For the last year, Nathan Cooper has been getting $1,450 a month to house Terry Waller's family in a home he owns near Gravois Park in south city. Most of that sum is paid by the federal government and taxpayers through the Housing Choice Voucher program. The program provides public funding for tenants in the private housing market.
Yet Waller has been living without a working kitchen or any exterior doors capable of locking securely. Although both are requirements of the program, Cooper, her landlord, has not attended to them — despite multiple requests.
Out of other options, she's called the St. Louis Housing Authority to run an additional inspection.
The inspector, whom Waller refers to as Mr. Roberts, arrives at her front door. (The housing authority declined to provide his full name without a signed request from Waller.) He also inspected the property before Waller moved in. Now he takes stock of the unit.
"Really, Nathan?" the inspector says, raising his voice, "What is this?" He gestures towards the back door, grabbing it with his other hand.
"It was one of the kids' fault, I guarantee it," Cooper responds.
"Listen," the inspector continues, "all I know is that it's unacceptable, and I need it fixed."
Cooper says, under his breath, "Yeah, if I can get in..."
"Wait a minute! Listen to what I'm telling you," the inspector says. "You have a key, right? Then come in and fix it whether she's here or not — OK?"
The two go on, back and forth. Cooper isn't backing down. "Well, it was one of the kids. Look, I know what happened, they kicked it in and broke it."
"But Nathan, all that wood is dry rot. It wouldn't take a thing for the door to come right off," the inspector says, attempting to bring an end to the argument. "This door has got to be completely fixed today before nightfall — it's a totally unsafe situation."
The converted storefront at 3118 Chippewa was built in 1911, but all of its problems can't be excused by its age. The kitchen floor is uneven, made of particle board. The stove has not worked for weeks. Slabs of drywall partially line the hallway. The basement is unusable due to prior flooding. A broken refrigerator blocks use of the kitchen table.
The conversion fit two bedrooms downstairs. Five bedrooms are on the second floor — one of which is so small as to be debatable. When asked how many bedrooms it has, even Cooper is unsure. "Six or seven," he says.
As the RFT reported last year ("Do Not Pass Go," July 27, 2017), Cooper tends to purchase homes when they're cheap and makes minimal investments after that, just enough to pass the city and housing authority inspections. Records show one of his limited liability companies, Gateway Residences LLC, acquired this property in 2015 for just $7,500. Before that, records show, it was vacant and boarded. But with a bit of work, he was able to eventually move in a federally subsidized tenant and recoup his initial investment. Despite the large monthly sums he's collected for Waller's occupancy, the home retains a very low value on the city's tax rolls; records show that last year Cooper paid the city a mere $146.34 in property taxes on it.
"Are you writing all this down, Nathan?" the inspector asks after surveying the apartment. "OK, well then repeat back to me what you have to fix — start on the first floor and work your way up."
"The refrigerator, the back door," Cooper starts, "the ceiling tiles..."
"No, no, before you get upstairs — what else down here?" the inspector interrupts. Cooper doesn't reply. "Replace the stove. I want another one in here," he commands. "And the windows, you need to replace them. That's your responsibility."
"But it was shot from the inside, you can see that," Cooper says. "Are you sure someone in here doesn't have a BB gun?"
"No, it wasn't," the inspector responds. "I want the stove for tomorrow — and the refrigerator. Wait, let me ask you a question, Nathan: When you brought the new refrigerator, why didn't you take the old one out of the house? It's not fair for her to have two refrigerators sitting there in the kitchen.
"And no stove," the inspector begins again after a pause. "She can't cook anything healthy. The stove has to be replaced."
As of the April inspection, Terry Waller and her nine children have lived for the last year at 3118 Chippewa Street — and she describes her time dealing with her landlord there as a "nightmare."
Waller and her children have roots on the south side — friends, family and a familiarity with the neighborhoods. At the same time, her block presents its challenges for raising children. Once, when Cooper was late to secure a window, she sent a text: "It's Chippewa, man, are you serious?"
