Ben Carson declared mission accomplished in East St. Louis—where public housing is still a disaster
This article was produced in partnership with The Southern Illinoisan, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.
EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. -- The city's administrative building was decorated for a festive affair when U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson arrived here last September. An Americana themed banner draped the back of a raised stage. Red, white and blue balloons floated in the foreground.
“This is really an exciting day,” Carson told a crowd of a few dozen city and community leaders. “It is a day of transition and a day of progress.”
In October 1985, HUD officials arrived here unannounced and seized control of the East St. Louis Housing Authority, citing poor living conditions and fraud. Carson was in town to return it to local control.
In a brief speech, Carson said that when former President Ronald Reagan’s HUD took over the housing authority five presidential administrations ago, “the residents were at risk, and the future of our children was at risk.”
“Not anymore," he boldly declared.
In the months leading up to Carson’s visit, however, HUD’s own inspectors had failed nine of East St. Louis’ 12 sprawling public housing projects, citing a wide variety of health and safety violations, according to federal records obtained by The Southern Illinoisan.
Inspectors reported such problems as windows and doors that didn’t lock, infestation, mold and mildew, fire safety violations, holes in walls, broken appliances, peeling paint and missing lead-based paint inspection reports. Among the properties that failed, HUD inspectors estimated an astounding 5,405 violations. One quarter were deemed life threatening.
In at least one case, persistent security problems may have played a role in a tenant’s death.
Just weeks prior to Carson’s appearance, an intruder broke into 23-year-old Alexis Winston’s apartment owned by the East St. Louis Housing Authority and killed her in front of her toddler.
Around 4 a.m. on Aug. 8, 2017, Winston made a frantic call to 911, told dispatchers someone was trying to break in, screamed and hung up the phone. When police arrived at the John Robinson Homes, they found her first-floor kitchen window shattered and Winston dead upstairs, her body on the right side of her bed. Her toddler was in a nearby playpen.
In the months preceding her death, Winston made repeated requests to the housing authority, then still under HUD’s control, to fix the window, according to family and friends. It didn’t lock and was missing a security screen, commonly seen on other windows throughout the apartment complex. Winston’s complex failed its HUD inspection last year.
Carson did not tour any public housing complexes in East St. Louis when he visited last September, HUD spokesman Jereon Brown said in a written response to questions. At the time, Carson also was not aware of Winston’s death, Brown wrote. Asked if Carson stood by his remarks, the spokesman declined to comment.
“The path forward for public housing is not a dilemma that is limited to East St. Louis,” Brown said in an email.
The neglect of public housing in big cities like New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C. has been widely documented. But the crisis is also hitting small towns and mid-sized cities -- places like Peoria, Illinois; Gary, Indiana; Birmingham, Alabama; Hoboken, New Jersey; Buffalo, New York; and Highland Park, Michigan, HUD property inspections show.
The HUD secretary came to town last year and declared residents were no longer at risk, three decades after the federal government took over public housing here. In fact, the complexes are falling apart and a woman was killed in the weeks before his visit.
And now, after years of congressional funding cuts to public housing programs, the Trump administration has proposed slashing far more. HUD funding for major repairs at public housing complexes, for instance, has fallen 35 percent -- from about $4.2 billion in fiscal 2000 to $2.7 billion in 2018, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning think tank. Earlier this year, the White House proposed completely eliminating this funding.
St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly said a homicide investigation into Winston’s death remains open.
Kelly, who is also the Democratic nominee for a U.S. House district that includes East St. Louis, has been critical of HUD. After reviewing inspection reports for the properties given to him by The Southern Illinoisan, Kelly said they should have prompted the housing authority to further assess and fix security concerns in all units, and flagged HUD to make sure it was done.
Roughly one in every four of the 27,000 East St. Louis residents live in public housing.
“HUD failed Alexis and so many others there that simply want to live in peace and safety,” he said. “How can anyone put their lives together and lift themselves out of the circumstances that lead them to public housing if you are fighting for your own safety every day?”
City in a free fall
A century ago, the city of East St. Louis was a powder keg. During the World War I industrial boom, African Americans flooded the city, looking for jobs. Shut out of work in the South, some were willing to cross picket lines, angering many white workers.
