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TONY'S TAKE

Messenger: St. Louis woman battles homelessness, rising rents after lockout

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It was 19 degrees outside on the night Sanciarey Nelson got locked out of her apartment.

Nelson lived at the Lewis and Clark Apartments in Moline Acres. She had been there since November 2020. At one point, she fell behind in her rent, but like many other people in the complex — owned by an out-of-state landlord — she caught up with the help of federal American Rescue Plan Act funding, which was paid directly to the apartment complex.

That didn’t stop the landlord, EEG Management, from changing her locks. No eviction. No court proceeding. Nelson was simply out on the street. That’s where she’d still be today if it wasn’t for the help of the St. Patrick Center. After a couple of nights sleeping in her car, a case manager at Legal Services of Eastern Missouri referred her to St. Patrick’s Center, which provided funding for an extended-stay hotel until Nelson could get back on her feet.

The post-pandemic reality in St. Louis — as in many cities — is that there are a lot of people like Nelson, evicted or otherwise forced out of their rental units after a period of hardship. They are facing homelessness in a rental market that has become expensive, competitive, and out of range for many people.

“Rents have gone up by 20% or so during the pandemic,” says Anthony D’Agostino, executive director of St. Patrick Center, which provides a variety of services to unhoused people. “Over the COVID pandemic we’re looking at well into the double digits as price increases for rent.”

That’s the problem Nelson is facing. Her funding for the extended-stay hotel runs out next week. Every day, she’s texting or emailing a new landlord, filling out applications, and waiting to hear some good news that doesn’t come. Last week, she went to the courthouse to try to help her cause. A couple of years ago, a landlord filed a rent and possession case against her. She and the landlord settled out of court before she was evicted, and the case was dismissed. But most landlords search court records, and all they will see is that she had a case against her. For many landlords, that’s enough to decide not to rent to a person.

Nelson has filed a motion to seal the case file, in the hope that it will help her find a place to live.

Like several other people at Lewis and Clark, Nelson was illegally locked out of her home, says her attorney, Jake Aubuchon, of legal services, and that creates immediate and often devastating consequences in their lives.

“My clients who are illegally evicted or locked out are already living on the economic edge. When they are forced out of their homes they instantly have to go into survival mode. They have to either enter a homeless shelter, sleep in their cars, or couch surf with friends and relatives,” Aubuchon says. “If they are able to afford a hotel for a few nights, it drains them of what little money they have. It can take months or even a year for someone to recover financially from an illegal eviction. An illegal eviction or lockout puts my clients into a poverty trap they cannot escape.”

Nelson, 47, is divorced. Her two boys are grown. She grew up in St. Louis, raised by a single mom, bouncing between communities in the north part of the city, or various areas of the county, from Jennings to Florissant to Moline Acres.

She just got a new job as an office assistant, but she’s worried about where she’ll be sleeping in a week.

“The little savings I did have is now exhausted,” Nelson says. “Because of COVID and the pandemic, landlords want two to three times the rent.”

That tracks with what Agostino says his case managers are seeing. St. Patrick Center has doubled the number of staff it has to work on homeless prevention, and those staff members are hitting the bricks every day doing the same thing Nelson is doing, trying to find affordable and safe housing for people who are on the brink of homelessness, at a time when the flow of pandemic aid is slowing.

As summer nears, it’s a crisis that advocates of affordable housing have been predicting and fearing throughout the pandemic.

“The eviction crisis is not going away,” D’Agostino says. “Right now, it’s hard to find open units for anything reasonable.”

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