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Public housing units in Wellston at risk

Sharita Phillips walks toward her home on Isabella Avenue in Wellston on April 26. Phillips lives with her aunt and developmentally disabled son in a single-family unit of public housing.

Friday, April 26, 2019 Photo by Cristina M. Fletes, cfletes@post-dispatch.com.

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page stood up to the federal government, and the feds backed down — at least for now. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has agreed, at Page’s insistence, to postpone demolition of Wellston’s 200 public housing units for 120 days, giving authorities time to investigate alternatives to avoid the massive upheaval looming for one of the county’s poorest municipalities.

The postponement marks at least a temporary victory for affordable-housing advocates who complain that HUD under the Trump administration has gone way overboard in its efforts to get out of the public-housing business. In a July 10 letter to HUD field office director James Heard, Page complained that the Wellston demolitions were being rushed “to meet an artificial deadline for closing over 100,000 public housing units nationwide.”

Without Page’s signoff on the HUD plan, the demolitions could not proceed. Page refused to give his consent, overriding a commitment by his disgraced predecessor, Steve Stenger, to cooperate with HUD’s plan. The impact such demolitions could have on Wellston would be enormous, given that one-fifth of the municipality’s population lives in public housing. Wellston’s population is 99 percent black, which adds an unmistakable racial component to the way the federal government has attempted to relocate 150 families — including 211 children

Although St. Louis County public housing officials insist they are prepared to place dislocated residents in equal or better housing elsewhere using a voucher system, this entire process has been steeped in uncertainty. According to Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, this region already faces a shortage of 57,490 affordable homes for extremely low-income families. About two-thirds of the nearly 80,000 families needing affordable housing are black.

HUD took over the Wellston Housing Authority 22 years ago after local authorities were cited for bad governance and allowing unacceptable deterioration of property conditions. But the federal takeover yielded only more neglect, mismanagement and deterioration of housing stock.

Susan Rollins, executive director of the county housing authority, was unhesitant in blaming HUD for Wellston’s current plight. The department relied on contractors to perform on-site management and only occasionally dispatched federal officials from far-away venues like Ohio for on-site inspections.

“If you don’t have someone on the ground every single day who has the authority to” enforce rules and monitor maintenance, “you get a whole system that starts to fall apart,” Rollins told us in May. That said, she warned that a severe shortage of funds still stands in the way of efforts to renovate existing empty units so at least some families could remain in place. Money diverted to help Wellston, she said, means other county housing needs would go begging.

Page has used his authority so far to stall the mass move-out and demolitions. The hard part, however, will be finding more funds for renovations before the 120-day demolition delay lapses.