In the summer of 1917, a white person drove into a black neighborhood and sprayed homes with gunfire. Other black people reported being pulled from their cars by whites and beaten that night. Black citizens returned fire, unintentionally striking two police officers in a parked car who had arrived to investigate the shootings. Over the course of three days in July, dozens of black people were beaten and lynched, one of the most savage race-based attacks in the 20th century. Whites set fire to their homes and shot at them when they ran.
Some black residents fled town and never came back, but far more moved in.
In the 1930s, between the world wars, discussions began about building two public housing developments in East St. Louis – one each for black and white residents. After years of political infighting, protests, and attempts to scrap plans for African-American housing altogether, more than 400 families moved into the Samuel Gompers Homes and John Robinson Homes in 1943.
East St. Louis’ population peaked at more than 82,000 in the 1950s — and several additional large public housing complexes were built.
But since then, the city has been in a freefall. Between roughly 1960 and 1990, the city lost more than 13,000 jobs. The white middle class had already moved. During this time period, much of the black middle class packed up and left, too.
In 1990, about five years after HUD took over the housing authority, then Illinois Gov. James Thompson agreed to spend $34 million to pull the city from the brink of bankruptcy. But that couldn’t prevent East St. Louis from turning over the deed to its four-year-old City Hall that same year after losing a lawsuit filed by a man who was beaten by another inmate while in jail on a traffic violation.
A long list of East St. Louis public officials have faced corruption charges; some have done prison time.
In 1993, a gambling riverboat opened on the city’s riverfront, providing a critical lifeline for East St. Louis’ empty coffers. But gaming revenues have been dropping for the better part of a decade across Illinois, and were never enough to revive East St. Louis.
“Many American cities such as Los Angeles, Baltimore and Detroit have neighborhoods where need is urgent, but they differ from East St. Louis in one important respect,” East St. Louis noted in a 1995 report to HUD, discussing its housing needs. “They can shift resources from more affluent neighborhoods into poorer ones, whereas East St. Louis has such pervasive poverty and a woefully inadequate tax base that shifting is exceedingly difficult.”
Today, one in three East St. Louis families earn less than $15,000 a year and about 70 percent of children live below the poverty line. In 2011, the city lost its only hospital with an emergency room. In 2012, the state named a panel to oversee the troubled local school district’s budget. Currently, the city is grappling with acutely underfunded police and fire pension funds.
“As an East St. Louis native, it pains me to see my old home town in such extreme distress,” said U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, who was raised in East St. Louis. Residents here “suffer from one of the highest violent crime and homicide rates in the country” and “deserve better,” he said.
Durbin, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he’s helped East St. Louis secure half a million dollars to install a new security and lighting system at two large public housing complexes. Durbin also supported efforts by Mayor Emeka Jackson-Hicks to end the receivership. In an interview last year, the senator said the federal takeover had long been a “sticking point” for city leadership because they wanted the opportunity to manage the housing authority on behalf of their residents. Durbin said he has confidence in Jackson-Hicks, who was elected in 2015, that he didn’t have in previous leaders.
“But it is clear that more work remains to keep the families living within ESLHA [housing authority] safe,” he said.
Neither Winston nor any immediate family members had ever lived in East St. Louis Housing Authority apartments, but she added her name to the waiting list in the winter of 2017.
High hopes, starting low
At the time, Winston and her baby were staying with Winston’s mom, Florince Harlan, in Belleville, Illinois, a short distance away. When Royal turned 1, Winston had started working as a clerk at Circle K in St. Louis and she was eager to establish her independence.
The first apartment she was offered was in the John Robinson Homes. Harlan said she was concerned about it by reputation. “I didn’t want her to go there,” she said.
The John Robinson Homes was named for an ex-slave, a Civil War captain and turn-of-the-century civil rights leader. The complex sits downtown, in the shadow of the Gateway Arch on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. The signs of neglect are clear: holes in the soffit lining of the roof exposing ragged yellow insulation, a boarded up community center with holes in the windows that appear to have been caused by bullets. Inside the units, there are mice, roaches, holes in walls, leaky ceilings and missing appliances.
