Introducing a better customer experience as part of County Housing’s ongoing evolution

Over the past three years, the Housing Authority of St. Louis County has been taking steady steps toward making a greater impact. Its new approach centers on the importance of establishing relationships with residents who need an affordable place to live, making their experience more welcoming and transparent.

Until recently, most of the changes have been internal—but now the housing authority has a new brand, a new website, and a new presence as County Housing.

“I have been excited about how things are changing, but it hasn’t been necessarily visible from the outside,” said Chief Operating Officer Katrina Sommer. “The new brand is an alignment of our goals that other people get to see.”

Those goals include improving overall operations, fostering a resident centered culture, increasing partnerships in the community, expanding access to affordable housing, and changing its public perception from an overly bureaucratic government entity to a warmer, more empathetic organization whose staff genuinely wants to help.

“In the past, our work has often gone unnoticed unless there was a problem,” said Executive Director and CEO Shannon Koenig. “We want to elevate awareness of the solutions we provide and the positive impacts we have on people’s lives and the community we serve.

The 72-year-old agency is not alone in rebranding, she added. County Housing is on the vanguard of a trend among the 3,000 housing authorities across the United States to update their brand toward goals such as increasing partnership opportunities, recruiting talented staff and quality landlords, optimizing resources, and enhancing their impact on the local community.

Board of Commissioners Chair David Nehrt-Flores, Director of Deaconess Center for Child Well-Being, said it can be easy to lose sight of relationships when the focus is on processes and requirements. But County Housing’s evolution exemplifies what is possible when public sector institutions increase the agency of those they serve. “This is how we build a collective community of care which creates conditions for folks to feel their full humanity,” he said.

That sentiment arises again and again when County Housing’s staff members talk about their organization’s approach.

“County Housing meets people at a hard point in their lives—they are struggling, and we want them to feel seen, heard, and cared for,” Sommer said. “Often they’re in an emotional state because of their current situation. We’re trying to hone in to address their needs from the first contact to build trust and credibility.”

As a result of this ongoing evolution, County Housing is now poised to strengthen its interactions with all of its stakeholders. Here’s a snapshot of what that will look like for residents, partners, staff, and the wider St. Louis community.

When people who need access to an affordable place to live reach out to County Housing today, their experience is quite different from what it would have been like three years ago. “Those we serve now have a better-quality experience because we’re trying to meet them where they are,” Sommer said. “And as we respond with the level of care and concern that we have, people are seeing us more as an advocate for our clients and the community.”

For example, the new website offers enhanced functionality for both existing and new Housing Choice Voucher holders. They can access their forms and files, resources to find housing, a portal to recertify and information about other programs for which they might qualify. They can also contact their caseworkers and find answers to frequently asked questions. Residents of public housing can fill out maintenance request forms, make rent payments, submit transfer requests, access policies and more.

A feature that is expected to be especially popular is the ability to sign up to be notified when the waiting list opens. Due to exceptionally high demand and limited supply in St. Louis County, the waiting list has not been open for several years. Sommer said they receive calls from people asking about it every single day—so having a notification system will be reassuring to clients who are worried they will miss out.

“We’ll be able to track who has inquired and let them know when the wait list will be open,” Sommer said. “We can offer them a solution to part of their frustration, even if we can’t yet offer them housing.”

Along with the increased transparency and informativeness, County Housing has trained all its staff to be more familiar with the lived experiences families seeking housing may be going through. The end result of this multi-faceted investment, Nehrt-Flores said, will be better relationships among residents, landlords, and staff—and fewer instances where emotions spill over into confrontation.

“We recognize problems will still arise, but we are building a container that’s strong enough to hold the conflict,” he said. “Our new approach will lead to an understanding that there are real people involved on both sides, collectively striving for access to housing.”

When Chief Administrative Officer Judy Ricks worked in education, she discovered just how much impact homelessness had on students—and that shaped her belief that “housing is not just another industry. Housing is a primary need.”

She believes the rebrand will help County Housing’s partners—who include property owners, vendors, government agencies, nonprofits, and more—to better understand all the ways their work touches residents’ lives, from managing public housing to providing income-based vouchers to developing new homes to ensuring a quality living standard in rental units.  “Affordable housing is very complex, and we want to be recognized as experts in the subject matter,” Ricks said.

