WELLSTON • As much as a fifth of this beleaguered city’s population could vanish if the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development approves a plan to eliminate 201 units of public housing here.
About 500 people live in the assortment of subsidized apartments, duplexes and single-family homes spread across the 1-square-mile city near Martin Luther King Drive and Kienlen Avenue.
The Wellston Housing Authority, which used to administer public housing with the help of federal funding, was placed on administrative receivership with HUD in 1996 for bad governance and property conditions. There were plans to transition the 201 units back to local control in recent years, but they were instead transferred to the Housing Authority of St. Louis County on March 1.
“It’s a new Pandora’s box, it really is, but I am interested to do what is best for the clients there,” said Susan Rollins, executive director of the Housing Authority of St. Louis County.
The Wellston City Council passed a resolution in November authorizing the transfer and HUD approved it a month later. The Housing Authority of St. Louis County will vote May 14 to ratify the March 1 absorption of public housing properties in Wellston. The board will also vote then on whether to submit an application to HUD for the “demolition and disposition” of the 201 housing units.
Officials said that many of the homes were in bad shape — anything from mold to leaky roofs — and that there weren’t enough resources to make them livable, given cutbacks in federal funding for public housing and low rent payments from tenants.
Rollins said public housing in Wellston was on track to be in the hole $330,000 within a year and operating at a loss of $1.3 million a year in 2023. A recent HUD report said the properties needed $14 million in repairs over the next five years.
“Why would a good business person not divest that and make sure the tenants are taken care of when you know it’s not headed in the right direction,” Rollins said.
In order to get tenant protection vouchers, which would pay for relocation costs and certificates for the residents to live somewhere else, Rollins said, the Housing Authority of St. Louis County needs to apply to the federal government for demolition and disposition of the properties.
“We discussed the possibility of a demolition and disposition application,” Rollins said of visiting with HUD officials before they asked the Housing Authority of St. Louis County to absorb the properties.
She said empty lots and any remaining buildings after demolition would be given to the city of Wellston to repurpose.
“As a housing authority who has been asked to do this, I can only hope that they use the land in a way that is positive for the community,” Rollins said.
Wellston Mayor Nate Griffin could not be reached for comment. But according to a special report produced in December by The Southern Illinoisan and ProPublica, he said at a Wellston City Council meeting in November: “HUD, nationally, you failed us, and you’re putting us in a worse predicament.”
HUD Deputy Regional Administrator Bruce Ladd in Kansas City didn’t return a call for comment last week. Instead, HUD spokesman Agatha Gutierrez emailed a copy of a Feb. 25 letter from HUD to Griffin. The letter mentioned that the Wellston City Council authorized the transfer of property to the Housing Authority of St. Louis County and thanked Griffin for “working with us to achieve a permanent outcome that is in the best interest of the residents” of public housing in Wellston.
Though Wellston, one of the poorest communities in the region, has been losing population for decades, a lawyer representing the public housing residents said some residents didn’t want to relocate.
“This doesn’t look like a place to be excited to move to, but they know their neighbors,” Lisa D’Souza, a Legal Services of Eastern Missouri attorney who represents the Wellston Tenant Association, said in an interview last week.
In a Feb. 5 letter, D’Souza asked Housing Secretary Ben Carson to stop its plan to “demolish or dispose of the entire stock of public housing in Wellston.”
“We believe there is a better way forward that will not result in the permanent loss of affordable housing in a community where it is desperately needed,” she wrote. “The demolition plan was hastily made, after more than a year of efforts to preserve the housing and restore local control.”
HUD has denied that it asked the county housing authority to have the public housing units in Wellston demolished. Instead, it says, it asked local authorities to decide on the best plan.
“They apparently are pretending as if this was not their idea, and they don’t know anything about it,” said D’Souza, who has followed the issue closely and attended meetings involving HUD representatives.
Regardless, the issues at play run deep.
The 2018 report “Segregation in St. Louis: Dismantling the Divide,” produced by several nonprofit groups and others, identified the lack of affordable housing as a major problem for the region.
In response to the report, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger asked a task force to develop recommendations to establish an affordable housing trust fund. In the subsequent report, which was delivered to Stenger this month, the task force recommended $30 million to $35 million in assistance be given out annually to help people in need.
“There’s a great unmet need for affordable housing all across the country, including in St. Louis,” said Chris Krehmeyer, co-chair of the task force and president of Beyond Housing. “There are scant additional resources to help minimize that gap.”
He said that more resources were needed in suburbs such as Wellston and that he didn’t support the potential demolition of 201 units of public housing there.
“Any way that can be prevented would be a fantastic thing that would certainly be good for Wellston,” he said.
There were two public meetings in April for public housing residents in Wellston. A public hearing will be held from 2 to 3 p.m. Tuesday at the Housing Authority of St. Louis County, 8865 Natural Bridge Road, a formality that is required prior to applying for demolition and disposition.
“We can’t stop them if they say they are going to tear them down,” said Lark Holliday, 51, who lives in a public housing complex in the 6300 block of Isabella Avenue.
Still, she said, she was ready to move even though her town home was “lovely.”
“There’s just been so much going on over here,” she said. “Five years is long enough for me.”
Sharita Phillips, 49, a neighbor, said she wanted the housing to remain standing as evidence of public housing run into the ground — to help hold somebody accountable.
And even though her gutters were clogged and the basement recently flooded, she said, perhaps there are opportunities for residents to buy the homes. Fix them up.
“Yeah,” she said, “because I am tired of moving.”