32 Years Later, Feds Return Local Housing Control to East St. Louis

by | September 22, 2017

By Kevin McDermott

By the fall of 1985, the Reagan administration had had enough of the East St. Louis Housing Authority.

The famously inept and corrupt local agency, which was supposed to provide shelter for the area's poorest residents in more than 3,000 public housing units, was paralyzed by a political blood feud between the mayor and local housing commissioners. A local housing director had recently been convicted in a kickback scheme involving more than $1 million in federal housing funding. The agency's budget deficit stood at about $14 million.

Tenants had launched protests and lawsuits over unlivable conditions in the deteriorating buildings, including collapsing ceilings and sewage backing up into sinks. There were reports of holes in the floors and rats in the walls. "Getting a toilet repaired may depend on political alliances," the Post-Dispatch noted in an editorial at the time.

So on the morning of Oct. 21 of that year, for the first time anywhere in America, a small group of officials from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development arrived in East St. Louis, unannounced, to forcibly take over a local public housing system.

On Thursday -- almost 32 years later -- HUD Secretary Ben Carson gave it back.

Congratulating local officials on "a day some said would never happen," Carson on Thursday formally returned East St. Louis' public housing system to local control. In a ceremony in City Hall, Carson, Mayor Emeka Jackson-Hicks, U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, and others officially ended the first and longest federal receivership of a local public housing authority in U.S. history.

The move followed years of work by local officials on improvement goals set by HUD involving everything from its finances to its management to the physical condition of the buildings themselves.

The city's public housing system, which now encompasses just over 2,000 units, will continue to be under close HUD scrutiny for at least the next two years as it moves back under local control, Carson said.

"This is really an exciting day," he said. "It is a day of transition and a day of progress."

Following years of physical deterioration of buildings, fiscal mismanagement and reports of chronic corruption within the East St. Louis Housing Authority, Chicago-based federal housing officials in 1985 officially took over control of it on orders from Washington.

According to media accounts at the time, federal officials spent months building their legal case for the unprecedented receivership, working around uncooperative local officials to get at records and gathering photographic evidence of the deteriorating housing units.

Early on Oct. 21, a Monday, they launched the actual takeover in an operation described as being akin to a police raid. Federal and local police agencies were put on standby in case local housing officials resisted. Those officials were served notice of the action while still in their homes that morning, and were told they would be arrested if they tried to interfere. Other agents seized agency bank accounts and housing records.

In the days that followed, HUD officials wouldn't say how long the agency might remain under federal control. "We at some point in time expect to turn the Housing Authority back over to the city," a HUD spokesman told reporters at the time. "We don't intend to be there indefinitely."

That made some tenants and activists nervous that Washington might leave before the problems were solved. "I would feel better if I knew they were going to be here longer than 30 or 60 days," said one.

In the ensuing three decades, HUD says, the management issues, fiscal problems and physical deterioration of the buildings have improved.

Officials at Thursday's ceremony said the local agency currently has a positive budget balance of almost $2 million, which will be used in conjunction with federal and other money to continue improvements to the housing units and removal of some of the older ones.

"Thirty-two years ago, under President (Ronald) Reagan, HUD had a duty to intervene. ... The residents were at risk," said Carson. Since then, he said, "The improvements have been substantial."

He added: "Our concerns do not vanish with this transfer of authority. We must remain vigilant. The residents must have credible, honest, responsible and frequent assurances that the housing authority is functioning as intended."

(c)2017 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch