BEL-RIDGE – The Board of Commissioners of the St. Louis County Housing Authority voted Thursday to go ahead with a plan to get rid of all public housing in Wellston despite requests for late-breaking speakers .
The "demolition and disposal" plan, which could reduce the population of the besieged municipality by a fifth, has yet to be approved by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, but St. Louis County officials expect the federal government does.
"It was not an easy decision," said Commissioner Frances Kuhlmann, one of four board members who voted in favor of the plan. "We've been through a long time, I feel like it had to be done."
Commissioner Calvin Scott did not give the only vote.
"I'm worried about the residents," he said.
The fate of the 201 housing units, and some 500 people living within them, has become a battle cry for the shortage of affordable housing in the St. Louis region. It has also opened the curtain on poor government supervision of properties amid a national trend to end the stock of traditional public housing.
The Wellston Housing Authority, which used to administer public housing with the help of federal funds, was placed on probation with HUD in 1996 for bad governance and property conditions. In recent years, there were plans to make the transition from the 201 units to local control. Instead, they were transferred to the St. Louis County Housing Authority on March 1 with the goal of working to ensure that all residents have better subsidized housing options in the region.
Housing officials said Wellston's properties, a variety of apartments, duplexes and single-family homes spread across the 1-square-mile city, had fallen into disrepair and would not be feasible to repair.
"We have to make these difficult decisions about housing that is no longer adequate and sustainable," James Heard, director of the HUD regional office in St. Louis, said in an interview last week.
He said that $ 14 million would be needed to obtain Wellston properties under livable conditions. He said the problems ranged from flooded basements to the shaft of an elevator "flooded" with discarded syringes.
Even if the properties were updated, he said, the units do not generate enough income. He said that the 201 units cost approximately twice as much to function as public housing portfolios of that size in other areas.
When asked who was responsible for the poor condition of Wellston's public housing, Heard said it was the result of "several things that have happened over the years," not of a person or agency.
Marchell Benton, 63, put the tenant's rent money in his personal bank or used it to pay the rent of relatives who were tenants, says his plea agreement. The plan was extended from at least January 1, 2013 through April 28, 2015, part of the time that the Wellston Housing Authority was under administrative management by HUD.
Susan Rollins, executive director of the St. Louis County Housing Authority, 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," he said. "It's an interesting thing for me to say, who funds the Housing Authority of St. Louis County? HUD."
But, he said, HUD relied on management companies to make sure the property was serviced, while the supervision of the top government was often out of state.
"If you do not have someone on the ground every day, who has the authority to make decisions about what happens on a daily basis?" He said.
Inheriting the complex situation, she said, she supports getting the residents out as soon as possible so that the children are resolved before the next school year.
"We are very concerned about the time when people have to be displaced, so we have protection vouchers for tenants," he said. "We not only provide that, but we also provide relocation services to help those people adapt. In some cases, they end up finding places they like much better, and do not even want to come back after the problem is solved. But we do want to give them those options. "
On Thursday, 10 people took turns on the podium to ask the St. Louis County Housing Authority to delay the vote. Only one of them was a resident, Flora Mix, 72, of the Wellston Tenant Association.
"Once they expel everyone, they will come and redevelop Wellston," he said in an interview. "The earth will be worth much more than it is now. Wellston is a diamond in the rough. "
The mayor of Wellston, Nathaniel Griffin, asked the board of directors to first remodel some of the abandoned public housing units for people who want to stay in Wellston.
"We are willing to work with everyone, we just do not push our citizens first," he told the board.
The representatives of Beyond Housing, Eastern Legal Services of Missouri, Neighborhood Enterprises, Empower Missouri, Young Voices with Action and Generate Health presented similar arguments.
But the council quickly voted 4-1 in favor of moving forward as planned.
Some in the audience, who numbered around 60, pointed out that a seat on the board has been vacant for two years. The seat, which is supposed to be designated by the St. Louis County Executive, is reserved for a public housing resident.
However, if Edward Arch, 70, had the seat, he would have voted to erase the properties.
"We have bugs, cockroaches, all kinds of rodents and poor maintenance," he said in an interview at the meeting. "It's time for me to leave."
"Anywhere, besides Wellston," he said.
Instead of returning 201 units of public housing with problems to local control, a plan to demolish or eliminate them is underway.
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