BEL-RIDGE — The Housing Authority of St. Louis County Board of Commissioners voted Thursday to go forward with a plan to get rid of all public housing in Wellston despite last minute requests from speakers to delay.
The “demolition and disposition” plan, which could cut the beleaguered municipality’s population by a fifth, still has to be approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, but St. Louis County officials expect the federal government will do so.
“It wasn’t an easy decision,” said Commissioner Frances Kuhlmann, one of four board members who voted in favor of the plan. “We’ve gone over it a long time. I feel it had to be done.”
Commissioner Calvin Scott provided the lone no vote.
“I am concerned about the residents,” he said.
The fate of the 201 housing units — and about 500 people who live inside them — has become a rallying cry over the shortage of affordable housing in the St. Louis region. It has also opened the curtain on poor government oversight of the properties amid a national trend to do away with traditional public housing stock.
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. In recent years, there were plans to transition the 201 units back to local control. They were instead transferred to the Housing Authority of St. Louis County on March 1 with the working goal to move all the residents to better subsidized housing options in the region.
Housing officials said the Wellston properties, an assortment of apartments, duplexes and single-family homes spread across the 1-square-mile city, had fallen into disrepair and wouldn’t be feasible to fix.
“We have to make these hard decisions about housing that is no longer adequate and sustainable,” James Heard, director of HUD’s regional office in St. Louis, said in an interview last week.
He said it would take $14 million to get the Wellston properties in livable conditions. He said problems ranged from flooded basements to an elevator shaft “inundated” with discarded syringes.
Even if the properties were updated, he said, the units don’t generate enough revenue. He said the 201 units cost about twice as much to run as public housing portfolios of that size in other areas.
Asked who was at fault for the poor condition of Wellston public housing, Heard said it was the result of “multiple things that have taken place over the years,” not one person or agency.
On Monday, a former head of the Wellston Housing Authority pleaded guilty to a federal theft charge and admitted stealing tenants’ rent money.
Marchell Benton, 63, deposited tenant rent money in her personal bank or used it to pay the rent of relatives who were tenants, her plea agreement says. The scheme ran from at least Jan. 1, 2013, to April 28, 2015, part of the time the Wellston Housing Authority was under administrative receivership by HUD.
Susan Rollins, executive director of the Housing Authority of St. Louis County, recently said in an interview that she blamed HUD for the demise of public housing in Wellston.
“It really falls into the hands of HUD,” she said. “It’s an interesting thing for me to say because who funds the Housing Authority of St. Louis County? HUD.”
But, she said, HUD relied on management companies to make sure the property was taken care of, while top government oversight was often out of state.
“If you don’t have someone on the ground every single day, who has the authority to make decisions about what happens on a daily basis?” she said.
Inheriting the complex situation, she said, she supports getting the residents out as soon as possible so children are settled before next school year.
Earlier this week, HUD Secretary Ben Carson told the House Financial Services Committee that the agency wanted to help Wellston residents.
“We are very concerned about any time people have to be displaced, which is why we have Tenant Protection Vouchers,” he testified. “Not only do we provide those, but we provide relocation services to help those individuals to be able to adjust. In some cases they end up finding places that they like considerably better, and they don’t even want to come back after the problem has been rectified. But we do want to give them those choices.”
On Thursday, 10 people took turns at the podium asking the Housing Authority of St. Louis County to delay the vote. Just one of them was a resident, Flora Mix, 72, of the Wellston Tenant Association.
“Once they drive everybody out, they are going to come in and redevelop Wellston,” she said in an interview. “The land will be worth way more than it is now. Wellston is a diamond in the rough.”
Wellston Mayor Nathaniel Griffin asked the board to first refurbish some of the abandoned public housing units for people who want to stay in Wellston.
“We are willing to work with everyone, let’s just not push out our citizens first,” he told the board.
Representatives of Beyond Housing, Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, Neighborhood Enterprises, Empower Missouri, Young Voices With Action and Generate Health made similar arguments.
But the board quickly voted 4-1 in favor of moving forward as planned.
Some in the audience, which numbered about 60, noted that one seat on the board has been vacant two years. The seat, which is supposed to be appointed by the St. Louis County Executive, is reserved for a resident of public housing.
If Edward Arch, 70, had the seat, though, he would have voted to erase the properties.
“We’ve got bedbugs, roaches, all kind of rodents and poor maintenance,” he said in an interview at the meeting. “Time for me to go.”
“Anywhere besides Wellston,” he said.