"Many American cities such as Los Angeles, Baltimore and Detroit have neighborhoods where need is urgent, but they differ from East St. Louis in one important respect. They can shift resources from more affluent neighborhoods into poorer ones, whereas East St. Louis has such pervasive poverty and a woefully inadequate tax base that shifting is exceedingly difficult." -Citizen's report to HUD.
After moving in, Winston reconnected with Devanie Moran, a close friend from grade school who lived in another public housing complex, John DeShields Homes, a half mile away. They had children about the same age; the moms worried together about keeping their kids safe.
Moran showed Winston where the management office of the apartment complex was located, and how to file a work order. Moran knew the drill, having moved in several years before Winston. At one point, Moran’s living room ceiling leaked so badly “it was basically raining inside.”
Farlon Wilson lives on the opposite end of the complex from Winston. Leaking pipes caused a hole in Wilson’s living room ceiling that the housing authority patched over, and she continues to battle a mold problem with bleach, which she believes is making her children sick. Her bathroom sink fell off the wall. She would have preferred to live elsewhere but this was the apartment offered to her and she took it.
Winston’s mom and sister said that Winston wasn’t thrilled about moving into the John Robinson Homes, either. But she was determined to keep an upbeat attitude, her mom said.
“We accepted this because you have to accept something low in order to get to something big,” Harlan said.
Mismanagement and fraud
When HUD officials took over the housing authority in 1985, they told reporters that they would improve living conditions and the housing authority’s finances. Over three decades, the housing authority’s financial condition improved from a $14 million deficit to a surplus. A few longtime residents said living conditions had also improved in the earlier years of HUD’s takeover, but then declined again.
Longtime tenants such as Delbra Myles have complained that the housing authority hasn’t painted occupied units for 20 years. This isn’t just a cosmetic problem. The paint chipping from window sills and bathtubs may contain toxic levels of lead, according to a lead paint assessment that was conducted in April for the Samuel Gompers Homes, which was built for whites but is now occupied almost exclusively by black families. That report was obtained by The Southern Illinoisan through a public records request.
HUD inspectors have cited Gompers for missing lead-based paint inspection reports for years. From 1995 to 2016, while HUD was the receiver, state health department test records show at least 70 cases of children with dangerously elevated lead levels. Lead poisoning can cause lifelong developmental delays and health problems in affected children. The cause of the children’s high lead levels has not yet been established.
Mildred Motley, the East St. Louis Housing Authority’s executive director, said her agency is examining “the exact impact of the alleged lead levels” and has applied for a grant from HUD to assist with removing or sealing lead paint, if necessary. Brown, the HUD spokesman, declined comment on the missing lead paint assessments during HUD’s receivership.
The troubles go beyond lead paint. In audits of the East St. Louis Housing Authority in 2011 and 2012, HUD found that the housing authority double-billed the federal government for certain salaries and unit renovations, and mismanaged stimulus funds during the recession of the late 2000s.
In 2012, HUD’s Office of Inspector General found that the department’s failures to give East St. Louis the consistent leadership and detailed attention it needed had prolonged its receivership and led to “significant management and operational” shortcomings.
The report concluded that HUD “needs to improve its structure for managing receiverships.” Since taking over East St. Louis, HUD has placed about 20 more housing authorities into administrative receivership. Three remain under HUD’s control, all of them in small, majority African-American cities in the Midwest: Gary, Indiana; Wellston, Missouri; and Alexander County, Illinois, home of Cairo, the southernmost town in the state.
The day of Winston’s death, Carson was in Cairo, about two hours from East St. Louis, speaking with tenants of two 1940s era housing complexes that HUD plans to demolish because they are no longer safe. The decision to shut down the Cairo complexes after years of neglect and HUD oversight failures was one of Carson’s first major decisions as secretary.
Five days after Carson visited East St. Louis and declared the housing authority in excellent shape, HUD’s inspector general released yet another damning report about the city’s housing agency. This one accused a private management company, working on the housing authority’s behalf, of improperly paying workers and awarding contracts to companies owned by employees or their spouses instead of honestly evaluating bids. In a response contained within the report, the company noted that its president initially contacted HUD when “made aware of an employee conducting fraudulent activities,” but disagreed with the amount of money the inspector general claimed was overpaid to workers. The housing authority has ended its relationship with the company.
