St. Louis County Executive Sam Page refused to sign off on the Trump Administration’s plan to demolish about 200 public housing structures in Wellston, which would have displaced about 530 people or 174 families — about one-fourth of Wellston’s residents.
The news comes after a year of anxiety and worry for Wellston residents, after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced in August 2018 that the housing demolition was inevitable, with the backing of then-County Executive Steve Stenger. On July 10, Page sent a strongly-worded letter to James Heard, HUD’s St. Louis field office director.
“Abandoning the people of Wellston is not an option,” Page wrote to Heard. “My administration will do everything it can to protect St. Louis County’s most vulnerable residents from the Trump Administration’s political agenda and from policy decisions made by former County Executive Steve Stenger. Accordingly, I cannot and do not support the proposed demolition application.”
Since then, Page has been able to secure a 120-day extension to analyze the Wellston properties. His action follows discussions with U.S. Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay (D-St. Louis), HUD Secretary Ben Carson and Wellston Mayor Nathan Griffin, among others. Page’s administration will make sure that any resident who wants to stay in Wellston will have the opportunity to do that, Page’s spokesman said on July 23.
“We commend the county executive for his intervention and his respectful response to multiple phone calls, emails and visits from residents,” said Farrakhan Shegog, the vice president of community development for the grassroots group Wellston Community Coalition. “We hope the delay will help the city and St. Louis County come up with a better plan that will best help Wellston residents.”
Shegog said that the community has never been completely opposed to any demolition because some of the units are beyond help. But a majority of the units just need some maintenance, he said. The plan to tear all the units down and leave the residents with vouchers was unacceptable, he said.
“You can give a person a voucher to move in any other public housing in the county, but if public housing is being minimized on every level and it’s slowly being eradicated due to the Trump Administration, there will be no place to use these vouchers,” Shegog said. “That’s the concern that the community has.”
The demolition plan was a move to meet the president’s “artificial deadline” of closing more than 100,000 public housing units nationwide by September, Page said in his July 10 letter.
Page referenced a meeting that he and his team had with Heard on July 3, where Heard acknowledged that the Trump Administration is attempting to move as many public housing residents as possible out of public housing and into the private market through the use of vouchers under the Housing Choice Voucher program.
“That plan, however, ignores the fact that a voucher is worthless if a resident cannot obtain housing using it,” Page stated, citing a 2018 study that found it’s difficult to identify a landlord who will participate in the program.
“Moreover, vouchers do not address the other challenges financially struggling people face when looking for housing in the private market, like credit score checks, racial and ethnic bias, eviction history, and the overall time investment.”
Page also said that the Trump Administration’s new proposal, the Making Affordable Housing Work Act, would gut the voucher system. And rent for the most vulnerable residents would increase regularly and dramatically — increasing the risk of homelessness.
“In fact, the Associated Press reported that the Trump Administration's proposal would result in rent increases of at least 22 percent in St. Louis, increases that could happen year after year,” Page wrote. “That would be an increase of over six times the growth in average hourly earnings.”
In his letter, Page said that HUD, the Housing Authority of St. Louis County, the City of Wellston, and St. Louis County need to work collaboratively to engage the community, gather public input, and develop a shared vision.
He also aims to upload all relevant documents and public records to an online transparency portal so the public can see the building evaluations, studies, assessments, and plans, and then make their own judgments about the best approach.
Shegog said that the Wellston Community Coalition has already begun researching development options. The group meets every second Sunday and attends every council meeting and every Housing Authority board meeting.
Shegog said, “I tell the residents to keep up the pressure on all their elected officials to demand that their voices be heard and their thoughts be considered in this community event that will have a large and great impact.”