Safety or discrimination: company's zip code policy scrutinized

Safety or discrimination: company's zip code policy scrutinized

OLD NORTH – Safety or discrimination?

A local company has drawn criticism for refusing to work in certain neighborhoods based on zip codes that it has deemed unsafe.

“…If they are going to be a St. Louis-based company they should serve all of St. Louis,” Travis Sheridan told KMOV News 4.

He was talking about the Soulard Garage Door and Fence Company. His appointment for a quote to have a fence built around his new container home in Old North St. Louis was cancelled by the company, who said it was in an unsafe neighborhood.

The company wrote a letter to Channel 4 News, further explaining its stance.

“In recent months our employees were the subject of facing a pulled weapon at gunpoint and of hearing ongoing gun shots while performing standard day-to-day business activities at several homes,” wrote the company’s Stephan Segura.

Continuing, Segura wrote:

“These events have placed our staff in situations many would consider most dangerous and have impacted our ability to provide normal business operations. Therefore, we have decided to temporarily suspend the offering of our services to homes in select zip codes we deem unsafe.”

Sheridan told KMOX Radio last week that he took the step of having Soulard’s owner come out to the home and see the neighborhood first hand.  It was then that the company agreed to put in a bid for the fencing work, rethinking the stance on that particular zip code.  But the initial incident is indicative of a larger problem for residents of many north St. Louis neighborhoods according to Sheridan, who is involved in economic development in the Cortex district.

The minority-owned business has a 5-star rating from the Better Business Bureau, who The NorthSider contacted. The BBB responded in a statement, saying, “This concern would not be considered in the company rating. The company has a right to choose what their service area is. BBB has no authority over that.”

While the policy appears akin to redlining practices, Charles Bryson, the director of the City Civil Rights Enforcement Agency confirmed that “there does not appear to be any federal laws or regulations regarding a business not serving a certain area.”

Along with his response, Bryson sent a link to a Boston Globe story that questioned online-delivery giant Amazon’s refusal to offer same-day delivery in certain zip codes with majority Black residents.

Unlike the Soulard Garage Door and Fence Company, Amazon responded to a reporter, citing customer data and delivery logistics, denying that demographics played a part.

Using zip codes to deliver sub-prime services to African Americans is a decades-old practice. In recent years, companies have pointed to high rates of crime for justification.

Some companies, like Wal-Mart or Home Depot or Incredible Pizza, are absent in communities like north St. Louis. Even some pizza joints that are within the city limits refuse to deliver to certain zip codes, sometimes citing similar crime incidents to the fence company.  

Insurers of cars and homes use zip codes as barometers for crime in determining premium costs, something that also played into the fence company’s decision.

While Spire (formerly Laclede Gas) workers can be seen updating infrastructure city-wide in St. Louis’ high crime neighborhoods, out-of-control gun violence and sub-prime law enforcement offer justification to the fence company for refusal of service, surreptitious or not.

However, Old St. Louis didn’t have one homicide this or last year, according to the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. One aggravated gun assault was recorded there this year to date, down from three last year.

The Soulard neighborhood where the company is located actually recorded the same number of aggravated gun assaults as the neighborhood that was refusing to serve.

Tower Grove Pride, a south side community organization, responded the to company’s zip code-based refusal, writing:

“If it hard for an affluent couple to get contractors for their new shipping-container home in Old North St. Louis; it must be much, much harder for the black community that make up the vast majority of Northside residents.”

In closing, the organization wrote: “We can make laws to prohibit this kind of discrimination, but it will also take the breaking down of social barriers and stereotypes, and deeply ingrained fears, to allow for the equitable development of North St. Louis.”