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Public housing units in Wellston at risk

Sharita Phillips, 49, walks toward her home on Isabella Avenue in Wellston on Friday, April 26, 2019. Phillips lives with her aunt and developmentally disabled son in a single-family unit of public housing that may be demolished soon along with the apartment complex next door. Housing officials are considering getting rid of 201 public housing units in Wellston. Photo by Cristina M. Fletes, cfletes@post-dispatch.com.

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page blasted the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development over the process that, until this week, seemed certain to lead to the demolition of Wellston’s 200 public housing units.

In a nine-page letter sent Wednesday to HUD’s St. Louis field office director, James Heard, Page called the effort part of an effort by President Donald Trump’s administration to eliminate public housing units in favor of private housing vouchers that affordable housing advocates say landlords often refuse to accept.

He also sought to link the plan to Steve Stenger, his predecessor, who resigned in May amid corruption charges, accusing the prior administration of going along with HUD’s plan.

“My administration will do everything it can to protect St. Louis County’s most vulnerable residents from the Trump Administration’s political agenda and from policy decisions made by former County Executive Steve Stenger,” Page wrote. “Accordingly, I cannot and do not support the proposed demolition application.”

Page’s letter asks for a pause in the process and asks HUD to work with his administration to find “federal, state, and local funding sources to supplement currently-available funds that could be used to support public housing residents in Wellston” and to accommodate residents who want to remain in Wellston.

Page’s entrance into the Wellston issue comes after he said he was asked by HUD to support a “demolition and disposition” application from the St. Louis County Housing Authority, which assumed management of the properties in March. St. Louis County Housing Authority board members, none of them appointed by Page, approved the plan a few weeks after Page took office.

From 1996 until this year, the federal government had operated the Wellston housing units after taking them over because of poor management. In November, the Wellston City Council endorsed handing the public housing over to St. Louis County’s housing authority, though Mayor Nathaniel Griffin said the city had been “backed into a corner” by HUD.

HUD officials couldn’t be reached to comment late Wednesday, but the department has denied that it asked the county housing authority and Wellston to have the public housing units demolished, insisting it asked local authorities to decide on the best plan.

“Everything they’re saying in that letter, I fully support,” Griffin, the mayor, told the Post-Dispatch on Wednesday. “It feels good to have leadership that supports the people and is going to look out for the betterment of the people. ... The best outcome would be to allow the citizens who want to stay to be allowed to stay.”

The volley positions Page squarely in the camp of advocates who say demolishing Wellston’s public housing — home to about 500 people, or 20% of the impoverished suburb’s population — is yet another example of the St. Louis area displacing a black community in need of reinvestment.

But without a solution soon, the St. Louis County Housing Authority will be saddled with addressing the deteriorated Wellston housing stock, which HUD had operated until earlier this year. St. Louis County Housing Authority Director Susan Rollins has said the Wellston housing units are on track to run a $330,000 deficit within a year and operate at a loss of $1.3 million by 2023. Rollins said this week she would work with Page on a plan.

The public housing units are in gross disrepair and require some $14 million to be brought into livable condition, HUD officials say, but that there’s little hope of finding enough money to repair them given declining federal funding for public housing in recent decades and low rent collection from tenants.

If demolition is approved, HUD and housing officials say Wellston public residents would be given “tenant protection vouchers,” which allow for additional relocation assistance and other help beyond what normal housing assistance vouchers provide.

Page accused Heard, the local HUD official, of pressuring him to support the demolition of public housing, and referenced a November letter from a national HUD official to housing authorities setting a goal to “reposition 105,000 public housing units to a more sustainable platform by September 30, 2019.” He also accused HUD of not being transparent and skirting public engagement.

Among Page’s requests was an inspector general audit of HUD’s oversight of the Wellston Housing Authority, particularly when the federal government operated it in receivership.

“The lack of community engagement leads one to conclude that HUD’s rush to demolish public housing is the product of a backroom deal designed to meet the Trump Administration’s artificial deadline of September 30, 2019,” his letter said.

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