WELLSTON — Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson told area officials his agency is more than happy to provide around 200 housing choice vouchers to residents of public housing units in this low-income community so they can find other apartments and move out.
But left out of a letter Carson sent to area officials last week was any mention of the 186 “project-based vouchers,” or those tied to Wellston’s existing public housing units, that Wellston and St. Louis County officials had requested as a way to preserve housing for residents who didn’t want to leave.
The omission raises questions about the feasibility of a plan developed over the summer and fall by local officials to preserve most of the 201 public housing units that are home to almost a fifth of Wellston’s population.
Asked about the project-based vouchers, a HUD spokesman said the department would need to talk to Wellston Mayor Nate Griffin and the discussion is just beginning. Griffin couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.
Without vouchers tied to the Wellston units — a guaranteed income stream — it’s less likely a private developer or operator would be willing to take control of the units from the St. Louis County Housing Authority.
“Having that support from HUD, a project-based subsidy, is what would allow the redevelopment in Wellston to be feasible,” said Lisa D’Souza, an attorney with nonprofit Legal Services of Eastern Missouri who represents Wellston tenants. “From the letter HUD sent back, they just haven’t said anything about that.”
Local officials submitted the outline of a plan to HUD earlier this month, requesting 186 vouchers to preserve the Wellston units but also 136 choice vouchers to accommodate any residents who want to move out of the units. The group also planned to apply for low-income housing tax credits and financing from the Missouri Housing Development Commission to fund the rehab of housing that has millions of dollars worth of deferred maintenance.
The county housing authority only assumed ownership of the financially troubled housing units on the expectation it would be for a short time while residents moved out and the units were torn down. For the past 22 years, HUD had managed the units after a federal takeover from Wellston following mismanagement and poor living conditions.
A year ago, HUD moved to begin the process of demolishing the units in favor of giving residents there vouchers to use in the private market. As recently as 2016 HUD had determined it was some of the best housing in Wellston, yet the agency has been moving away from public housing for years because of budget constraints. President Donald Trump’s administration has accelerated those efforts with large cuts proposed to federal housing.
But when Sam Page became St. Louis County executive in the spring after the resignation of Steve Stenger, the new administration moved to halt the process, expressing concern that housing vouchers aren’t accepted by many landlords.
Page won a 120-day pause from HUD while the county and Wellston officials came up with a plan to fix up the units. In October, the Al-Iman Group, an engineer hired by the group, found that the multifamily properties in Wellston were salvageable, contradicting warnings from HUD officials that they required emergency demolition.
Carson, in his letter, said HUD “strongly disagrees with the conclusions contained in the engineering report from the Al-Iman Group and your own assessment of the long-term viability of those units.”
Still, he asked the county housing authority to submit an application by Dec. 6 to convert the housing to private ownership and promised to issue housing vouchers for any of the 201 public housing units that have been occupied in the last two years. Only 136 units are currently occupied.
Page’s chief of staff, Winston Calvert, said the county would keep talking with HUD and hopes that “together we can agree to a solution that works for the people of Wellston and that HUD can support.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said there were 136 people living at Wellston public housing. It’s been corrected to indicated that 136 units are occupied.