Asking for help in a failing project
It didn’t take long after Winston moved in for issues to arise, Winston’s family and friends said. For starters, the mice and roaches were everywhere, her mom said. Harlan said she bought her daughter a bug bomb, and they set it off in her apartment. But what bothered Winston the most was the lack of security.
Winston tried repeatedly to get her kitchen window fixed.
Moran, Winston’s friend from grade school, recalls going to the management office more than once to help Winston file work orders. When she visited the office a final time, an employee said, “Be patient because they barely have maintenance men,” Moran said.
When that came to nothing, Harlan said she accompanied the petite 4’ 9” Winston — her family called her “Precious” — to the housing authority’s headquarters a couple of miles away.
A few weeks before her death, one of Winston’s sisters, Laquitsha Bejoile-Hayes, helped her lock the window with a broom handle and two nails. But a permanent repair was never made, and the security screen never arrived.
HUD completed its most recent inspection of the housing project where Winston lived five days before she was killed. The inspector noticed the security problems, too.
The inspection report noted that nearly half of inspected windows were inoperable or wouldn’t lock. More than a third had damaged or missing screens. This was out of a total of 25 units inspected between the John Robinson Homes and neighboring John DeShields Homes (the two sites are inspected together as one project).
Nationwide, the failure rate for public housing projects nearly tripled, to over 13 percent from about 4.5 percent, between 2015 and 2017. African Americans were disproportionately more likely to live in unsafe conditions, an analysis by The Southern Illinoisan and ProPublica of HUD inspection scores found. While apartment complexes are expected to pass routine inspections and fix problems in exchange for federal dollars, HUD rarely orders that they be closed and residents moved if that doesn’t happen.
During the past five years, at least 120,000 people, nearly half of them children, lived in public housing apartments that received repeated failing scores, the analysis found.
Earlier this year, Bejoile-Hayes asked Motley, who took over as executive director of the East St. Louis Housing Authority in late 2015, for copies of work order requests Winston had filed. Motley declined to provide them. Subsequently, The Southern Illinoisan submitted a public records request for work orders from April to August 2017 for the development where Winston lived.
Among the roughly 130 requests for repairs, five were for window repairs. (Tenant names and unit numbers were not included for privacy reasons.) Of those five requests, the records show that an order to fix one broken window was closed on the day it was reported in late April. The others were not closed until at least mid-September, after Winston’s death, the records show.
Motley would not comment on any requests made by individual tenants, including Winston, to repair their units. She said in an emailed statement to The Southern Illinoisan that “window and screen replacements are major improvements which require capital funds.”
Scared to be in her apartment at night alone, Winston spent most nights at her mom’s home. But on Aug. 7, Winston decided to stay overnight at the John Robinson Homes. She had a hearing scheduled for that week at the nearby county courthouse to get child support for her daughter.
A tragedy, despite cries for help
A few hours after Winston was killed, a police officer knocked on the door of her sister’s home in Belleville. Tynesha Bejoile was at work, so her fiancé answered. The officer asked him to have Bejoile call the police department as soon as she could
When Bejoile called the police, she was told that there had been a tragedy in Winston’s apartment. The officer asked her if any immediate relatives could arrange to pick up Royal, who had been taken into the custody of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services at the scene. “I asked if my sister was OK, and she said, ‘I can’t tell you that over the phone,'" Bejoile recalled.
Bejoile-Hayes, another sister, left work and drove to their mom’s house. Florince Harlan, who was asleep, woke up to numerous missed calls, then got another from her ex-husband. A co-worker had told him that rumors were spreading on social media that Winston had been murdered in her apartment.
Bejoile-Hayes drove Harlan and Winston’s stepfather to the John Robinson Homes.
Around 8:30 a.m., they arrived at a scene filled with signs of tragedy: multiple squad cars in the parking lot, crime scene tape stretched across the apartment complex, and two armed officers guarding the front door of Winston’s apartment. Harlan collapsed in pain. Her ex-husband steadied her by the arm.