Waller is a proud mother; she often shares stories about her kids. When Cooper assumes they are to blame for property damage, she quickly defends them. But Waller acknowledges that she and her children have had an impact on the home. "I can take responsibility for that," Waller says when the inspector points out a small hole in the drywall upstairs. She concedes the same about two bedroom doors she has taken off their hinges. In Cooper's absence, she's made some repairs to keep things together: fixing locks, boarding windows, sealing cracks for insulation.
For a moment between rooms, the inspector turns to Waller. "I do have one question to ask you now...why would you pick this house?"
"I have no idea," Waller says, frustrated.
"This is tenant choice," the inspector says, "and we tell all tenants before you move into a house, look at it thoroughly, and if it's not what you want, don't accept it. Also," he says, "don't listen to a landlord when he tells you he's going to fix something." Cooper, though he's within earshot, refrains from commenting.
Waller and the inspector walk through the hallway towards the living room. "This is just cheap carpeting he put down for when you came out."
"Of course it is," he responds, "but like I said, the problem is that you picked this."
The inspector asks how long Waller has been on the voucher program. "More than six years now," Waller says.
"Alright, so you know better — and you have to know better," the inspector says.
"I don't get it," Waller says later. "The Housing Authority spends all this money for people to live and then let him get away with this? For that price — a person should be comfortable."
Terry Waller's problem, initially, was that she was in a rush. She left her last place in Gravois Park after a neighbor held a gun to her son. The chances of finding a landlord in south city who took vouchers and had room for all her children were slim. Looking back, she says, "I still wish I would've waited."
"I couldn't have known, right?" she asks rhetorically. "Y'all are the inspectors, you all know Nathan better than anyone."
Cheryl Lovell, the executive director of the St. Louis Housing Authority, says her staff is trained to not direct families in their choice of units. She is wary of infringing on fair-housing requirements. It is, however, within policy to encourage clients to be cautious of unit conditions. "We also suggest that they check the landlord's reputation." Yet there is no formal means to do so.
Lovell says clients pressed for time are often talked into units by the promise to repair things not enforced by the housing authority. "We inform our clients to be aware of these promises because they may not happen." (Says Waller of Cooper, "I was trying to take him at his word.")
Inspections typically only happen before moving in and then every two years after. (Units rented to voucher holders are also inspected separately upon move-in by the city's building division.) Waller sought additional help from the housing authority because of the poor conditions she says she experienced. She resisted calling the building division for an inspection, though, even after her situation with Cooper deteriorated.
"I was kind of scared to call the city," she says. "I called them before about a property a couple of years ago, and they gave me ten to fourteen days to get out, and that honestly scared me — they condemned it."
Over the last fourteen months, the RFT has visited more than 50 properties owned or managed by Cooper and interviewed 32 tenants, in conversations ranging from ten minutes to more than ten hours, checking back in over time. Among them, the conditions at 3118 Chippewa have been the rule, not the exception.
For Cooper, a former state legislator representing Cape Girardeau, south St. Louis has been a strategic focus. He's been accumulating properties since 2007, in neighborhoods hit hardest by the foreclosure crisis, at times making purchases at the tax sale — but only when he can get something at the right price.
As of June 2017, the nine LLCs that Cooper is a member of collectively owned 209 properties in the city of St. Louis, a number that continues to grow as he buys and sells. That's enough to make him one of the most significant property owners in the city. In addition to these properties, the RFT's 2017 analysis found that he manages properties for at least eleven additional companies with holdings in the city.
The properties he owns are almost entirely residential — and a large percentage end up being leased to lower-income tenants with Section 8 vouchers. In 2016 alone, Cooper-owned companies hauled in $908,000 in federal monies from the city and county housing authorities, records show.
Many at City Hall know his name; aldermen on the south side bemoan his practices. Alderman Shane Cohn said in 2017 that Cooper "perpetuated the decline" of some south-city neighborhoods.
But city officials believe taking action presents its own conundrum. In a 2017 interview, 9th Ward Alderman Dan Guenther said, "I'm concerned for the residents potentially displaced if the city were to respond by boarding up all his buildings at once."
Still, Cooper disagrees with the assertion that he targets any particular type of unit, demographic or family size. "I'm not focusing on anything," he says in an interview after the inspection of Waller's house. He does say, though, that he prefers single-family units. "Having two different units together, you end up becoming a psychologist, a peacemaker."
Lovell says the housing authority sees many of the same problems during inspections of Cooper's properties: "Items that seem to be reoccurring are plumbing, broken windows, appliances not working, roofing leaks and floor conditions." She continues, "In our experience, many units do not pass the first HQS inspection."
However, Cooper continues to be eligible within the program. Lovell says, "Mr. Cooper normally corrects the deficiencies, after they are cited on an inspection, within the required timeframe." The housing authority often gives landlords extensions to get properties in line with housing authority standards, she says.
Within an hour of Waller's April inspection, two of Cooper's men start fixing a front door and working down the list of items, preparing for the follow-up inspection the next morning.
The property passes re-inspection the next day, barring one issue with a window. That too is eventually fixed, Lovell says.
A few days before the inspection, Waller sits on her couch with her two youngest children. "My kids, they love it when I make baked ribs, mashed potatoes, smothered pork chops or fried chicken," she says. "There's this one recipe they love where I bake the chicken and put it with pineapples and lemons, and I let it all cook together — they've been asking me about that one.
"The kids like the home cooking," she finishes. "They always want to do that, you know, as a family."
Waller turns to two of her youngest. "Landyn, let your brother play with the phone too," she says, mediating a disagreement in the next room. Landyn circles the corner in tears, moving towards his mother's lap. "Don't give me the fake stuff, Landyn, you'll be OK," Waller says. "Looking like you need a nap, huh, let's go upstairs." The two walk upstairs. "You could be an actor someday, boy, I'm telling you." Landyn's brother stumbles into the room next, seizing the chance for some of his mother's attention.
Back on the couch, Waller continues, "I've had no refrigerator, no stove for weeks, so yes, it's hard. I have nine children and I can't maintain any food, you know, no cold milk for breakfast, nothing cooked on the stove. But Cooper's still getting paid all the same."
Her text messages to her landlord all start similarly: "Hey this is Terry at 3118 Chippewa." She follows with a short description of the problem.
"No response here either," Waller says, holding her phone in her hand, showing their recent communication. One message to Cooper reads, "Hey this is Terry at 3118 Chippewa, I've been trying to call you for three weeks now, no answer. The refrigerator has gone out, and I had to throw out food." Waller estimates she's thrown out $300 worth of food. She's been buying fast food several times a day to keep the kids full.
"All the money I'm putting towards fast food, I wanted to save up for the deposit in my next place," Waller says. "And my kids, they're really tired of it, but I just gave my brother another $40 to take them to eat."
Cooper disputes Waller's claim that he doesn't respond. "Every time she's called, we've been here," he says, "We take care of her issues. We always do."
With a week left in her lease, Cooper sees a connection. "This is what happens towards the end of a lease, after the place has already been destroyed. When they move in, the house is beautiful, it's wonderful. Then it gets destroyed."
Little research exists on landlords who model their business around housing-voucher holders, or, as Eva Rosen, an assistant professor at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy, calls them, "voucher specialists."
For more than a year, Rosen conducted one of the few studies on this issue, focusing on Baltimore landlords and tenants. While researching, Rosen stayed in the Park Heights neighborhood, a community that mirrors the demographics of Gravois Park, interviewing landlords and residents at length.
One reason to become a voucher landlord, she found, is the premium that can be charged for rent.
