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With Eviction Moratorium Soon To Expire, Housing Advocates Fear ‘House Of Cards’ Collapse

On a freezing, rainy afternoon in late January, a woman stood outside a St. Louis housing complex and broke down in tears. The longtime tenant at the recently rebranded Fountains at Carondelet explained that she’s never been behind on rent until recently, during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

After losing much of her income over the past year, she said, she’s now about two months behind, and the property management company, Clayton-based Sansone Group, isn’t happy. Based on her recent interactions with the company, she’s scared of being put out on the street.

And getting much-needed repairs has been impossible in the meantime. She said Sansone has declined to address issues like cockroach infestations and plumbing problems for tenants behind on rent.

“[For] January I gave them $400 out of the $600 [monthly rent],” the woman told St. Louis on the Air, which is withholding her name due to fear of potential retaliation. “And that’s working one day a week. I’ve been panhandling to give them money for rent. And that hurts for me to say that.”

Sansone Group did not respond to several requests seeking comment.

The woman said that a little over a year ago, she’d felt hopeful about her housing situation. In late 2019 Sansone took over management of what was then the Southwest Crossing Apartments. Previous owner TEH Realty had allowed living conditions at the complex to drastically deteriorate. Last summer, the managing partner of TEH Realty was indicted on federal charges of bank and wire fraud.

But she’s lost that initial optimism. She said unaddressed issues at the complex include unlit hallways, syringes scattered on hallway floors, long cracks in her ceiling and bugs.

Another tenant who'd complained to Sansone Group about similar conditions told St. Louis on the Air that the company offered to move her to a new unit, but only if she made good on past-due rent.

Lee Camp, direct services attorney with ArchCity Defenders, described the tenants’ situations as just two examples within a looming “house of cards that [is] going to fall and disproportionately impact low-income renters who live in places like this.” ArchCity has been involved with advocacy efforts on behalf of various tenants at the property since last June.

“Some [tenants at the Fountains] are behind on rent because they lost their job during the pandemic, some have withheld rent because of the conditions in these homes, some are just living paycheck to paycheck and dealing with the burdens that poverty puts on individuals,” Camp said. “So every situation’s different.”

What the tenants have in common, the attorney added, is that they could lose their housing if the local eviction moratorium is not renewed.

While new ownership might seem like a blessing for a troubled complex, Camp added, a motivated landlord often has incentive to encourage low-income tenants to move out.

“There’s a new landlord who’s ready to make this property nicer and [so forth], presumably,” Camp said. “We’ve seen this happen multiple times with distressed properties — it’s easier to clear people out, get in and do your [renovation] work, and then re-let the property once you can raise the rents and make more money, and it becomes an asset that produces more for your investment.”

Kennard Williams, a lead organizer with Action St. Louis and member of the St. Louis Housing Defense Collective, said he is concerned that Sansone Group seems eager to evict longtime tenants.

“The pandemic has kept going, and people have still been facing these economic hardships, and at the same time, we’re still seeing people having evictions filed against them. We’re still seeing people having eviction threats levied against them,” he said. “Another issue is repairs being leveraged for rent.”

And multiple tenants at the Fountains at Carondelet are under real threat of being forced out if the moratorium is lifted, Williams said.

“Just a couple weeks ago, there were about six or seven people who had evictions filed there,” he said.

Those evictions may go so far as to be filed in court. But they cannot be executed until the moratoriums in place expire. That could happen as early as Feb. 28 for the more comprehensive moratorium ordered by St. Louis city judges or March 31 for the federal one.

"Think of this as a balloon that’s been filling up,” he said. “And without any sort of stimulus or anything that’s passed for people to be able to pay this rent and for adequate systems of rental assistance to come in, people are left in the wind. So this balloon keeps filling up. And when these moratoriums, if they run out, a lot of people will be left vulnerable.”

Williams added: "St. Louis does not need another wave of homelessness. We're already struggling with homelessness right now.”

If renters are facing eviction, Williams urged them to fill out a declaration through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“You have to send that to your landlord,” he explained. “You can take a picture of it and text it to them, you can email it to them. Just make sure you have a way to show that you have sent that. … This is a piece that we’re using right now, a lifeline to keep people in their homes.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio

Evie Hemphill joined the St. Louis on the Air team in February 2018. After earning a bachelor’s degree in English literature in 2005, she started her career as a reporter for the Westminster Window in Colorado. Several years later she went on to pursue graduate work in creative writing at the University of Wyoming and moved to St. Louis upon earning an MFA in the spring of 2010. She worked as writer and editor for Washington University Libraries until 2014 and then spent several more years in public relations for the University of Missouri–St. Louis before making the shift to St. Louis Public Radio.