Pubdate: Wed, 17 Jul 2002
Source: Charlotte Creative Loafing (NC)
Copyright: 2002 Creative Loafing Charlotte, Inc.
Author: Sam Boykin


The Housing Authority Says New Rules Are Designed To Boost Accountability. 
Critics Say They're Persecuting The Poor And Powerless

They're tough new rules that demand accountability but will also improve 
the lives of some of the Queen City's poorest. Or they're draconian 
mandates handed down by an inefficient agency that's unfairly putting the 
screws to already disadvantaged people. That's the issue at hand ever since 
the Charlotte Housing Authority (CHA) recently proposed new rules and 
regulations for public housing residents. These new rules range from 
doubling the security deposits for new tenants and shortening the grace 
period for rent payments, to making the head of household responsible for 
the criminal conduct of any household members and guests on or off the 
property. One measure even bans residents from hanging clothes on balconies 
or porch railings.CHA spokespersons say these more stringent lease rules 
are needed because of ongoing problems within Charlotte's public housing, 
including drugs and crime, as well as residents skipping out on their rent 
or leaving the housing units trashed and in disarray when they move out.

"Just like any landlord or business, if we're not financially viable we 
can't help the people that we're supposed to," said CHA board member and 
chairman of the finance committee, Kip Kiser. "You let somebody wreck their 
place and it costs us $4,000 to fix, that's money that we could use to make 
improvements elsewhere."

However, advocates for the poor criticize the proposed rules as unfair, 
counterproductive, and actually would perpetuate the problem of 
homelessness and the scarcity of affordable housing.

"The Housing Authority's rules sometimes seem designed to prevent people 
from making it rather than helping them out," said Mary Nell McPherson, 
executive director of Seigle Avenue Partners, a non-profit community center 
located across the street from Piedmont Courts, one of the more troubled 
public housing complexes. "I think many of the rules are unreasonable."

The CHA's proposed changes come after an internal audit last fall (which CL 
uncovered) that revealed an agency plagued by budget and personnel 
disarray, in addition to mismanagement of public housing applications and 
property maintenance. Since then, in an effort to streamline and improve 
services, the authority board has hired a new chief financial officer, cut 
nearly 40 staff positions, and created separate maintenance and grounds 
teams that report to each property manager instead of relying on one 
centralized crew. And for the fist time in years, the CHA's budget is 
showing a surplus rather than a deficit.

"If this whole proposal is the CHA responding to an audit that revealed 
they had management issues, then I applaud them for initiating improvements 
to ensure that their property is properly managed," said Carol Hughes, 
executive director of Crisis Assistance Ministry. "But we need to be 
careful and not have the full burden of these proposals fall squarely on 
the backs of the hard-working families who are honestly trying to make it. 
We need to be involved as a community in making improvements, and not just 
push the problems elsewhere."

"People need to figure out how to get around the table together and look 
for solutions instead of everyone operating in a vacuum," said McPherson. 
"But I don't have a sense that the Housing Authority has a good working 
relationship with anyone."

Many folks are hoping that will change with the Homeless Services Network 
(HSN), a coalition of agencies and organizations that work with the 
homeless and those at risk of becoming homeless. The Network's housing 
subcommittee meets on a regular basis, and some effort is being made to 
involve CHA in those meetings. In late June, the HSN had an initial 
roundtable discussion with CHA, but this was prior to the tighter public 
housing rules.

Monica Nathan of Community Link, who also chairs the HSM's housing 
sub-committee, says it's still a little early to determine if any changes 
or compromises will be made concerning the rules.

"We are working toward partnering and collaborating with the CHA," Nathan 
said. "And they seem to be open to meeting with us."

"I think we need resident participation in this process," said Jermayne 
Cook, interim executive director of Community Link. "I would like to see 
more dialogue and hear the concerns of the people.

"I do think the CHA is trying to respond to the community's concerns," 
continues Cook. "Many public housing residents would like to have certain 
standards in place; they have had problems with certain tenants. But I 
don't think the process should be all or nothing. There should be some kind 
of residents' committee that could review the process, and decide what 
exceptions could be made, or how appeals could be handled."

Tenants React

Tina Sturdivant, a 34-year-old mother of three who lives in Piedmont 
Courts, says she welcomes any improvements the lease changes may bring, 
especially in light of the two homicides at the long-troubled housing 
project this year.

"From what's been happening recently, I feel they need to be stricter with 
the people down here and let them know they're not playing anymore," she said.

Addie Pearce, 57, who has lived at Piedmont Courts for 23 years, says she 
has mixed feelings about the new proposals. Her biggest problem is with the 
"one strike you're out" proposal, which makes the head of the household 
responsible for the criminal conduct of any household members and guests, 
on or off the property. In other words, if a tenant's grandson brings home 
a buddy who gets caught smoking pot on the property, then the grandmother 
and anyone else on the lease would be evicted.

"That's a bad idea," Pearce said. "Why don't they make that the rule with 
every household nationwide? They shouldn't just do it in here. Inside your 
house you should be able to do what you want to do. We're not prisoners. If 
we close the doors they start wondering what we're doing inside. Why are 
they picking just on us? Don't pick all the strawberries and leave me the 
watermelon. Put all of them in the bunch. Don't do things to hurt people 
trying to get up. They just look at us from the outside. They don't ever 
bust the egg to see what's inside."

