WELLSTON — The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on Monday approved a proposal that local officials hope will save public housing units that are home to roughly 450 residents, almost 20% of this small city.
“I’m excited to be able to say that we’ll be providing these residents with an option of where they want to live to ensure they have safe and decent units,” Hunter Kurtz, HUD’s top public housing official, told the Post-Dispatch Monday.
The plan hinged on approval from HUD, which had indicated it didn’t believe the housing units were salvageable due to years of deferred maintenance. HUD and the Housing Authority of St. Louis County had been pushing a plan to demolish them and supply residents with rent vouchers to use elsewhere in the market.
Lisa D’Souza, an attorney with nonprofit Legal Services of Eastern Missouri who represents Wellston tenants, called HUD’s a approval a “victory.”
St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, who unexpectedly took power this spring in the wake of former County Executive Steve Stenger’s resignation, refused to sign off on the demolition plan and instead advocated for a way to preserve the public housing for residents who wanted to stay.
In November, the county, Wellston and the housing authority released a plan to apply for low income housing tax credits to attract a private developer that would take over and rehab the units. Their plan relies on 186 “project-based” vouchers, which could only be used at the Wellston units, thereby guaranteeing an income stream for a new owner.
Initially, they sought extra vouchers beyond the 200 HUD had indicated it was willing to offer. Then, last month, the Housing Authority of St. Louis County, an independent agency with its own board, agreed to dedicate some of its federal rent vouchers to the Wellston housing units as part of the plan to preserve 186 of the Wellston public housing units.
Page, in a statement, called the plan “a formula for long-term stability and increased investment.”
HUD approved issuing 200 rental vouchers Monday. The residents living in the remaining 131 occupied units will receive housing choice vouchers that can be used at other properties. However, those and the remaining 69 vouchers could also be dedicated to the Wellston housing units if residents consent, according to a letter from HUD.
“I’ve talked to residents who expressed to me that they want to leave,” Kurtz said. “That’s great. If they want to stay, they can be part of a new development if the county housing authority is able to put something together.”
Kurtz specifically thanked Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-University City, for their work to save the Wellston units. The two members of Congress released a joint statement Monday thanking tenants for their patience.
“While this is a victory for Wellston residents, we are very aware that much work remains to be done to ensure that no tenant is left behind in our efforts to ensure safe, affordable, and stable housing; not just in Wellston, but across Missouri as well,” the joint statement said.
Local officials still must attract a developer to take over and improve the Wellston units. HUD indicated it wanted resident relocation for those that choose to leave to begin within 90 days and be complete after nine months. The department said it wants a sales contract for the housing units to be executed within a year.
In the meantime, the county housing authority plans to transfer the properties to a nonprofit it controls and is applying for $400,000 in funds from the St. Louis County Port Authority to cover maintenance.