The door is off its hinges in Farlon Wilson’s bathroom. Wilson said that’s an improvement from when she first moved in, when there was no bathroom door at all. She said she’s putting in work orders to fix the problems nearly every week.
“The tub won’t stop leaking and the floor is about to fall,” Wilson said while demonstrating how the floor bends under the pressure of her foot. “I have no access to my bathroom water, period. I’ve had to turn it off because it’s leaking in my kitchen.”
Downstairs in the kitchen, she motioned to a patch in the ceiling where water once leaked through and later talked about how she and her family’s breathing has been affected by mold. She pays less than $100 a month in rent.
“I didn’t grow up like this,” Wilson said, who moved to East St. Louis three years ago from Arkansas. “And it doesn’t even have to be like this.”
Wilson, 36, lives with her four children the John Robinson Homes in East St. Louis. Reporting for ProPublica Local Reporting Network, Molly Parker of The Southern Illinoisan investigated living conditions there in early August. This was nearly a year after a declaration from the Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson that conditions had improved.
Wilson is one of more than 7,000 people in St. Clair County who are waiting for a Section 8 voucher, also known as Housing Choice. This money would help her move from public housing partially paid for through HUD funds to a private market rate rental unit. She applied three years ago.
“They’ve only sent a couple of letters telling me that I do not have to respond to this letter. That I’m still on the waiting list. I just don’t understand the long wait,” she said.
Wilson said she knew an older person who lived in the same complex for six months and already has a voucher. She wondered if perhaps the woman got the assistance before her because she is a senior citizen with no children.
St. Clair County Housing Authority Executive Director Larry McLean said his agency does select voucher recipients based on a point system that gives priority to the elderly, veterans, the homeless and those with disabilities. Those who are displaced because of foreclosure or natural disaster, also get priority to assistance.
- MORE: Understanding Section 8 vouchers (Also known as Housing Choice vouchers)
Qualified applicants, low-income to extremely low-income people, who meet any of the criteria receive points along the selection process. People who live within the agency’s jurisdiction and are employed also receive a small number of points.
“If you don’t have a total of 13 preference points, you are unlikely to reach the top of the waitlist,” McLean said.
He said the office receives about 34 applications a week from people seeking a housing voucher. But the demand for this kind of assistance outpaces the availability of affordable housing stock, he said.
“Most Housing Authorities [sic] close their wait list when it gets too long,” McLean said in an email. “That really does nothing to solve the problem of their being a large segment of the population that can’t afford decent housing.”
He said the St. Clair County agency chooses to keep the wait list open for three reasons:
- "Because of our admission preference system, someone can apply today and go to the top of the list;
- Keeping the waitlist open provides a reflection of how serious the housing affordability issue is (a reflection of local housing need);
- To both close and open the waitlist, a housing authority has to issue public notices, resulting in an overwhelming rush to apply before it closes and even more of a concern an absolutely overwhelming response when you reopen the list."
McLean said officials at the housing authority “lay it out for them,” meaning they explain the selection process to Section 8 applicants. But Wilson said not much was explained to her and she doesn’t understand what is taking so long.
“I’m working now. I’ll save and I’ll move before I sit and wait on a list or somewhere it’s not safe,” Wilson said. “Because it’s not safe out here. I’m tired of the gunshots every night … having to make my kids lay on the floor, scared of a bullet. Because a bullet has no name. I just can’t see myself doing this another year.”
‘I wish my Section 8 would come through’
Wilson is tired of waiting on Section 8 assistance after three years. How about after 32 years? That’s how long Artheia Jackson has been waiting. She is the one person who has been waiting on St. Clair Clair County’s voucher list the longest. The condition of her home is not as severe as Wilson’s.
“Yeah, I’ve been waiting for a long time,” she said sitting in her home in Private Mathison Manor, also in East St. Louis. “I never did know if it was gon’ come to me because I would be ready to move and stuff and get around other different people and a different environment.”
Jackson, 58, is a home care aid for the elderly. She applied for both Section 8 and public housing in 1986. The public housing application was accepted first. She raised her family in the projects and is questioning what to do next because subsidized senior housing isn't an option yet.
“I have to wait till I’m 62,” she said. “That’s four or five years from now. Then you got to be on that waiting list. I wish my Section 8 would come through for me.”
She, too, receives periodic notices from St. Clair County Housing Authority, updating her on her application status.
Wilson, like Jackson, said she makes the best of what she and her family have, but wishes she could get more help.
“They do us like this, I mean just because, you know, black, low-income families …,” she said with exasperation in her voice. “A lot of us try and a lot of us don’t. A lot of us care and a lot of us probably won’t and never will. But I care because I have four children that I just want better for.”
This article and radio story were produced in partnership with The Southern Illinoisan, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.
Ashley Lisenby is part of the public radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland, Oregon. Follow Ashley on Twitter @aadlisenby.