Because there is a shortage of affordable housing in the St. Louis region, County Housing is actively seeking partners interested in collaborating on projects. To that end, its new website includes comprehensive information for all its partners about working together in various capacities.

When County Housing’s staff weighed in on the rebrand, Ricks said each person brought their own experiences and perspective. “That’s why we were so passionate and vocal about this journey,” she said. “We pulled pieces from the past that led us to this moment, and I am confident that will resonate.”

“It’s a fresh start for us, and it will renew the energy we bring to our jobs every day,” Sommer said. “We were trying to show up differently already, but it’s hard when you don’t see any evidence of change visually. Now there’s an entire movement around what we say we’re trying to do.”

Having their work highlighted also puts positive pressure on staff to live up to the brand in their everyday interactions, Ricks said. “When there are hiccups, we are very transparent. We take responsibility for any setbacks and reinforce our commitment to resolving issues.”

Nehrt-Flores agreed, adding, “We’re always doing our best, and there is always room to improve. We are grounded in that approach instead of exhibiting a sense of authority.”

“We want to change the perception of our housing authority,” Ricks said. “We do so much more than just hand out vouchers. Instead of creating or perpetuating generational poverty, we’re showing people their current situation doesn’t have to be continuous.”

The ripples of impact from County Housing’s resident-centered approach extend to health and wellness as well, said Board of Commissioners Vice Chair Lora Gulley, Director of Community Mobilization and Advocacy at Generate Health. “Good-quality housing is a measure of our community’s health and wellness,” she said. “We’re digging in to shift the perception of housing authorities. It’s different now—we build bridges to our long-term partners and collaborators so they see themselves as part of this effort.”

By more thoroughly explaining the solutions it offers, Ricks believes that County Housing “shows people that there is hope and gives them a better understanding that we are a place they can trust and believe in.”

Moreover, Nehrt-Flores said, “weaving in the community strengthens the institutions of government so that when there are transitions, the civic fabric holds, no matter the politics or leadership.”

“We’re proud of how far we have come, but we have very high aspirations,” Ricks said. “On the human resources side, we’re going to continue to invest in our people.”

Gulley, who recently started her second four-year term on the Board of Commissioners, said she thinks of County Housing’s evolution as a marathon rather than a sprint. To help gauge its progress, the staff has instituted annual surveys of its public housing residents, Housing Choice Voucher holders, and landlords. “There are many ways to collect feedback, and we want to make it welcoming for people to share with us,” she said. “Our willingness to hear hard conversations will make our service better.”

On the public-facing side, Ricks said County Housing will emphasize relationships and transparency with all its stakeholders, starting with the first impression. “Our brand sends a message before we even utter a word, so getting our story right is important.”

Koenig, who started as Executive Director and CEO in January 2021, is excited about all that the board and staff have done in the past three years to enhance County Housing’s work and modernize its approach by placing an emphasis on residents’ stability and sense of belonging. “We are one of the primary providers of affordable housing in the region, and we are more passionate than ever about pursuing our mission.”

At the end of the day, Koenig said, “we all need a place to call home, and our new brand shows all that County Housing is doing to address that need. We’re reinforcing the cornerstone of this community’s foundation.”

Important Alert: Beware of Online Scams

Our partners with Mountains and Plains Network (MAP) have been alerted to a concerning trend involving online scams targeting individuals seeking access to the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) waitlist. It has come to our attention that an unauthorized entity is falsely presenting itself online, offering a shortcut to the HCV waitlist. This scam has evolved, with scammers also impersonating landlords via fake emails and unlawfully soliciting deposits from unsuspecting individuals under the guise of HCV approval. 

Please be aware that all legitimate access to the HCV waitlist is always processed through official Public Housing Agency (PHA) channels. Importantly, at no point does the process require a financial deposit to secure a place on the Section 8 waitlist.

1. Official Communication: All official communications regarding HCV waitlist placement will come directly from the Housing Authority of St. Louis County or County Housing. Please be sure to verify any suspicious emails or offers.

2. Legitimate PHA Contacts: If you need to verify the legitimacy of any contact claiming to represent the PHA check out the official list of PHA contacts at https://www.hud.gov/program_offices/public_indian_housing/pha/contacts.

3. No Fees for Waitlist Access: There are no fees associated with applying for or being placed on the HCV waitlist. Any request for money in exchange for waitlist placement or expedited service is a scam.

