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Before she got help with paying rent, Naima Wartts wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to live independently.

Wartts, 42, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1999. The illness left her unable to maintain steady employment. For the next decade, she lived with her mother until she was able to secure disability benefits from the federal government.

Getting on disability meant Wartts was also eligible for Section 8 housing. Section 8 participants pay up to 40 percent of their income for housing costs, including rent and utilities, with the rest subsidized by the federal government.

“That was just a huge blessing and an opportunity to embrace a standard of adulthood that you just can’t find when you’re still living at home,” Wartts said. She lives in a downtown St. Louis apartment, where she has lived for almost 10 years since receiving a housing voucher.

With the help of a local housing program, Mobility Connection, Wartts hopes to move to University City or Clayton, which would bring her closer to her grocery, library, part-time job, family and church.

“My center of gravity never really changed from U. City and Clayton,” Wartts said.

Mobility Connection, a joint program of city and county housing authorities, began in March 2017. It falls under the umbrella nonprofit AscendSTL, which was previously the St. Louis Housing Authority Development Corp. Ascend offers social services and affordable housing partnerships in the region.

Mobility Connection moves people with housing vouchers to “high-opportunity areas,” or places where 10 percent or less of households live in poverty and 10 percent or less of housing units are subsidized. These areas often have better schools, less crime and more community amenities.

“We want to create true housing choice,” said Janie Oliphant, program director at Mobility Connection. In the first year and a half, the program moved about three dozen clients.

The opportunity gap

The program didn’t start just out of the desire to create more choice for Section 8 tenants. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, researchers did an experiment. In five cities, some families with vouchers were allowed to move anywhere in the city, and some were required to move to low-poverty neighborhoods.

The results of that research were mixed until Raj Chetty, a professor of economics at Harvard University, used federal income tax data and the housing research to look at long-term outcomes for children.

“We find that moving to a lower poverty neighborhood significantly improves college attendance rates and earnings for children who were young (below age 13) when their families moved. These children also live in better neighborhoods themselves as adults and are less likely to become single parents,” according to Chetty’s research.

Similar research, dubbed the Opportunity Atlas, was released this year by the Census Bureau showing outcomes for children who live in different parts of the country. In the St. Louis area, children who were raised in some parts of the city of St. Louis, north St. Louis County and East St. Louis have lower household incomes as adults compared to children who grew up in other parts of the metro area.

Oliphant compared Mobility Connection’s high-opportunity areas map with the Census research and found that the areas her program deemed high-opportunity align with better outcomes.

Chris Krehmeyer, president and CEO of Beyond Housing, a housing-assistance nonprofit group, said programs such as Mobility Connection help address part of the opportunity-gap issue, but he also sees a need for a regional attitude shift.

“We’re not going to be attractive to companies that we think may want to come here because we haven’t invested in our families and neighborhoods important to St. Louis,” Krehmeyer said. “Either we wake up and say, ‘Let’s invest in places’ or allow them to decay — that’s not a solution.”

Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson and the protests that followed spurred conversations about how to improve St. Louis communities.

“Housing authority leadership and leadership at HUD came together and said, ‘What can we do to try and mitigate some of the problems that were identified during this period?’” Oliphant said.

High demand

There are 13,000 voucher-holders in St. Louis and St. Louis County. Only 7 percent of them live in low-poverty areas, Oliphant said. Mobility Connection has 400 families on its waiting list.

There are even longer wait lists for vouchers.

Oliphant and the other Mobility Connection employee, Peter Grein, would like to help as many families as possible. With a limited budget, the program provides pre- and post-move support, housing search assistance and workshops on property ownership, conducting a housing search, being a good tenant and financial fitness.

Mobility Connection began with a one-time $250,000 grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The housing authorities have continued to support the program, and Mobility Connection also is seeking philanthropic support.

In addition to a lack of affordable housing, getting landlords to accept vouchers is a substantial challenge. About a third of housing units contacted by Mobility Connection do not accept vouchers, according to the program’s 2017 annual report.

Except for the city, which has an income discrimination law, landlords in the St. Louis area can say “no thank you” to tenants with Section 8 vouchers. Landlords may have prejudices about Section 8 tenants or don’t want to deal with bureaucracy, such as extra paperwork or additional inspections, Oliphant said.

Fees and security deposits are also hurdles. Some landlords aren’t flexible with security deposits or application fees, which puts those properties out of reach for some tenants.

“Lots of low-income families are also trying to pay off bad debts while they’re saving for security deposits,” Oliphant said.

This year, property sales presented another challenge for Mobility Connection.

Early in the summer, property management company FirstKey Homes bought houses where Mobility Connection clients lived. Some of the tenants received notice that the new owners would no longer accept vouchers, according to Oliphant.

FirstKey Homes is a subsidiary of Cerberus Capital Management, a firm that specializes in “alternative investing.” Cerberus is the largest residential property owner in St. Louis County, second only to the city of St. Louis, according to county assessor records. (The city owns residential property in St. Louis Lambert International Airport’s flight path.)

Oliphant and Grein scrambled to find new housing for the families, who were told they had to be out of their properties by the end of July. One of the program’s clients, Tara Kennard, had been in her home in Florissant for just a year when she got the notice she had to move.

“I was kind of stunned because I wasn’t given enough notice, and I didn’t have that many options at the time when I received that letter,” Kennard, 40. a single mother of five, said. “It was a very rushed situation.” Three of Kennard’s children, ages 18, 8 and 6, live with her.

Oliphant and Grein were able to find another home for Kennard and her children in Florissant, but Kennard had to pay for moving and temporary housing while they were in between houses. During that time, her children stayed with their dad, who was able to get them to and from school.

“For them, everything worked out, but for me it was frustrating because I don’t like being separated from my kids,” Kennard said.

After the moves were completed, Oliphant received notice that FirstKey Homes decided to accept vouchers.

FirstKey said in an email through a New York-based public relations firm that in the time residents were displaced, the company was “assessing the properties and the policies associated with those properties.” The company then decided to accept the vouchers.

By then, one client had given up her housing voucher, and a majority of clients affected already had moved back into their old neighborhoods or areas with higher rates of poverty.

One person who had to move is still in the process of finding housing, which will likely not be in a better area than where she’s moving from, Oliphant said. She is now living in her car and her children are staying with other family members.

All of the families in the Mobility Connection program have stayed in the housing they moved to, Oliphant said, except for those affected by the FirstKey decision.

Oliphant said feedback from families and clients about the program has been mostly positive, and most clients have one piece of advice for future participants.

“It’s mostly about trusting the process and not losing faith,” she said. “Even with our assistance, it’s really hard.”

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Janelle O'Dea is a data specialist and reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.