Housing Mess Attacked
$40 million renovation program underway
Some one third of East St. Louis' 40,000 residents live in public housing. There is a waiting list of over 2,000. A third of the public housing is vacant, including at least 200 units in the senior citizen highrise Lansdowne Towers. Of the units not occupied, half are not fit for occupancy.
The East St. Louis Housing Authority is being operated by Quadel Consulting Corp. of Washington, D.C., for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) which took over the authority in 1985, declaring a breach of contract by the local housing authority. The previous executive directors are "serving time," according to Ruth A. O'Sullivan of Quadel, who helped oversee the project here for two years and now makes frequent inspections here.
The authority operates three programs: rental housing, generally in projects; a home ownership program of "turnkey" housing in which the occupants eventually own their homes and Section 8 housing rentals. The authority is allocated 250 certificates or vouchers that families can take to find their own private sector housing, with HUD helping with the rent payments. This housing must meet HUD guidelines and is inspected by the authority. With the exception of Section 8 housing, none pays real estate taxes.
The Housing Authority is supposed to reimburse the city for city services. The county, spurred by Township Supervisor Will McGaughy, found the authority had not been doing that, asked $800,000 in back payments, and according O'Sullivan, collected a negotiated settlement more like $300,000. However, she said these are no t in lieu of taxes, but are for services, and East St. Louis supplies few. Consequently, that settlement may be the last the city receives until it at least provides garbage pickup. However, she adds, the authority is giving the city "tons of money for construction permits."
As of Sept. 1, there had been an agreement to settle, as yet unannounced, the Land of Lincoln suit regarding the home ownership program affecting 580 units. The settlement is occupant-oriented, O'Sullivan said, with long-time tenants given ample credit toward ownership. It was not an easy problem because of the lack of adequate records. The authority has no way of knowing how much many of the tenants have paid toward home ownership, she said. Not only are records missing but whole houses were "lost" in the transfer of housing from the St. Clair County Housing Authority to the East St. Louis Housing Authority when the latter was created in 1954. She said the settlement provides procedures for settling cases where records are missing, all very much in favor of the homeowners. "Most of those people unfortunately have not been able to get anything from us, because it was in the lawsuit and we had no way to settle."
Buyers made payments into a reserve fund for maintenance. If they were able to maintain the property, make repairs like a new roof themselves, they could draw money for materials from the reserve; excess could help them pay off the units earlier. If they could not, the housing authority could tap the reserve to maintain the buildings for them. The system sought to encourage "sweat equity."
"We're still the owner of the property," she said. "It is the responsibility of the home owner but the authority too. The location shows negligence in the initial purchase, a total lack of management. Years went by and no one looked at those houses or responded to tenants who were responsible enough to call and say there was a problem that needed fixing and they didn't have the ability to fix it. You had to know somebody to get work done. As a result - and this is why the lawsuit - this went on for 15 to 20 years, people living in horrible circumstances, and they still are in some cases. All we have been able to do is a lot of bandaid."
We have very strict rent collection policies, very strict lease enforcement policies; we educate the tenants from day one what we will do. We've gotten to the point where tenants will tell other tenants 'You'd better be good, better pay your rent because they will kick you out.' People generally have fallen in line."
The vacancies primarily are among the elderly units in Lansdowne, built in the late '50s and early '60s. "We've done a marketing study and found we don't have a market." East St. Louisans old enough to meet HUD standards (62 or over or handicapped) tend to be the frail elderly who require care rather than just housing. "We provide some level of services, the emergency bells, some social service programs, nutrition programs, but we are not a nursing home or intermediate care facility; people have to live somewhat independently." Quadel has lowered the age limits to the "near elderly" -- 50 and older -- to attract more people, and it is working but "we have several hundred units to fill, and this is a town in which people are leaving, anybody who can is leaving." Are tenants frightened? " Crime is a problem throughout the city." No worse there than anywhere else? "I would think not." Is Lansdowne the worst neighborhood? "It keeps shifting. For awhile it was the Villa Griffin project, which is right next to Lansdowne Towers, so it is from that the (senior citizen) high rises get affected. We have brought in the state police who are very effective there, and that moved it over to the John DeShields. We keep chasing it back and forth."
O'Sullivan praised the East St. Louis Police Department. "They really try." She said this is one service the city is providing to the authority and meeting its obligations.
"We have a number of other agencies in the community providing services, providing drug treatment programs and providing educational opportunities, but when people are afraid to walk out their front door, they're not helping anybody."
Are they afraid in the daytime?
"Yes, but it is easing. There's a visible difference. Violence does occur. It's heavier at night, no question, but during the day one of our employees was shot in broad daylight, working on a vacant unit. He was caught in the crossfire of a gunfight.
"That's what tenants are afraid of, crime within our property. It is almost always not our tenants. The people who are victimized are our tenants. When people are afraid of becoming victims, we wonder what they are involved in.
"We have improved evicting people, left and right, when we identify them as involved in drug activity. We have won every single case. We are very happy to have a court that will cooperate with us.
"Since April (four months), when state police came on board, there have been 55 arrests. We've evicted 15 families, many more are in process, and 10 moved out once they were notified of the eviction procedure. People are starting to get the message. Our message is that if you want to keep your house, get those people (into drugs) out of your house, take control of your family.
Orr Weathers is scheduled for various work items, elevator work, rewiring, replaced boilers on hot water heaters, but not comprehensive rehab. Two of the high rises are vacant, two in operation. The two vacant ones have been boarded up for the fifth time, but people steal the boards. This time the replacements are welded in. "It has been a frustration, a lot of money has gone down the drain from that. With the elevator shafts, the buildings are a tremendous liability too. We have to keep people out."
The authority is prohibited by federal law from tearing down any units without replacing them. So the two will stay boarded up.
It does not have to replace, however, units sold to occupants as in the home buyer program.
There is all kinds of housing here, she said. it would be silly to build more public housing. The replacement units may be smaller apartment houses, maybe some single family.
There are several HUD-subsidized Section 8 apartment projects around the area. One sizeable one is in Alta Sita, but it has deteriorated and the housing authority has canceled it as an option for its certificate holders.
O'Sullivan said the mayor and other. public officials get a lot of press, but "there's a core of people, black people" committed to this town who, for whatever reason, love, loyalty or whatever it might be, are working very hard here to get this town to turn around. I don't know whether they will be successful. I admire them tremendously for being committed because I would have walked years ago.
She said there is a consortium of social service agencies that meets monthly to serve the elderly, a variety of folks from the town, not with government in any shape or form. It is "one of the reasons we feel very good about what we are doing, it is not a hopeless cause or effort.
"The tenants make our lives worthwhile," O'Sullivan said. "The kids really get to you. The kids are the ones who will come out of this somehow. The kids are a joy, the kids are what really get you going. Their parents are helpless, but there are a lot of people struggling to get ahead, going to school, working a couple of jobs, trying to make a life for themselves and their kids.
"For that reason, we hope to stay three more years, a total of seven years. We have no promises from HUD. We'd like to stay until it is time to turn the authority back to the city, and the city is ready to have it turned back. HUD doesn't want to continue to operate the program, but it doesn't want to see it slide back once it has gotten it straightened out, either."
We recalled Carl Officer's concerns about the housing authority, and commented:
"You don't sound like such bad guys."
"We don't think we are," she responded. "We think we're sort of saviors, in a way. We do a good job of trying to make things run correctly. We feel that we are very pro-tenant, and we do what makes the most sense and will benefit the tenants the most."