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Feds to East St. Louis city officials: Fix housing authority problems or face sanctions

Outside of the housing authority building in East St. Louis, Ill.
Joshua Carter
Belleville News-Democrat
The Housing Authority of East St. Louis is city's largest landlord.

Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.

East St. Louis could face a federal takeover of its troubled public housing authority, funding cuts or other penalties, if city officials don’t adopt proper policies and procedures for appointing authority board members, according to a top U.S. housing official.

The warning was part of an April 29 letter from William O. Dawson III, director of the Chicago regional office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, to East St. Louis Mayor Charles Powell III and the city council.

Dawson sent the letter, obtained by the Belleville News-Democrat, after HUD officials discovered in a review of the local housing authority that two of its board members did not live in the city, a violation of state law and HUD rules, the letter states. One of the members has since resigned, and the city council has replaced her. The status of the other is not clear.

“Our Agency believes that until such time that the City establishes and implements adequate policies and procedures for its Board appointments, that the federal investment in the HAESL (Housing Authority of East St. Louis), and by extension the City and its most vulnerable citizens, is at considerable risk for fraud, waste, and abuse,” the letter states. “And that, in the absence of any action to remedy this by the City, HUD will consider imposing grant conditions/restrictions on the HAESL’s grants, consider sanctions, and/or consider the potential for declaring the HAESL in default of the Annual Contributions Contract, if again, these conditions are not Remedied.”

HUD officials declined to be interviewed or to comment on the situation. Mayor Powell III did not return phone calls seeking comment.

City Manager Robert Betts said City Attorney John Baricevic will respond to the letter.

Baricevic said attorney-client privilege prevents him from revealing whether he had reviewed Dawson’s letter and whether he would respond on behalf of the city.

He did say it is his understanding that the city was appointing new people to the board.

Dawson’s letter is the latest point of contention between HUD and local officials during a year of controversy and upheaval in the troubled Housing Authority of East St. Louis.

The authority has had at least five major leadership changes since mid-2023. An authority director, an acting director and an interim director, plus a former Board of Commissioners chair and her replacement, have left their posts for various reasons.

At one point, Betts applied for the executive director’s post, but eventually withdrew his application after Dawson raised multiple questions about his candidacy and the entire hiring process. The position remains open.

Most recently, HUD challenged the city council’s April 4 reappointment of Naomi Purchase Gilbert and the appointment of Natasha Jefferies to the housing authority board.

“Specifically, during our review of the governance of the Authority, including the City’s administration of the HAESL’s Board of Commissioners appointments during our on-site Risk Review the week of April 15th, we learned that the City knowingly reappointed Mrs. Purchase Gilbert and appointed Ms. Natascha Jefferies in violation of Section 3 of the Illinois Housing Authorities Act, which states: Every commissioner shall be a resident of the area of operation of the Authority,” Dawson wrote in his April 29 letter to city officials. “Neither Ms. Purchase Gilbert, nor Ms. Jefferies are residents of the “area of operation of the jurisdiction” with the jurisdiction defined here as the City of East St. Louis.”

Purchase Gilbert owns a home in Belleville while Jefferies owns a home in O’Fallon, according to HUD, citing research by its staff.

Dawson’s letter said that Purchase Gilbert and Jefferies should resign or be removed and replaced on the board. HUD sent documents in support of their findings.

During the course of the BND’s reporting on this issue, a reporter asked Betts if he knew Purchase Gilbert and Jefferies did not live in East St. Louis.

“We are looking into it,” Betts said. “It is under review.”

Later, at a May 23 meeting, the city council appointed Pamela Sargent to replace Purchase Gilbert, who had resigned from the board, according to council records.

No action was taken on Jefferies at that meeting, according to the council agenda packet.

At the same meeting, city council voted to appoint Dinah Campbell to the board, replacing DeMarko M. Ward Sr., who also had resigned from the board.

Ward declined to comment when the BND asked about the resignation and other board matters.

In a resignation letter obtained by the BND, Ward said:

“This decision is not one I want to make, but rather one I feel forced to take to avoid any potential backlash or retaliation for my continued presence on the board. It has come to my attention that there is displeasure with my stance regarding voting matters involving Commissioner Naomi Gilbert Purchase,” the letter states. “ I want to clarify that my intention was never to target Commissioner Purchase, but rather to ensure that issues regarding her residency are appropriately addressed before proceeding with voting matters as to not violate any bylaws, state, or federal laws. Unfortunately, it seems this has been misunderstood, and I regret any unintended implications.”

No action was taken on Jefferies at the meeting.

Betts said Friday Jefferies declined the appointment to the board, and the city never formally appointed her. “We brought her name forward, but never moved forward with the process,” he told the BND. “No action was ever taken with her.”

Purchase Gilbert and Jefferies could not be reached for comment.

Asked whether he agreed with HUD’s finding that the two individuals didn’t live in East St. Louis, Betts said, ”Not necessarily.”

“People live in multiple places. You can’t dictate where people stay and sleep at,” he said. “That’s all subjective. We don’t sneak around to see where people sleep.”

In his April 29 letter, Dawson told city officials they can turn to HUD for assistance as they work on fixing the appointment policy and procedures issues.

“Note that HUD may provide technical assistance to the City in order to remedy any deficiency outlined in our letter, should the City request it,” the letter states.

If HUD finds the East St. Louis housing authority to be in default of its annual contributions contract, it can take any number of actions, including assuming management of the local agency. The local agency receives millions of dollars annually in federal money to support nine public housing facilities it administers.

Carolyn P. Smith is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Carolyn P. Smith is a breaking news reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.