Rosen discovered strategic "sorting" and "trapping" of voucher holders into units, "where they can be most profitable to landlords." That involves recruiting tenants with the least ability to move for the units that are hardest to rent out — either due to their location or condition, and often both. And while kicking tenants out through eviction constitutes a national crisis, landlords also fight to retain, or trap, tenants in their properties to ensure cash flow.
Taken together, Rosen sees landlords as an under-scrutinized locus of power in urban segregation and the concentration of poverty.
"If you look at rental prices in the neighborhood and the criteria," she says in an interview, "you can get more with a voucher, no question." Landlords charge voucher holders based on fair-market rent for the surrounding metropolitan area. This measure of average rent per bedroom means fair-market rent will be higher than the typical rent in any low-income neighborhood. Charging $1,450 for an unfinished home, in a poor, majority black neighborhood, exemplifies this.
"It's appalling," says Alderwoman Cara Spencer, who represents Waller's ward, the city's 20th. "I pay way less for my mortgage here." In St. Louis, after all, $1,450 per month can go a long way.
Shortly after Spencer was elected to office in 2015, she began taking "walking audits" of her ward. "I was down on Wisconsin Ave," Spencer says, "and there was a whole bunch of stuff in the alley, like sofas and food and clothes. Well, I went around to knock on the door and the woman was in tears. I said, 'What's wrong?'
"She opened the door. Behind her, the second-floor bathroom was gushing water everywhere, and she said, 'It's been this way for two days.' And I'm like, 'Who's your landlord?'
"So — that was my introduction to Nathan Cooper," Spencer says, adding, "Properties under his management continue to be a problem."
This December, the heating in Waller's home stopped working. More than a month passed, and Waller was forced to move her kids in with relatives to keep them warm. Eventually, Waller reached out to Spencer.
"I don't know what Cara did, but they came after that," Waller says.
Cooper tells a different story. "We came to fix the furnace a couple hours after being contacted. She called the alderman," he says, visibly annoyed. "It wasn't even a direct call. It was through a third party.
"It's a game, the whole thing's is a game — it's a game that's played," Cooper says.
Rosen, too, uses the "game" metaphor to describe some voucher specialists. But, she says, "I don't think the tenants are playing some kind of game. I think the tenants are poor."
"If it's a game," Rosen says, "the landlords know the rules and the tenants don't — they know how inspections work and what minimal effort they have to put in." (Lovell, of the housing authority, confirms this is something she has witnessed in St. Louis.) Power is unevenly distributed; often single mothers living in poverty are up against large-scale land owners.
"When Terry is happy," Cooper continues, "she says the nicest things about me. When she's not, she's like this — the mood swings."
He says, "This is all about her — she's upset. A year from now she'll probably be calling me, though, looking for another place."
But Waller says she wants to avoid spending any more time under a roof managed by Cooper. She's looking for a new place.
The problem is that he is one of the few landlords on the south side who both accepts voucher tenants and has homes with enough bedrooms for her kids.
"It's like everywhere I look when I'm trying to move, it's just 'Nathan, Nathan, Nathan,' so this is why I'm at the end of the road," Waller says. "Everything I was finding was Nathan. I'm gonna be homeless, homeless, homeless. I'd rather sleep in my car, honestly, than another one of his properties."
Barb Potts, the neighborhood-improvement specialist currently overseeing Spencer's ward, is the main contact between the city and Cooper. When asked for comment, Potts declined, even after receiving permission from the mayor's office.
Mayor Lyda Krewson declined requests for an interview, referring questions to her building commissioner, Frank Oswald, and Matt Moak, the attorney for the "Problem Properties" section.
"I've told this to Nathan — I see him as someone who owns too many properties," Moak says. "It's hard to keep up with. And it would behoove him to divest from some of those properties and focus in on the ones that remain."
Oswald adds that the city has prosecuted Cooper "on various occasions" for failing to address code violations in a timely matter, generally over 30 days.