If you think you have been targeted by a scam please report your experience to us and local law enforcement. This information can be invaluable in preventing further victimization. You may also file a complaint with the HUD Office of Inspector General via https://www.hudoig.gov/.

Inside County Housing’s evolving approach to challenges like rising rents

With local rental rates rising at historic levels, finding decent, safe, affordable housing can be difficult—especially for seniors, for people with disabilities, and for families who earn low or moderate incomes. One of the organizations on the front lines addressing this ongoing challenge is County Housing, the official government housing authority in St. Louis County.

“The need for a home is universal, and County Housing works to ensure people with low and moderate incomes have that need met,” says Executive Director and CEO Shannon Koenig.

On the consumer side, County Housing provides leads on affordable rental homes or apartments through relationships they’ve developed or through trusted websites. “Once people have found a place to live, County Housing makes sure it meets national safety and quality standards,” Koenig says. “If something goes wrong, we make sure it gets fixed—and if something goes really wrong, we reissue the housing voucher so the family can try again to find a better place.”

County Housing also communicates continually with local landlords, both those who accept housing vouchers and those who are prospective program participants. An important part of its role is leveraging its relationships with landlords to advocate on behalf of residents, always striving to weave together supportive solutions for individuals who might be going through a vulnerable time while also giving them agency in their housing options.

County Housing has recently begun an evolution to become even more proactive about meeting the needs of local individuals and communities. It’s in the process of improving its operations and aspiring to an elevated customer service experience through efforts such as a soon-to-be-released new website.

It has other new initiatives in motion too, and it’s working to address the negative perceptions that people sometimes encounter when they approach a landlord with a housing voucher.

County Housing’s evolution is taking place during a time when it has to cover higher rents with the same amount of funding from the federal government—and it continues to face a backlog on its waiting list. “In 2020, we had 6,000 people come on to our waitlist,” Koenig says. “We are still working on that list.” There are also years-long waitlists for each of the public housing developments County Housing manages.

“Our waitlists speak to the tremendous demand for decent, safe, and affordable housing,” Koenig says. “It’s difficult to get on a list, and then you’re never sure how long you’ll wait.”

In response, County Housing is updating its systems to keep the local community better informed about waitlist openings. To give people more options, it has also started attaching its vouchers to existing and new developments like Wellington Family Homes, a project that’s voluntarily converting former public housing to affordable housing in Wellston, and University Crossing, a new Low-Income Housing Tax Credit project at Interstate 70 and Hanley.

County Housing is constrained in its ability to change its payment standards—it’s limited by federally set fair market rents that apply to an entire metro area—so it can’t simply raise the amount it pays to meet rising rental prices. It adopted the highest payment standards possible during COVID (120% of fair market rents), and its staff is looking forward to changes on the federal side, such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development increasing the amount of fair market rents and using rental amounts based on smaller areas (such as a zip code).

Because housing voucher programs only have enough money to assist 1 in 4 people who qualify based on their income, Koenig says, County Housing advocates for increased funding from the federal government and local sources. And because chronic underfunding of public housing has not kept pace with the need for updating and investment, County Housing is becoming more active in real estate development, both redeveloping units it already owns using tools like the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program and partnering with other organizations to build new affordable housing.

County Housing’s goal is for its efforts to be a stepping stone for residents toward bigger and better things, including a path to homeownership. “Living in public housing is not a long-term solution for families,” Koenig says. “We’re reinforcing the cornerstone of the community’s foundation at a time when people need it most. The things we do actually change people’s lives.”

The results of our 2023 snapshot of customer satisfaction

In late 2023, County Housing conducted its second annual review of customer service. The survey asked nearly 2,300 public housing residents, Housing Choice Voucher residents, and property owners about their satisfaction with the housing authority’s processes and their experiences with staff in customer-facing roles.

The results confirm that the new approach County Housing is taking toward customer service and operational efficiency will be beneficial. Those changes will address some of the challenges identified in the survey, including timeliness of staff responses, quality of interactions, and clarity of processes.

While the 2022 survey focused on defining what great customer service meant to respondents and what they felt they needed from County Housing, the 2023 questions were geared to establishing a baseline for satisfaction—for example, asking public housing residents about maintenance and repair response times, communication, and quality of work.

