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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Waller and her kids were homeless for a few weeks after leaving the home on Chippewa. - THEO WELLING
Waller and her kids were homeless for a few weeks after leaving the home on Chippewa.

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."

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