting older, and it seemed like a good thing to do,” Hibbett said. “My children agreed.”
Today, Hibbett, 92, lives in the home rent-free, per an agreement with Webster.
“I sold the house to (Webster), but I get to live here rent-free until my demise, or when I decide to live somewhere else,” Hibbett said as she chuckled.
According to the St. Louis County Assessor’s Office, Hibbett’s house is one of 20 taxable properties Webster University owns in Webster Groves — 11 of which are on Catalina Avenue.
Almost all of the homes on Catalina Avenue are considered rental properties, according to occupancy permits The Journal obtained from Webster Groves Department of Planning and Development. Renters of these properties fall into three distinct categories: single and family renters, Webster University employees, and visiting professors to the university.
With the exception of President Elizabeth Stroble’s house, all of the houses Webster owns in Webster Groves are rental properties. The university declined to confirm how many rental properties it owns in Webster Groves.
Webster University Director of Public Relations Patrick Giblin said the university’s rental properties are rented at market value. Giblin would not comment on the agreement between the university and Hibbett, but said any person not paying market value has a “very unique and unusual circumstance.”
View Webster University Taxable Properties in a full screen map
— Note 1: In 1970, Webster College purchased 31 pieces of land in Webster Groves on May 8, 1970. It included several lots in the Wood, Silence and Edmondson’s Subdivision, as well as several properties on Catalina Ave/Pasadena Webster subdivision. These CATALINA AVE properties were: 8364 BIG BEND BLVD, 435 CATALINA AVE, 443 CATALINA AVE, 457 CATALINA AVE, 469 CATALINA AVE, 473 CATALINA AVE, and 475 CATALINA AVE. The total amount of the land buy at the time was $125,000. Adjusted for inflation, in 2013 the sale would have amounted to $749,913.02. You can view the list of properties purchased in 1970 at the bottom of this story.
Sources: St. Louis County Assessor’s Real Estate database, 1970 Deed of Trust, Webster University: History of the Presidency webpage, websterjournal.com, zillow.com, blockshopper.com
Webster paid $96,000 in property taxes in 2012
With the purchase of two houses in the Webster Groves community in 2012, Webster University’s property tax bill on the 20 Webster Groves properties increased by nearly $18,000 for the year.
The Journal analyzed real estate records through the St. Louis County Assessor’s Office and found the university paid $95,965.60 in total property taxes on all residences in 2012, up from $78,063.10 in 2011.
Webster’s properties also fared better in their assessed value than the Webster Groves community as a whole in 2012. Assessment values for Webster University-owned homes in Webster Groves decreased by just 0.1 percent in 2012. Webster Groves, however, saw its total assessed valuation drop 5.9 percent in 2012, according to a report from the St. Louis County Assessor’s Office.
The 2013 assessed value for individual properties in St. Louis county will not be available until the end of May, according to the assessor’s office website.
A minimal increase was seen in the appraisals of the properties. In 2012, the total appraised amount was $5,535,600 for the residences.
Sources: St. Louis County Assessor’s Real Estate database, 1970 Deed of Trust,websterjournal.com, zillow.com, blockshopper.com
Webster Groves Mayor Gerry Welch said the university’s purchase of residential properties in Webster Groves had led to concern within the community. Welch said community members were concerned about the conversion of ownership property into rental property, as well as the university’s intended use of the land.
“Rental property tends to be different from homeownership property,” Welch said. “Homeowners tend to spend more, to put more care into the property.”
“(The university) would buy property and use it for rental property for the purpose of making money. And that’s different than people who buy it for the purpose of living in it and making it their permanent home.”
Welch said Webster University provided some information about its desire to expand in its most recent master plan. However, she said the city would like additional information about the university’s intended use of the land.
“That’s the concern,” Welch said. “If I am the university and I am buying property, what I am going to do with it?”
Chief Communications Officer Barbara O’Malley said the university’s intent for the residential property is outlined clearly in the master plan. The master plan does not envision an expansion into the Pasadena Webster subdivision in the next fifteen to twenty years.
However, the master plan is not a binding vision for the university’s future growth.
