Some residents of Wellston recently faced eviction from public housing. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced last year its intention to demolish 201 public housing units in Wellston, including a senior housing complex. The move would have impacted more than 500 residents of the small north St. Louis County municipality that covers roughly one square mile near the western St. Louis border. Its residents are nearly 97 percent African American.
After efforts by the Wellston Center, some elected officials, and non-profit advocacy organizations, a new proposal was announced in December to offer residents choices in housing vouchers. The Housing Authority of St. Louis County said some of the vouchers will be dedicated as “project-based,” allowing for a renovation of the units, while residents find temporary residence elsewhere. HUD also will provide “housing choice” vouchers that will allow tenants to find other homes, if they wish to leave Wellston.
In November of 2018, a group of residents who regularly visit the Wellston Center approached director Sister Carol Ann Callahan, RSM, saying that HUD notified them it wanted to demolish public housing in Wellston. HUD, which has managed the public housing authority in Wellston in receivership since 1996, cited a lack of funds available to maintain the buildings, many of which are in need of repair.
Sister Carol Ann, who said the residents were rightly “stressed out,” jumped to action, contacting several board members, including Wellston Mayor Nathaniel Griffin, and Marie Kenyon, director of the archdiocesan Peace and Justice Commission, to see what could be done.
Kenyon got residents in touch with Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, a nonprofit organization that is representing the Wellston Tenant Association, a group of tenants who reside in public housing in Wellston. Attorney Lisa D’Souza sent a letter to HUD in February asking the agency to halt plans to demolish public housing in Wellston until an alternative solution could be developed.
D’Souza described the situation as a moral issue that cannot be overlooked, adding that black communities in the St. Louis area have been displaced time and again. “By deciding to walk away from the housing that HUD has run for more than two decades without creating any plan for Wellston’s future, HUD will add another location to this already-too-long list of African-American families and communities destroyed by the very government that should protect and serve them,” she wrote in a letter to HUD officials.
Shortly after he took the helm as St. Louis county executive, Sam Page wrote a letter to HUD saying he would not support a demolition of HUD housing.
Numerous residents have told D’Souza they’d like to stay put in Wellston. “What we had been asking for was an option that every family get the information and make an informed choice, rather than to either force everyone to leave, or to force everyone to stay,” she said. “This is everything that the tenants wanted all along. Every family gets to make a choice that is best for them.”
Flora Mix, a resident of the senior complex who has called Wellston home since 1968, counts herself among those who want to stay. The president of the Wellston Tenant Association, Mix said the new proposal is a win-win for everyone.
“We deserve better living conditions, and that’s what I was fighting for,” Mix said. “I’d like to find a single family home out here somewhere, and stay in the community.”