After the inspection, Cooper calls the water company to prove to the RFT that Waller is behind on her water bill. Cooper often resorts to what Rosen calls "the teeth" of the voucher program. In St. Louis, like many other cities, voucher tenants cannot move if they have an outstanding balance with their landlord or utility company without risking the loss of their voucher. The housing authority says some St. Louis landlords routinely notify it of outstanding debts only when tenants present their landlords with move-out documents.
"Allowing small sums to build up over time," writes Rosen, through repairs, utilities or a tenant's co-payment, turns into a "strategy of indebtedness," holding tenants in their units.
Justine and her four kids rent a four-bedroom detached, single-family property near Gravois Park that Cooper manages for a company called DJMMS LLC. (She's asked the RFT not to use her real name.)
The unit was in bad condition when Justine moved in during 2015, but Cooper had already taken her $2,200 deposit. Justine had been homeless for three weeks while waiting for the place to pass inspection.
Justine says, "He was like, 'Until I get it fixed up, you don't have to pay me your monthly share of rent.'" She says, "I should have got him to put that in writing."
Justine does not know how the house passed the initial inspection. She cites myriad problems during her tenure, not limited to raw sewage in the basement, a gas hookup incorrectly connected to the unit next door, rain pooling in the kitchen and causing the floor to cave in, vermin infestations, broken fire alarms, missing floorboards, a caved-in ceiling and a broken toilet gushing water for three days. "I wasn't going to cook for my kids in those conditions."
One time a city staffer stopped by for an inspection without notifying Cooper first, Justine says. He would have condemned the property, but Justine requested he not. She didn't have another place to go.
After almost two years, she couldn't put up with the house anymore. When the housing authority performed a special inspection, records show, the unit failed. The inspector cited ten failed items as the owner's responsibility. The housing authority granted Justine a new voucher to move; they wrote to Cooper explaining that they would stop his direct deposits unless the unit passed a re-inspection.
In response, Cooper sent Justine a bill for $2,673 — the amount of rent he had supposedly waived since move-in. The letter also noted her outstanding water bill.
"Every time I tried to tell him to let me move, he just held it over my head," she says. "He'd say, 'But Section 8 is gonna take your voucher if you do that.' He did everything he could to keep me in fear."
With that, two days later, Justine signed a housing authority form, stating she would stay in the unit and forgo the voucher that would have allowed her to move.
"The practice of allowing debt to accrue as a means of retaining tenants may serve as a broader mechanism that prevents voucher tenants from leaving undesirable living situations," writes Rosen. "The threat of voucher loss can weigh heavily on a family."
"He did that to keep me trapped and bonded here," Justine says.
Cooper had sent a copy of the bill for two years of accrued debt to the housing authority. The ledger initiated a voucher termination proceeding.
A local policy tries to account for similar situations: Only debt reported to the housing authority within two months can be considered as grounds for terminating a voucher. Lovell says, "It's our attempt to prevent landlords from holding the stuff back until somebody decides to move."
But whether the policy is being applied consistently — much less achieving the agency's desired result — is unclear. Justine lost her status as a voucher holder due to a "serious or repeated lease violation, specifically non-payment of rent," recprds show. They quote Justine stating in her appeal, "He is blackmailing me." She lost the appeal.
And after Cooper was no longer receiving federal funds, he started a formal eviction process. All the while, Justine was trying to leave with the money she'd saved. Now, she was searching with an eviction on her record; landlords turned her down more than ten times.
Today, she is happier with the condition of her new place, a two-bedroom in north city. "I don't regret giving up my voucher at all. We're doing so much better now," Justine writes. "And my hair is growing back because I'm not stressed."
Rosen found landlords using similar tactics of threatening voucher loss in Baltimore. "It also has the potential effect of retaining the most disadvantaged voucher holders — those behind on their rent — in some of the worse quality units in the poorest neighborhoods," she writes.