According to the master plan, the university projects significant growth within Webster’s existing property ownership. In reference to the relationship between Eden Theological Seminary and the university, the university said “other opportunities may arise in the future.”
Chief Financial Officer Greg Gunderson discussed the residential properties currently owned by the university at the October meeting. At the time, Gunderson said the university waits to be approached by residents selling their homes and does not approach sellers.
“We purchase (houses) as part of a transitional zone, which is part of our agreement to the city to have something of a buffer between university property and private residences,” Gunderson said at the October meeting.
Hibbett said her real estate broker approached the university when she wanted to sell her home. Hibbett said she doesn’t understand some residents’ disliking of the university.
“I always think it’s wonderful if you live near a church or a school,” Hibbett said. “Because that’s our life blood in my opinion.”
Also at the October meeting, Gunderson said the university doesn’t rent its residential properties to students. Instead, it intends to rent the homes to families. Gunderson added that the university maintains the properties well, which keeps property values high.
However, Webster Groves councilmember Greg Mueller expressed concerns at the meeting in October. Mueller said people would be hesitant to purchase a home on a street of all rental properties.
Gunderson presented a Powerpoint presentation about the university’s residential rental properties to Webster Groves City Council members and Eden representatives at a collaborative meeting in October. In the presentation, Gunderson mentioned that the university wants to establish buffer zones around its campus. Giblin said it’s clear there is neighborhood concern about how operations at the university impact the community.
View Gunderson’s presentation below:
“The whole idea of the buffer zone is to make sure that there is a permanent actual neighborhood that separates Webster’s operations from the residents of the town itself,” Giblin said. “Think of it like a barrier or a fence. It’s our promise to the community that we’re trying our best to try to be as least disruptive on their neighborhoods as possible.”
The passage of Ordinance 8753 in the fall restricted to whom Eden Theological Seminary can sell and lease land. During the discussion of the ordinance at numerous Webster Groves City Council meetings, community residents expressed concerns about Webster University’s expansion. Those same concerns led to the city questioning Webster University’s ownership of 20 residential properties in the Webster Groves community at a meeting among the city, the university and Eden in October.
Kim Griffo, executive director at the International Town and Gown Association, said universities need to keep communication open with their surrounding communities. International Town and Gown is a consulting firm specializing in community and university expansion issues.
Griffo also recommended real estate agents and neighborhood association members meet with the City of Webster Groves and Webster University regularly to discuss community relations, or any other issues. Griffo said regular meetings allow issues to be addressed when they are small, rather than after issues have gotten “out of hand.” She said a student voice there would be beneficial as well.
“There’s a balance between what benefits the campus and the community,” Griffo said. “Be cautious of friction points along the way (to expansion).”
Gary Heisel, a homeowner on Catalina Avenue, said he hasn’t always agreed with the university and the university needs to be more “forthright and up front with the people.”
Heisel said he sees a university presence in a community as a positive.
“People move here because of the schools (and) property values. And the latter of which the university helps immensely. Just ask all the people on Catalina Avenue,” Heisel said.
Jonathan Fahey and his family moved to St. Louis from Australia in January. Fahey received a scholarship from Saint Louis University in their social work master’s program. Fahey and his family worked with Roberts Realty to find a rental property. Through Roberts Realty, they were introduced to the Webster University-owned home in which they currently live.
Webster University uses Roberts Realty, a third-party realtor, to manage its residential rental properties. Roberts Realty acts as a liaison between the university and the renters, according to Giblin.
“They are the ones who know how to be really responsive in case a heater suddenly doesn’t start working, or there’s a leak in the roof,” Giblin said. “We’re deferring to this agency because they’re really experts at renting out houses. We’re a university.”
When Stefania Accardo, a renter in a university-owned house on Catalina Avenue, had a problem with mold in her home, she called Roberts Realty to fix it.
“Sometimes they are really reactive, they are very fast,”Accardo said. “Sometimes it takes a little longer.”
Giblin also said Roberts Realty knows appropriate housing rates and better understands all of the laws involved in renting property.