WashU Expert: Housing Syrian refugees

Architectural historian Michael Allen says St. Louis region could easily accommodate flux of new residents

Since 2011, more than half of Syria’s population has been displaced. Last week, President Barack Obama instructed his administration to accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year. But in St. Louis, a growing chorus of voices — including that of Mayor Francis Slay — is calling for more.


Architectural historian Michael Allen, University College coordinator and lecturer in American Culture Studies in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, studies the social, economic and political dimensions of preservation planning.

He said that St. Louis has a long history of welcoming, and benefiting from, waves of immigrants. What’s more, the city’s existing housing stock could easily accommodate thousands of new residents.

“St. Louis’ accumulation of previous waves of immigrants has testament everywhere, in the form of the region’s sturdy historic housing stock. Without waves of immigrants from Poland, Bohemia, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Russia and other parts of the world, the city may have stayed a pretty small, river-bound place. Immigrants provided the population that built our great neighborhoods.

“These immigrants brought some building traditions as well, especially seen in churches. The fixed-in-time quality of many city neighborhoods is both heartening for the nostalgic and a stunning reminder to others that the city stopped gaining new arrivals in the 20th century, and lost people instead.

“Today, the region has a housing oversupply. We built up, but then we built out. Waves of refugees who arrived in the 1990s came from Bosnia and Vietnam, but they did not forge new architecture. Instead, their arrival prevented the abandonment of parts of south St. Louis. There is no doubt that Syrian refugees could do the same, although perhaps not where one might expect.

“The housing stock in the best condition, that is most realistically occupied by new arrivals, does not consist of vacant, crumbling red brick city houses. The housing stock with lowest occupation costs comes in the form of foreclosed dwellings on the south side state streets and in O’Fallon Park, and the acres of aging ranch house subdivisions ringing the city.

“We could gain 10,000 Syrian refugees — a number far exceeding the hundreds that are likely — and still be living with too much housing, too much abandonment and too much demolition. Yet the infusion could prevent one or more areas from falling past the point of likely recovery. St. Louis should request that the federal government give the city the best form of federal aid — people eager to make homes, open businesses, build communities and contribute to cultural growth.”

Allen teaches courses on historic preservation, architectural history and the politics of place at Washington University. He also is founder and director of the Preservation Research Office, which has led architectural surveys, historic district nominations and rehabilitation planning efforts across the City of St. Louis, East St. Louis and other cities in Missouri and Illinois. You can follow him on Twitter.

Allen is available for interviews at michael@preservationresearch.com. For assistance, contact Liam Otten at liam_otten@wustl.edu or 314-935-8494.