“That’s when I started screaming,” she said.
Eventually, she went to find Royal at a state office just a short drive away. An officer met Harlan there, and walked her over to the police station, where they confirmed that her daughter had been killed.
Winston’s mom and sisters spent the next 10 days planning burial services. In the days following her daughter’s death, Harlan said she kept thinking about the fact that her daughter had complained repeatedly about her unsecured apartment.
If the screen had been in place, “I think it would have saved her life,” she said.
A question of jurisdiction
Winston wasn’t the only East St. Louis Housing Authority tenant to die in the weeks before Carson’s visit. Last July 26, a fire broke out in an eight-story apartment complex for seniors known as the Orr-Weathers E-2 building, located about a mile from where Winston lived.
Derwin Jackson, a tenant in the building, said the alarm sounded loudly on the first floor, but was difficult for some tenants on higher floors to hear. “I’m on the sixth floor. I couldn’t hear it,” he said.
A disabled tenant on the fourth floor, 60-year-old Arthur Jefferson, was overwhelmed by smoke. Jackson said. Jefferson moved slowly, “inch by inch,” and collapsed in the hallway not far from his door, according to a police report. He was later pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. Police said a woman who did not live in the building entered with another tenant and set fire to a couch and table in the hallway of the fourth floor. She recently pleaded guilty to aggravated arson and involuntary manslaughter, according to Kelly, the state’s attorney.
“I believe it’s going to take another life for them to even consider getting this building up to code like they are supposed to,” said Jackson, who was Jefferson’s cousin as well as his neighbor. HUD inspected the property a week before Jefferson died. Like Winston’s complex, it failed, scoring a 37 out of 100 points.
Willie McDaniel, who also lives in the building, said tenants have long complained about the building’s lack of security. People who are not authorized to be in the building sleep in the hallways at night, he said. McDaniel said that it’s not uncommon for feces and urine to linger in common areas for several days.
At a meeting last December, tenants asked for the housing authority to assign one of its security workers to patrol the hallways of this high rise and others. The housing authority responded that security personnel visit the high rises several times per day and monitor security cameras from their vehicles. But the housing authority “does not have sufficient resources to have Public Safety stationed at each high rise building,” according to responses included in the housing authority’s annual plan.
Terrell Wren, another resident in the Orr Weathers high rise, had a list of complaints, particularly about bed bugs. His bathroom is in shambles. In late April, a jammed hot water knob caused the water to run continuously. “It’s been like this going on three, maybe four months,” he said.
McDaniel said he’s so fed up that he organized a petition drive to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, asking her office to intervene. A half dozen tenants wrote to Madigan about bugs, frequent hot water outages, and security concerns they say they’ve raised for years. “Help!!!” one tenant wrote.
“They need to condemn this building,” McDaniel said.
Annie Thompson, a spokeswoman for Madigan, said the attorney general’s Consumer Fraud Bureau reviewed the complaints and determined that it does not have jurisdiction in the matter. The complaints will be forwarded to the East St. Louis Housing Authority and copied to HUD, Thompson said.
Gunshots and raw sewage
Lakena Harmon remembers hearing that Winston’s had been killed last August. It was all anyone talked about for several days. “I thought of, what if this happens to me, could this happen to me, and will these windows be able to protect me?”
Although Harmon didn’t know Winston, she thought of her when her own apartment was sprayed with gunfire this spring.
In mid-April, Harmon returned to the Samuel Gompers Homes from a get-together in Belleville. Friends and family had thrown her a gender reveal party. Excited to learn she was having a boy but worn out from the festivities, Harmon said she laid down on her bed at about 10 p.m.
Soon after, she heard what she thought was a rock hitting her window.
When she heard it again, Harmon realized it was gunfire and rolled off her bed, hitting the floor with her pregnant belly. The window shattered, leaving a bullet hole in her bedroom closet door. She was unharmed, but for weeks her window was covered with a plywood board.
As she waited for the window to be replaced, Harmon slept on a mattress in her living room. Then, about two weeks after her window was shot out, she awoke to the smell of raw sewage. “As soon as I put my feet on the floor, it’s all water, all water,” she said. She shuffled across her wet floor to the bathroom and threw up. Then, she started mopping up the mess.