“Positive or negative, these results provide important data to staff on whether specific interventions are working,” said County Housing Executive Director and CEO Shannon Koenig.

Among the results:

  • Quality of interactions and communication between staff and their customers (both residents and landlords) leaves room for improvement across the board.
  • Timeliness of staff responses needs improvement.
  • Landlords reported an increase in satisfaction on three indicators: staff knowledge, biannual property inspections, and good experiences leasing to housing authority residents.

“In public housing, 2023 was largely a foundational year as we brought property management back in-house and worked diligently to make quality hires in the maintenance department,” said Chief Operating Officer Katrina Sommer. She added that all staff have now received two trainings on understanding County Housing’s residents and how to provide great customer service to them.

To address the perception that staff are hard to reach and information is hard to access, County Housing has rolled out a new website with increased functionality that will be a better resource for all customers, staff, and partners. It is also adding an organization-wide phone tree and walk-in hours at its headquarters.

Another important change is the addition of two Housing Choice Voucher generalists whose sole responsibility will be answering resident questions relating to the program in order to relieve pressure on caseworkers.

Public housing locations will add property managers whose contact information is available for residents’ questions and concerns.

Finally, County Housing is implementing a comprehensive communications plan to stay in touch with residents more regularly through a variety of methods. The staff is already strategizing ways to increase the response rate for the 2024 survey to ensure that it elicits feedback from a representative sample of County Housing’s residents and landlords.

An important tool to increase rental housing choice ramps up in St. Louis County

The cost of rental housing in the St. Louis region is rising faster than almost anywhere else in the U.S., with a 17-percent jump in median rents from 2023 to 2024.

The rising prices coincide with a decrease in the number of new units available in the local area, adding to the pressure on renters looking for housing that fits their budget.

For low-income renters who qualify for the Housing Choice Voucher program, federal payment standards limit the maximum monthly assistance a household can receive to 110 percent of what HUD determines to be the fair market rent in the area. As rents rise, the payment standards may not keep pace with local prices.

But local officials at County Housing are optimistic that a new HUD mandate will help the vouchers they issue stay competitive. In October, HUD announced that St. Louis County was one of 41 metropolitan areas that will begin to use Small Area Fair Market Rents to determine the amount of assistance households participating in the Housing Choice Voucher program receive.

This means that starting Jan. 1, 2025, payment standards for St. Louis County’s largest income-based voucher program will be calculated by ZIP code. Under this new approach, County Housing will zoom in on 53 small areas to determine the maximum amount it will pay toward a household’s rent and utilities based on typical costs in each one.

If a rental unit is in a higher-cost area, the Housing Choice Voucher amount will go up. Likewise, payment standards in low-cost areas will most likely be reduced.

Households eligible for the Housing Choice Voucher program contribute no more than 40 percent of their adjusted monthly income to rent and utilities—something that will not change when the mandate takes effect.

HUD’s goal with this mandate is for families and individuals to be able to move to neighborhoods that weren’t accessible before, places where they are more likely to find high-performing schools, low levels of poverty, and amenities such as grocery stores. There are already 24 metropolitan areas where the mandate is in place, including the City of St. Louis.

Just as they do now, County Housing’s landlord liaisons can help households connect to available rental housing when the mandate goes into effect, explained Emily Smith, County Housing’s director of program compliance and training. But it’s still up to each individual to apply for the unit, pass whatever background checks are needed, abide by the terms of the lease, and so on.

Using Small Area Fair Market Rents as a tool to increase the availability of rental options and the efficiency of administration in the Housing Choice Voucher program is not totally new within St. Louis County.

County Housing recently participated in a research project about household mobility, implementing the approach in three ZIP codes: 63119, 63122, and 63144. When the study ended, County Housing chose to continue to offer higher payment standards in those areas, where rent tends to be more expensive.

“The mandated Small Area Fair Market Rents are going to help us compete in the real world,” said Nicole Alexander, who directs the Housing Choice Voucher program for St. Louis County and is responsible for making sure the organization doesn’t overspend. “We have to draw from a fixed pot of money, but it will be interesting to see what happens, because all our residents will not necessarily want to move to those more expensive neighborhoods.”

Smith agrees that some residents may choose to stay in neighborhoods they are already familiar with. Another unpredictable factor is how many landlords will choose to accept Housing Choice Vouchers once they are competitive in more neighborhoods.