Moreover, says Pearce, if CHA wants to get rid of the crime and the drugs, 
the police and the property managers simply need to do more to enforce the 
rules and laws that are already in place.

"If they own the property, and they know people are on the corner selling 
drugs, then why can't they just tell these people to leave? I'll tell you 
why. They don't want the drug dealers to find out who they are or where 
they live. They want us to go tell the drug dealers to get out. They could 
bring a couple of police vans down here every day and pick up about five of 
them. Why do they keep nagging us about it? We're not here to do their job."

One Strike, You're Out

Meanwhile, as efforts continue to create an effective working relationship 
with CHA, there is no shortage of criticism among housing advocates. They 
stress that they want a positive, cooperative relationship with CHA, but at 
the same time they have issues with some of the new rules. One proposed 
change that has received plenty of attention is the one that calls for 
doubling the security deposit for new tenants from $150 to $300.

"The potential exists that this will leave more families homeless longer," 
said Hughes. "It will prevent some families from being able to move into 
public housing, which in turn will cause them to have to be supported by 
other community social services longer. I don't think it would have the 
effect they were hoping."

"I fear that it's a temporary measure implemented because of financial 
constraints that will become permanent," added Dale Mullenix of the Urban 
Ministry Center. "The tightening of the federal government's budget is 
behind some of this. But locally, any time anyone says "tax increase' or 
"higher user fee,' it's considered political suicide. The increased 
security deposit is a result of a temporary financial squeeze, and they're 
taking it out on the consumer rather than trying to make a secure budget 
with other means. It's unfortunate that the people who are in the most need 
are being penalized. All this just adds to the administrative and outreach 
load. In trying to reach five to 10 percent of the residents, the CHA will 
use a 100 percent measure that will affect everybody."

"In most cases these are people who have been on the list a really long 
time for housing they can't afford," said Karen Montaperto, executive 
director of Charlotte Emergency Housing. "For them to be able to save up 
that much of a deposit is pretty far-fetched."

The criticisms are also mounting for another proposed lease change -- 
shortening the grace period for rent payments from 10 days to five days, so 
the authority can take faster action when renters don't pay.

"You're essentially evicting people sooner," said Hughes. "So you evict 
someone from their apartment, now they go into a homeless shelter, and 
become a part of the social services system. Think of the costs they will 
incur to get back into housing again."

"In and of itself it isn't bad, but it will take awhile for people to 
readjust," said Montaperto. "And I'm afraid they won't get the word out 
well enough and some people might end up with all these late charges they 
can't afford. So I'm very concerned about the transition. Many people are 
on fixed incomes and have their budgets set up to coincide with pay periods."

But the one proposed CHA change that has caused the biggest stink is making 
the heads of households responsible for the criminal conduct of any 
household members and guests on or off the property. This change stems from 
the US Supreme Court's ruling in March that a public housing tenant may be 
evicted if any member of his or her household, or a guest, is caught using 
illegal drugs -- even if the tenant was unaware of the drug use.

The case originated in 1998 with a federal lawsuit by four evicted public 
housing tenants from Oakland, CA, including a 63-year-old great-grandmother 
whose mentally disabled daughter was arrested for crack cocaine possession 
near their apartment complex. Noting that Congress had found a 
drug-dealer-imposed "reign of terror" in public housing, the court seemed 
to view the case as a straightforward landlord-tenant matter in which 
tenants had signed a lease promising that no one in their apartments would 
use drugs, period.

"It breaks my heart," said Hughes of the new proposal "That's kicking 
people out at a time when they most need help. It's the worst possible time 
to think about being homeless. I know they believe they're on legal 
footing. But there's a difference between being on legal footing sometimes 
and doing what's logical. I just can't imagine being faced with eviction 
and trying to get treatment for a family member at the same time. I 
understand and applaud the premise of this fight to get crime and drugs out 
of the property. But there's got to be a better way to run drug dealers out 
without evicting anyone and everyone involved."

"There are ways of handling that administratively within the housing 
complexes themselves," said Mullenix. "You could have an 80-year-old 
grandmother who doesn't have a lot of resources being held accountable for 
a family member's behavior. That just seems too one-sided. It's so utterly 
unfair. You're putting all the burden on the person who is least likely to 
be able to handle it."

Mullenix also weighed in on the proposal banning residents from hanging 
clothes on balconies or porch railings.

"My wife would say the best way to dry clothes is outdoors in the sun," he 
said. "It's a big Southern tradition. You don't use as much energy, so you 
save money. To me that's just overreaching."

CHA board member Kiser acknowledges that there are still rough spots with 
some of the proposed rules that need to be ironed out, including the 
potential complications of evicting residents who allow their children to 
skip school.

"We've found that truancy rates were alarmingly high in public housing," he 
said. "And if you're going to break the cycle of poverty, you've got to get 
them educated. And if you're already giving them a free place to stay, they 
can at least get their kids to school. But here's the bad side of that. Say 
you're a mom with four kids, one is 15 and in high school, and the other is 
in grammar school. The 15-year-old decides he wants to start skipping, 
while the little second grader is an angel and goes to school every day. 
You can imagine what would happen if we started evicting families like that 
because the oldest one is a sorry-ass."

Kiser added that many of these rules are likely to be tweaked and changed 
over the next few weeks as input continues to filter in from housing 
advocates and the public. The issue is expected to be voted on sometime in 
August or September.

"The whole theme of these lease changes is more tenant accountability," 
Kiser said. "And that isn't a whole lot to ask."
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