Jim Roos, former Executive Director of Sanctuary in the Ordinary
For six months, HUD and St. Louis County Housing Authority need to reconsider their plan to issue Section 8 vouchers and relocate 500 people from 201 public housing units in Wellston.
Relocating all Wellston tenants will ultimately be no improvement for most tenants. We have seen this approach fail in other neighborhoods before.
For example, in 2003 St. Louis City allowed a developer to use eminent domain to take and demolish six entire blocks just north of Interstate 44, west of 39th Street. The area was then called McRee Town and is now called Botanical Heights. Neighborhood Enterprises managed 40 buildings with 120 rental units in the general area. Half of them were taken and demolished. The area was distressed, but we knew it was recovering: between 1995 and 2000 our vacancy list had dropped from over 15 to almost zero, and the average rent for 3 and 4 room apartments had increased from $175 to $225.
Some relocated tenants were moved to Ferguson, Wellston, and other distressed areas, which made their situations worse. By contrast, one tenant who lived in a section of McRee that was not taken called me last month to say her husband was dying. She said they had rented from us for 31 years. They had raised all their children in our apartments, and she was grateful for the housing and for the relationship. I visited her husband in the hospital and attended his funeral.
When units are vacated with no immediate plan to repair and re-rent, they will be vandalized, demolished, and forever lost as existing or potentially decent lower-cost housing. In Wellston, there are currently 155 occupied and 46 vacant public housing units. I have driven or biked by most of them. I haven’t seen the interiors, but I suspect that many of the units could be adequately rehabilitated with the selective rehab strategy I used for 45 years.
Wellston Mayor Nate Griffin, City Administrator Janice Trigg, and Chris Krehmeyer of Beyond Housing are working on an alternative to the HUD proposed relocation, which would likely end in demolition. I believe they have support from county, state, and federal elected officials, St. Augustine Church and Archdiocese, bankers, and Audubon Associates LLC. Give them some time to develop an alternative plan!
Grand Scale Development is often shortsighted or unrealistic. The Wellston “Choice Neighborhoods Transformation Plan” in November 2015 produced no results. The 1947 “large scale” development plan proposed by the St. Louis Plan Commission declared that all areas around the central business district were “obsolete” and “must be cleared and reconstructed.” If the city had completed the plan, Soulard and Lafayette Square would have also been demolished.
Let’s remember St. Louis City’s Neighborhood Stabilization Team’s motto: “You don’t have to move to live in a better neighborhood.” Use selective rehab principles and work around existing tenants.
Jim Roos is currently retired after 47 years with Neighborhood Enterprises (NE) and Sanctuary in the Ordinary (SITO). NE repaired and managed—and SITO owned—lower cost rental housing.
Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
We invite readers to contribute to the civic conversation about community development in St. Louis by writing an op-ed for the Community Builders Exchange. Op-eds should be short (400-700 words) and provocative. If you have an idea for an op-ed, contact Todd Swanstrom at firstname.lastname@example.org.