Lenwood Johnson's Last Stand

APV is more than his home. It's his life. No wonder he can't let it go without one final struggle.

Johnson led the revolt, including at least one standoff between the suddenly empowered tenants and deputy constables who showed up at their doors. Meanwhile, lawyers from Gulf Coast and the ACLU, recruited by Johnson, were on the case. They fought the eviction order in court until 1986 -- by which time, ironically, all but one of the alleged family of bribers had moved.

Johnson viewed HACH's action as a blatant disregard for its constituents, the city's poor. And it infuriated him. He made contact with other housing advocates in the city and across the state. One such contact was with a group of West Dallas residents and their attorneys, who were fighting the demolition of the Washington Place public housing project.

The Dallas connection led him to join the boards of several national housing groups, including those of the Coalition for Low-Income Housing and the Commission for Severely Distressed Public Housing. The organizations paid Johnson's way to their meetings in Washington, where he made more contacts.

"We were trying to formulate a way to save the [Houston and Dallas] developments from a Washington, D.C., angle, instead of a local angle," Johnson recalls. "We found out early on that we couldn't complain to the local HUD office because HUD wouldn't even take a complaint. The regional office wasn't too much better. The only place we could get anyone to listen to us was in D.C."

Meanwhile, Johnson, who had been elected president of the APV's Resident Council in the summer of 1983, tried to keep the dwindling number of tenants inspired. Wessie Scyrus, now the council's secretary, says she initially resisted attending the meetings of tenants that Johnson convened. But after much prodding by a Vietnamese neighbor, she finally went to APV's Community Building one night, where she found a group of residents -- Asians, blacks, Hispanics and whites -- sharing a meal in celebration, and one very unique man.

"I'd never seen such a person," says Scyrus, who remembers that a HACH employee showed up at the same meeting. When the residents saw the intruder, she recalls, they formed a circle around Johnson. "There was an energy created in the room that caused that man to get up and leave."

Johnson's real strength, as Scyrus sees it, is "empowering the individual, causing people to know they are deserving of respect and autonomy, but teaching them that you're not going to be able to change without work.

"He's compelling. For the first time, for a person like myself, there is actually something I can do to have dignity. I can work for right."

A few months after Johnson was elected president of the Resident Council, the HACH board voted to tear down APV. The decision was based on a consultant's study that estimated it would cost $36 million to rehabilitate the complex. The following March, the housing authority filed a demolition application with HUD. City Council gave its approval that August.

A $63 million plan was proposed to raze the complex, relocate about 600 residents to scattered public housing sites around the city and, as part of the Freedmen's Town-Fourth Ward redevelopment, renovate 400 units of private housing for the elderly. The APV site would be leased to private developers to "maintain leverage" over future development in the area.

Jeff Baloutine, a bank executive and an advocate for historic preservation, was among the consultants who worked on the 1983 study. He says the recommendation to demolish was based on the fact that land values were high and more than 80 percent of the units were vacant and in bad shape.

"One of the things that we said was that taking no action was clearly taking action," Baloutine remembers. "APV and the surrounding neighborhood, the Fourth Ward, were dying by attrition and somebody needed to take action."

The resulting $63 million plan caught the attention of Barry Klein, a real-estate broker-cum-government watchdog, who found HACH's reasoning "dishonest." He was dismayed by the city's plans to use eminent domain to "force" an urban renewal program on taxpayers.

Klein met with Johnson and together they prepared a detailed critique of the study that pointed out, among other things, that the rehabilitation estimate of $36 million was inflated "at least 100 percent to 600 percent." That was later verified when the HACH official who prepared the estimates testified in a deposition that Phillips had forced him to inflate the costs.

Klein and others, including Baloutine, say that saving APV became Johnson's life after HACH filed the 1984 demolition application. He began a concerted effort to form a power base, and honed his administrative and legal knowledge. He also developed a more savvy public relations stance.

"Lenwood is very complex," Klein says. "He's pretty organized, always on the phone, always has calls coming in. But his biggest talent, I think, is the ability to deal with assholes and not tell them to their face that he thinks they're assholes."

Baloutine says that, despite being on opposing sides of the issue, his dealings with Johnson weren't confrontational. Indeed, he finds a lot to admire in Johnson, but wonders whether his talents aren't being squandered on a lost cause.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Houston Concert Tickets