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

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"I do have a question," the inspector asks Waller. "Why would you pick this house?" But Section 8 tenants in south city can be limited. - THEO WELLING
  • THEO WELLING
  • "I do have a question," the inspector asks Waller. "Why would you pick this house?" But Section 8 tenants in south city can be limited.

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."

"When they move in, the house is beautiful, it's wonderful," Cooper says. "Then it gets destroyed." - THEO WELLING
  • THEO WELLING
  • "When they move in, the house is beautiful, it's wonderful," Cooper says. "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."

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