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By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
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By Richard Connelly
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"Sometimes the more you find out, the more you have to let your mind follow what you're seeing," Farenthold says. "Certainly, that came from Lenwood initially.
"I remember being over there one time. It was at twilight, and the cityscape was so beautiful with the setting sun on it. And I said, 'Oh, Lenwood, what a beautiful view.' And he said, 'That's the problem.' "
Seven-year-old Len Johnson was definitely not so enchanted with the view from Allen Parkway Village. When he and his daddy moved there in March 1980, Len took one look at his new home and broke into tears.
"He asked, 'Are we going to have to live here?' " Johnson remembers. "I said, 'Yeah, Len, we're gonna have to stay here a little while because we can't do no better.' I tried to tell him we wouldn't be here forever, just a little while. I meant that. I meant to get the hell out of here."
Before the move to APV, Johnson -- who got custody of Len when his ex-wife "told me I could have him" -- had been in and out of the hospital several times. The year before, he left his job as a research technician for Upjohn because he was suffering from dysentery and catching colds and the flu repeatedly. Johnson says doctors could never identify the source of his problem, other than to tell him he was suffering from hypersensitivity to chemicals.
Johnson tried to collect worker's compensation. But his case was weak, he says, because doctors couldn't say for sure his poor health was related to his job. And he had spent so much money on doctors that he had little left for a good attorney. Johnson suspects his problem is related to his lab work with isocyanates, which are used to make foam rubber and other synthetic materials. Some of Johnson's more skeptical detractors have tried to paint the activist as a lazy black man who doesn't want to work -- a characterization he doesn't feel the need to get worked up about.
"At the time, there were people, friends, who thought I was sick mentally," Johnson says. "I lost some friends. People in my family doubted me some, too. And I was thoroughly confused. I thought they'd just give me a pill and I'd be cured."
While Johnson's laboratory career was over, the residents of Allen Parkway Village kept him busy. They soon were filling the new tenant's head with stories of harassment and poor treatment at the hands of the housing authority. Johnson says he heard tales of HACH employees going through residents' belongings, stealing food stamps and money, and charging outrageous cash fees to make minor repairs.
Johnson was incredulous. When he told the residents their rights were being violated and that they should fight back, they told him they were powerless. Johnson decided they needed to organize.
"Before too long, I had some law books, public housing handbooks," Johnson says. "I'd map out strategies, explain what legal issues they needed to address. 'Cause that's what [HACH] hated. They hated us to pull regulations on them. Because they'd always say, 'HUD said to do it, or we don't get our money.' But then we'd pull out the regulations and say, 'Why that can't be, because HUD, right here in this regulation issued such-and-such a date, at such-and-such a time, says blankity-blank-blank.' Oooh, they'd get hot, they'd get hot."
Johnson's main nemesis at the time was Earl Phillips, HACH's executive director. An African-American appointed by then-mayor Kathy Whitmire, Phillips took over in 1982. Whitmire had been urged to install a new executive director by HUD, which had uncovered numerous financial irregularities and rampant mismanagement -- HACH hadn't balanced its books since 1977 -- under Phillips' predecessor, William McClellan.
Phillips' mission, however, remained consistent with McClellan's: demolish Allen Parkway Village and sell the land to private developers who would build office space and upscale condominiums on the site. An additional mandate was Whitmire's ambitious goal of revitalizing the adjacent Fourth Ward.
Esther De Ipolyi, who was HACH's spokeswoman during Phillips' tenure, said the housing authority had submitted a demolition application in 1981 and fully expected to execute it.
"Everybody was bobbing their heads and saying, 'Yes Earl, yes Earl, you can have this place demolished,' " De Ipolyi remembers. "But the stuff would not get approved, it kept getting stalled. Lenwood's very effective. He's one lone ranger who essentially stopped the process."
At the time, the city's powers-that-be, as De Ipolyi points out, weren't used to encountering resistance, and even today, Johnson's refusal to go-along-to-get-along is a Houston anomaly.
"Given the environment of Houston, yeah, he's a radical," De Ipolyi says. "He's about the only one we've got. People treasure working within the system here. Lenwood's a bright guy, and he's certainly gotten brighter over the years. And Phillips loved fighting people. He needed a Lenwood. It wouldn't have been any fun if he didn't have a Lenwood."
Johnson's first protracted battle with HACH over Allen Parkway Village was the attempted eviction of about 125 Indochinese families. He had heard that many of those new tenants, refugees who were fearful and unable to understand much of what was happening, had been victims of extortion by HACH employees. He had been talking to the Gulf Coast Legal Foundation about a possible lawsuit when HACH announced that some Vietnamese and Cambodian tenants had hopscotched the housing authority waiting list by paying bribes. An employee was fired, but HACH began a ferocious attempt to evict the tenants.
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