For more than a year, Wellston residents locked arms to fight against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s decision in August 2018 to demolish 200 of the city’s public housing units.
About 530 people (or 174 families) reside in the low-income housing units ‒ which is about one-fourth of Wellston’s residents. Wellston is the poorest municipality in St. Louis County, where more than 40 percent of its 2,300 residents live below the poverty line ‒ and 65 percent of those residents are children.
“While it’s not a financially rich municipality, it has always been rich because it’s always had concerned residents who speak up and call out injustice and corruption when it occurs,” said Farrakhan Shegog, the vice president of community development for the grassroots group Wellston Community Coalition.
On Monday, January 20, hundreds of Wellston and Pine Lawn residents came together to celebrate more than just Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy. They were celebrating a huge victory in the recent resolution between HUD, St. Louis County and Wellston that allows the city to build new low-income housing units, restore some of the old buildings, and demolish about 15 units that are in the worst condition. Most of all, one-fourth of the city’s population will not be forced to leave the area in search of other public housing options.
Wellston Mayor Nathan Griffin said that this solution came from everyone sitting down together — including U.S. Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay and U.S. Senator Roy Blunt, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, state Sen. Brian Williamson and nonprofit groups.
“If you look at it, you had white men and white women, black men and black women, Republicans and Democrats, privileged and unprivileged people all around the table trying to figure out how to change a poverty community,” Griffin said. “That’s what equality looks like. That’s what Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream looks like.”
This time last year, the tenants were in a state of fear. They were told that they would receive vouchers to move to another area, but they had no idea when that would be or when the demolition would begin.
At that point, then-St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger had already agreed to HUD’s plan to level the units. However, when Stenger’s federal indictment forced him to leave his position, Wellston tenants found a new ray of hope.
Attorney Lisa D’Souza, who was representing the tenants for Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, said the tenants encouraged her to set up a meeting with County Executive Sam Page’s staff because they had heard “things are different in the county now.” D’Souza’s May 2019 meeting with Page’s team led the county executive to ultimately sending a strongly worded letter to HUD on July 10, refusing to sign off on the Trump Administration’s plan to demolish the units.
“And the line that made me cry was the line that said, ‘I will not turn my back on the people of Wellston,’” D’Souza said, with a shaky voice at the Martin Luther King event. “All these elected officials and their staff stood behind Wellston, and Wellston has shown the country not only what community looks like but what democracy looks like.”
Following his July letter, Page was able to secure a 120-day extension, which he used to work with Griffin, Clay, Blunt, D’Souza and community organizers to come up with a plan. And they did.
On November 12, Griffin sent a letter to HUD, explaining that they wanted to remove the 201 housing units from HUD’s inventory through the Voluntary Conversion Plan and make them tenant-based voucher assistance. That was the first step.
Then on December 4, Clay and Blunt made a bipartisan request to HUD on behalf of the Wellston community, asking U.S. HUD Secretary Ben Carson to consider a unique solution. They asked for both project-based housing vouchers — which would allow Wellston to build new housing units — and tenant-based vouchers — for residents who want to leave the area.
“These vouchers are essential to make redevelopment and relocation successful for our tenants,” Clay and Blunt said in a joint statement on January 13. “While this is a victory for Wellston residents, we are very aware that much work remains to be done to ensure that no tenant is left behind in our efforts to ensure safe, affordable, and stable housing; not just in Wellston, but across Missouri as well.”
However, the deal was still incomplete until earlier this month. The planning group felt that they would need to secure enough project-based vouchers to build at least 186 units in order to attract investors.
They needed 117 more project-based vouchers to make this happen. The final save came from Susan Rollins, executive director of the Housing Authority of St. Louis County, who was able to allocate the remainder in the last hour.
“It happens to be something that we’ve never done,” Rollins said, referring to the project-based vouchers. “We are happy to do it.”
Rollins said that they are now waiting for their application to be approved in the next couple of weeks. Then a relocation specialist will start meeting with tenants to determine their desired living location. Wellston and St. Louis County will also be putting out a Request For Proposals (RFP) for the new housing units. The developer would receive the project-based vouchers. Also, the housing authority will work with the Port Authority of St. Louis County to secure $400,000 in re-investment funds to fund any board-up and maintenance costs during the interim period.
“From the beginning, the Housing Authority was interested in making sure the people of Wellston are taken care of,” Rollins said. “The county executive and mayor have been able to put together a solution that creates an opportunity for there to continue to be affordable housing in Wellston. I think it’s very important, because very often in these situations housing gets destroyed.”
While Shegog commends the support from elected officials, he stresses that this is not their victory.
“It belongs to the everyday neighbor, who knocked on doors to rally behind a common goal,” Shegog said. “Now that Wellston has been saved, the people have a grassroots opportunity to have their own community create a redevelopment plan.”