Neighbors have had similar experiences. After the incident, Harmon’s doctor wrote a note for her to give to the housing authority saying she needed to be moved or have her apartment repaired as “exposure to raw sewage creates a health hazard for the patient.” The housing authority hasn’t responded, though, and Harmon said her apartment flooded again on July 31.
Transitioning control, without additional help
Since HUD ended its receivership, living conditions have remained bleak.
A recent assessment showed a staggering backlog of needed repairs at East St. Louis’ public housing complexes. The report said that it would cost $42 million to immediately renovate units and building systems to HUD standards and another $180 million over 20 years.
To put that in context, the housing authority only receives about $3 million each year from HUD for major repairs. It also receives about $9 million in federal operating subsidies, intended to cover the difference between the reduced rents charged to tenants and the estimated cost of managing the apartment complexes. Roughly three of every four dollars the housing authority receives comes from the federal government.
Kelly, the prosecutor who is running for Congress, has been critical of HUD’s lack of investment to improve the East St. Louis housing complexes. He said last September that he was concerned the agency had sought to distance itself from ongoing problems by returning control of the housing authority to local officials without giving them enough resources to fix its problems.
As part of the transition back to local control, a HUD administrator was assigned to provide assistance to East St. Louis and closely monitor the housing authority’s performance for two years. The housing authority was asked to implement a plan to improve living conditions.
“The aging housing stock continues to deteriorate. The prior repairs have been plagued with inferior workmanship and materials and unskilled maintenance staff. The lack of maintenance staff has also taken a toll on timely repairs,” the local housing authority wrote in a brief report on the issue. In recent years, major systems such as plumbing, electrical, roofing and heating, have not been properly maintained, the report said.
Based on the projected annual funding from HUD for major system repairs, “it will take over a 70-year period to correct the deficiencies” identified by inspectors and in a separate assessment of property conditions.
Brown, the HUD spokesman, called Motley, the local housing authority executive director, “a glimmer of hope for housing in East St. Louis.”
“As committed as she is, she cannot do it alone,” Brown wrote. “There is a direct, indisputable correlation between housing and the local economy.
The local housing authority “strives to meet HUD standards,” Motley said in an email. “Inspections have identified several items that need to be addressed, and we are in the process of addressing those items.”
Under the transition plan back to local control, the housing authority also was asked to improve security on its properties and track monthly crime statistics.
"Nobody else's child should die"
In April, police received three reports of home invasions and two of shots fired at the John Robinson and John DeShields apartment complexes, which combined house about 300 families. In May, police responded to an aggravated assault and two incidents each of aggravated battery and criminal damage to property. In June, police responded to a criminal sexual assault. At the John Robinson Homes, some windows are still missing security screens, and are sealed with boards and nails.
Winston’s daughter, Royal, is now living with Bejoile-Hayes, her husband and their children.
Bejoile-Hayes said it pains her to think of all the moments her sister is missing, like when her little girl turned 2 this January. Royal was in her pretty white dress, squealing with delight at her brightly colored Trolls-themed birthday party and a few of her favorite foods: a pancake bar with whipped topping, fresh strawberries and chocolate chips.
Late last month, Harlan sued the East St. Louis Housing Authority in St. Clair County Circuit Court, alleging that its failure to secure the window after Winston’s multiple requests contributed to her death. Any money collected will go into a trust fund for Royal’s continued care, Harlan said. She’s also hoping it sends a strong message to the housing authority and HUD about the importance of fulfilling work orders so that “nobody else’s child has to die in those apartments down there.”
The housing authority and HUD, which is not a defendant in the suit, both declined to comment on pending litigation. The housing authority has yet to file a response in court.
“You knew my child needed help,” Harlan said, “and you turned a blind eye.”
Data journalist Kate Rabinowitz contributed to this report.
Molly Parker is an investigative reporter, focusing on public housing, for The Southern Illinoisan. Email her at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @mollyparkerSI.
Do you live or work in public housing? Share your story at firstname.lastname@example.org.