Cooper has since moved another family into the house Justine had been renting on Tennessee Avenue. (Cooper did not respond to follow-up requests for comment on Justine's case.)
It is late May, and Waller got the keys to her family's new house three days ago. She's balancing her kids' graduations with moving their belongings out of their storage locker.
Waller found the new place online. It's a three-story, single-family house on the west side, far from the neighborhoods where Cooper's units are clustered. Waller had her sights set on another house, but it didn't pass the housing authority's inspection.
"A large percentage of voucher holders just don't find a place in the allotted amount of time, and that's because so many places don't pass inspection," says Rosen. "And so it's very common for people to go around looking for a place and just repeatedly have units fail." In April, housing authority records show, 73 of 186 initial inspections failed.
When Waller first looked at her new place, it wasn't in the best shape either. It went through multiple rounds of inspection. And it needed agency approval before Waller could move in.
Between leases, her family was homeless. The family split up, explains Waller's oldest son, a rising high school junior we'll call John. (He asked that the RFT not use his real name.)
"The family's coming back together now," John says as he leans against the banister just inside the front doorway. "My little brother, I just saw him for the first time in a couple of weeks."
"The two small ones, they went with their dad. My other brother, the one always running around, he was on the other side of Gravois Park. My two brothers, they go with they grandma," he says. "My two little sisters, the ones that are graduating, they were with their uncle. He treats them like they're his daughters. We see him pick them up from school each day even though the kids could walk." Waller's third oldest, Tooki, was with her auntie.
Since moving out of Cooper's place, John stayed with his mom. Without a home for three weeks, they split nights between Waller's car and a friend's place.
"We've also missed a couple days of school 'cause, you know, Nathan," John says. "We had to get up out of there."
He motions to his brother. "He just graduated, so that's a good thing for him. I finished my biology and my world-history finals 'cause they're my best classes. It's just, I know I'm going to have to go to summer school; I missed two of my finals. But that's nothing to me. I make sure them grades stay 'cause it's so easy for me."
Housing instability, however, isn't always forgiving to high schoolers. Nationwide, even one move during adolescence significantly reduces a student's likelihood of graduating high school, as Molly Metzger, an assistant professor at Washington University's Brown School, concluded in a 2015 study.
Years ago, Waller and her three oldest received a voucher after a time she describes as being "completely homeless." Since then, Waller and her kids have experienced four periods of homelessness while transitioning between units with a voucher. The longest stint was three months, while Waller was pregnant with her sixth child.
Vouchers significantly reduce hardships such as housing instability, food insecurity and child separations for homeless families. Still, the St. Louis Housing Authority says it is common for there to be a gap between leases, although there is limited data on the extent of the problem. Lovell says that is because around 100 families are moving each month and application packets are often turned in close to the end of a lease. (Sometimes the housing authority is able to negotiate a lease extension to limit any gap in housing.)
In Waller's new house, the kids have picked out their rooms. "Mom said all the boys on the top floor, but my sister, she trying to get up there," one boy says.
Waller feels optimistic about her new landlord. "I like him way better than Cooper 'cause as soon as I called him to come out, he stuck to his word," she says.
"I like the new place," John says. "But I really wish we would have stayed in south city 'cause that's where I have been growing up my whole entire life. The only way I know my way around is the south. The north, west and the east, man, if you take me to one of those streets, I don't know where to go.
"I just got to start over. That's all it is," he continues. He was hoping to stay at Roosevelt High School, but his mom says he'll go to nearby Soldan instead.
"We heard people talk about the 'Wicked West,'" he says. "The other day there was a shootout nearby." He notes the new house's closeness to the store and several schools, making the point that his siblings can stay tight.
"I watch out for people," he says. "But my little brother — he can't just stay in the house. He's easily distracted — so he hangs in the yard."
Waller points down the street, counting three vacant houses on their new block. Neighbors have already come over to introduce themselves. She likes the new area.
"I like to stay quiet. The older people — like where I am at now — that's my type of party."