They were just 10 ordinary poor people from East St. Louis and one legal aid lawyer with a thick caseload.
But they beat the federal government, reaching final settlement this week with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development after eight years of negotiations on a lawsuit to improve the city's ramshackle public housing.
The results, felt by degrees through the years, already are affecting thousands of people whose apartments or subsidized homes had been "uninhabitable," and those who could not get shelter from the public housing program at all.
"At the beginning, I thought we had no better than a 50-50 chance of winning," Joseph R. Bartylak, executive director of the Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation Inc., said Wednesday. His legal aid agency pressed the case.
"Now I think both sides would agree that justice was done," he added.
Bartylak praised the work of Lois Wood, a staff attorney for the foundation, who dared to file suit against the East St. Louis Housing Authority and HUD in 1985, and who saw it through to Senior U.S. District Judge James L. Foreman's signature on a final consent degree Tuesday in his court at Benton.
Neither Bartylak nor Stevens Gregory, executive director of the housing authority, knew what had become of the plaintiffs in the class-action suit. Wood, who had dealt directly with them, could not be reached to comment Wednesday.
Gregory, who reports to HUD, said conditions have improved dramatically since the lawsuit was filed.
"Our residents' homes meet basic standards now. They have heat, their plumbing works, their walls are freshly painted," he said. "They have neighbors. The buildings they live in do not have vacant units next door for whatever illicit activities might go on there."
If both sides of the suit seem friendly, they have been, more or less, throughout most of the eight years. Bartylak said the case never went to trial because HUD recognized the problems and agreed to negotiate their correction.
It was shortly after the lawsuit was filed that …