For Landlord Nathan Cooper, Section-8 Tenants Are Big Business

Terry Waller with two of her children in the Gravois Park home they rented for more than a year.
Terry Waller with two of her children in the Gravois Park home they rented for more than a year. THEO WELLING

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The RFT's 2017 analysis showed Cooper's significant footprint in southeast St. Louis. - CAITLIN LEE
The RFT's 2017 analysis showed Cooper's significant footprint in southeast St. Louis.

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.

click to enlarge One of Cooper's limited liability companies, Gateway Residences LLC, acquired the property in 2015 for just $7,500. - THEO WELLING
One of Cooper's limited liability companies, Gateway Residences LLC, acquired the property in 2015 for just $7,500.

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.)

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