“It can be difficult, because there’s a stigma around the voucher program,” Smith said. “Teaching landlords about the benefits will be huge in the coming year.”

Alexander added that a common misconception among landlords is that their property is more likely to be poorly maintained or damaged by renters with vouchers. “In fact, most people follow all the guidelines,” she said.

In addition, Alexander continued, “Whenever you’re renting to a voucher holder, County Housing is here as a mutual party, and we can provide support over and above what a fair market renter would receive.”


To learn more about how County Housing will communicate this expanded opportunity to residents and landlords, please contact Nicole Alexander at nicolea@countyhousing.org.

HUD Officials’ Visit Highlights a Win for Public Housing Residents in Wellston

The $44 million Wellington Family Homes LP in Wellston received a high-profile visit from U.S. Housing and Urban Development officials this fall, six months after the groundbreaking ceremony on the 186-unit public housing redevelopment project.

The visit spotlighted the years-long effort by the Housing Authority of St. Louis County, the City of Wellston, and many other partners to stave off demolition and instead rehab a key segment of Wellston’s residences. The end result, due to be completed in 2025 by Knight Development, will be 186 extensively renovated affordable housing units on 65 parcels of land.

“This is a seven-year project from problem-solving to completion,” said Shannon Koenig, Executive Director and CEO of the Housing Authority of St. Louis County. “It was very hard-fought, and I feel like it’s just the beginning for Wellston.”

“The remodels are tremendous quality. They enhance the existing housing stock but also the experience of living in Wellston.”

Mayor Nathaniel Griffin

Mayor Nathaniel Griffin agrees that the project is a turning point for the community of 2,500 residents in North St. Louis County. “The remodels are tremendous quality,” he said. “They enhance the existing housing stock but also the experience of living in Wellston.”

HUD officials visiting Wellston in early October included Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Richard Monocchio, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Field Operations Felicia Gaither of HUD’s Office of Public and Indian Housing, and Director Craig Dobson of the Office of Public Housing for HUD Region 7.

Monocchio has been traveling the country to meet with public housing authorities, residents, mayors, affordable housing developers, and cross-sector partners—which in Wellston included Mayor Nathaniel Griffin for informal conversations and even shooting hoops with the mayor and his family in the recreation complex where the city’s offices are located. Griffin said those interactions reinforced to the HUD officials that their small community values things such as recreation that bind neighborhood relationships.

Before joining HUD in May, Monocchio ran the public housing authority in Cook County in the Chicago area, and he’s very familiar with innovative approaches to address housing issues. “He was very impressed with the Wellington Family Homes project,” Koenig says. Gaither, who was part of the project’s launch in 2019, was also very satisfied with where it is headed, Koenig added.

The project is made possible through HUD’s Voluntary Conversion Program, which seeks to increase affordable housing opportunities through private investment. When the upgraded homes reopen in 2025, residents will include low- to moderate-income families, with a primary focus on individuals with children and formerly homeless individuals and families.

Back in 2019, HUD had slated 201 units of public housing in Wellston for demolition—but through the intervention of advocates at the local and national level, including former Rep. Lacy Clay and County Executive Sam Page, the department offered them a 120-day window to come up with a redevelopment plan.

Koenig, who worked for County Executive Page in 2019 and then in the St. Louis County Department of Human Services in 2020, helped negotiate a compromise, put out an RFP, and select a developer. She transitioned into her current role at the Housing Authority in 2021 and has been working on the Wellston project ever since—including closing the low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) deal in 2023—through challenges such as the COVID pandemic and recent rising prices due to inflation.

“During the HUD officials’ visit, there was a lot of happiness and optimism about what we had been able to do and the fact that this project is a reality,” Koenig said. “Not a lot of folks believed this was going to happen.”

Griffin heard the skepticism too, and he’s proud of the long-term partnerships that forged this project. “I want people to understand we can build anything if we come together,” he said.

Koenig credits St. Louis County government, Wellston officials, various developers, local nonprofits, and community stakeholders with pulling the project back together time and time again each time it hit a roadblock. The community has also received several million dollars of investment in complementary development, economic, and blight removal activities to support the long-term success of this revitalization effort.

“HUD is a great partner, and we need their support to be able to do this kind of transformative work,” Koenig said.  “I’m so pleased that we had the opportunity to showcase how all the effort has paid off in Wellston.”