CLAYTON — St. Louis County Executive Sam Page may put the brakes on a plan to demolish 201 units of public housing in Wellston, aiming instead for a new plan that could allow residents who want to stay to continue living there.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development “is pushing for me to sign the letter that allows them to immediately demolish all of the housing units,” Page said last week in an interview with the Post-Dispatch. “We need to first see if any of those structures are salvageable, because building housing stock is a lot more expensive than rehabbing what we have.... They can’t move forward with the demolition until I sign off on it, and I’m not ready to do that.”
The demolition plan has been in the works since last year, and it’s one that Page said is in line with federal policy under President Donald Trump’s administration to “get out of the public housing business and just give people a voucher.” Many landlords refuse to accept federal housing vouchers, commonly referred to as Section 8.
“If you give somebody a voucher, I guess the question is what do you do with it?” Page said. “And if it doesn’t get them a place to stay, it’s like a Medicaid card but you can’t find anybody to take it.”
The demolition of Wellston’s public housing could ultimately displace some 500 residents of the poor St. Louis County suburb — roughly 20 percent of its population.
“Do we try and help Wellston rebuild their community so the people that live there, the people who want to be in Wellston, ... can live there?” Page said. “Or do we tell them, you know, we’re gonna wipe out Wellston — you’ve got to go somewhere else.”
The move marks a new approach from St. Louis County under the two-month-old Page administration. Page’s predecessor, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, stayed publicly on the sidelines as the Wellston demolition plan advanced.
“It’s another issue that probably should have been addressed five years ago,” Page said. “It’s a difficult, complex issue that has political risk to it, and (the Stenger administration) just didn’t want to deal with it.”
The U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department took over the Wellston Housing Authority back in 1996 following mismanagement and poor property conditions. Late last year, the Wellston City Council endorsed a plan that transferred the public housing assets to the St. Louis County Housing Authority in March. In May, the county housing authority board voted in favor of a plan to demolish the housing units in exchange for federal housing vouchers that tenants can use to offset a portion of their rent in private apartments.
St. Louis County housing authority director Susan Rollins said Monday her agency would work with Page’s administration on its plan. She said she didn’t know yet how long the county authority could operate the Wellston public housing, which she has said is on track to run a $330,000 deficit within a year.
A HUD spokeswoman said it hasn’t seen an official decision from the county and declined to comment.
HUD has denied that it pushed Wellston and the county to approve the demolition plan, insisting that the local community chose it as the best option. But Wellston Mayor Nathaniel Griffin said in December he and other council members were “backed into a corner.”
“They told us: You support what we want to do, or you have no say-so about the future of your city’s land,” Griffin told a reporter for the Southern Illinoisan of Carbondale. The mayor couldn’t be reached Monday.
In November, HUD sent a letter to public housing directors saying the department “set a goal to reposition 105,000 public housing units to a more sustainable platform by September 30, 2019,” referencing more flexibility in its demolition and disposition program. In March, HUD issued new guidelines allowing small public housing agencies — those with 250 units or less, such as Wellston — to convert public housing to housing vouchers without having to conduct an assessment showing it won’t adversely impact an area’s affordable housing stock.
“Affordable housing is one of the biggest challenges our region faces,” Page said. “You can’t just wave off this Wellston question, because there’s a policy to get as much public housing off the federal books as possible, because that has a real impact on our local community.”
Lisa D’Souza, a Legal Services of Eastern Missouri attorney who represents the Wellston Tenant Association, said that even in St. Louis city, where an ordinance makes it illegal, many landlords refuse to accept housing vouchers. No such ordinance exists in St. Louis County.
“It would be totally legal for a landlord in the county to say, ‘I don’t take Section 8, I don’t want you,’” she said.
St. Louis County Councilwoman Lisa Clancy has introduced legislation to change that, and she hopes it will have the votes following special elections next month that fill two council vacancies. In order to “get people out of these concentrated poverty situations,” landlords need to accept housing vouchers, she said.
“We know there are a lot of landlords that are turning people away,” Clancy said.
HUD officials have said it would cost $14 million to get the Wellston properties in livable condition, but there’s less and less federal money available for rehabbing public housing and that Wellston’s units could quickly deteriorate.
Yet as recently as 2016, a consultant report prepared for HUD said the Wellston public housing units “represent some of the best housing in Wellston and the loss or deterioration of these units would have a serious negative impact on the community.“
There are people in Wellston who are ready to move, citing poor property conditions. But D’Souza said others have strong connections to the neighborhood and want to stay.
“It’s our understanding that there are other tools that could be used and demolition is not necessarily the only choice, and it certainly doesn’t seem to be the best choice,“ D’Souza said. “Our region has this sad history of disinvestment of black communities. And we have a sad history of displacing black communities. Every time we want to renew or revitalize an area, it seems like we push people out before we make it better.“