Placed in the Discard Pile

About to be booted from the Fourth Ward, poor people are being told they are too poor to qualify for public housing in Houston

Cynthia Flood has lived in the Fourth Ward most of her 38 years, the last nine in a cockeyed two-story rent house at 1809 Wilson Street. Cynthia's mother lived in the same house many years ago, and her mother, Minnie Johnson, was living there when she died in May 1998 at the age of 102.

This last fact seems entirely coincidental.

"My family had a saying," says Cynthia, a polite, speaks-when-spoken-to woman with two children and a front tooth framed in gold, "that Granny lived in every house in Fourth Ward."

Ernest Etuk: Credit checks are just "one of the areas" HACH considers when screening applicants.
George Hixson
Ernest Etuk: Credit checks are just "one of the areas" HACH considers when screening applicants.

No doubt, few of those houses exist anymore. Those that haven't fallen down beneath the weight of neglect have been demolished, or soon will be.

Cynthia Flood knows this. Knows that, before greed and hubris forced it out of business, a nonprofit group, Houston Renaissance Inc., spent $3.4 million in city money to purchase land in the Fourth Ward, including the lot at 1809 Wilson Street. Knows, too, that the coming "economic development" of her neighborhood will demand a higher standard of living from its residents, a standard that a woman raising two kids on $7.15 an hour on the checkout line at Kroger won't be able to meet.

Knowing all this, in late May Cynthia went to the Historic Oaks at Allen Parkway Village, where 500 units of new public housing are under construction. In a trailer just off Allen Parkway, in the shadow of downtown, Cynthia sat down with an employee of The Habitat Company, a Chicago-based firm hired by the Housing Authority of the City of Houston, or HACH, to run the day-to-day operations at the site. The employee walked her through an eight-page rental application.

About a week later Cynthia received a letter stating that because of "negative information" on a consumer credit report, her application had been denied. Seems that more than a decade ago, Cynthia had obtained a student loan to attend the Wilson Beauty Academy at Hargest Business College. She dropped out less than a year into the program, when she became pregnant with her son.

Unbeknownst to her, however, the academy continued to receive Cynthia's student-aid checks from the federal government. It wasn't until the Internal Revenue Service threatened to begin withholding her annual income tax refund that Cynthia realized she was $8,000 in debt. By then, Hargest Business College had closed down, taking the Wilson Beauty Academy with it.

"I didn't know what to do," Cynthia recalls. "I didn't even get the money, but they wanted to take my income tax checks. I said, 'This can't happen.' That's about the only way I can almost get ahead -- when the income tax comes around. So I started paying off the loan."

She managed to get the debt down to about $1,700, but not without difficulty: Her credit report continued to show that the loan was delinquent. And that was enough for The Habitat Company to decide Cynthia would not be a suitable tenant at the Historic Oaks at Allen Parkway Village.

"A student loan is not my rent bill, or my light bill, or my gas bill," Cynthia says. "If they did a credit report, they'd know my bills are in good standing. They just said, 'We can't do it.' "

Turning away applicants from public housing because of bad credit might, perhaps, seem incongruous. Then again, public housing isn't what it used to be since the Quality Work and Housing Responsibility Act of 1998.

Passed by Congress last October, the act gives local housing authorities greater control over their operations, including the power to determine who will and will not be admitted. The act repeals federal rules that gave preference to the homeless, those who live in substandard buildings, victims of domestic violence and residents involuntarily displaced by redevelopment projects funded by HUD, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Under the new rules, housing authorities are required to "deconcentrate" public housing sites of the poorest residents by admitting households that earn as much as 80 percent of the area median income. In Houston, that's roughly $43,300 a year for a family of four. To create room, only four of every ten units that become available have to be filled by families earning less than 30 percent of the median income -- $16,250 for a Houston family of four.

However, that rule does not apply to HACH's existing sites, where a large majority of tenants are considered extremely poor by federal standards. When units open up at those sites, HACH can skip over the poorest families on its waiting lists in favor of those with higher incomes.

Ernest Etuk, interim director of HACH, acknowledges that the new rules drastically reduce the chances that the roughly 17,000 families on the agency's waiting lists will receive assistance. But, he says, public housing can no longer be the housing of last resort.

"It's just fiscally impossible," Etuk says. "It's a blessing that we are able to develop additional units to add to the inventory. But the reality is, as custodians of public funds we have to be judicious in dispensing those funds."

While that's undoubtedly true, HACH does have a luxury most housing authorities do not: 500 units of new public housing, with the money to build 500 more. Since 1996 the housing authority has received $30 million in federal grants to rehabilitate 280 existing units at APV and construct 220 new ones. The agency is also committed to building another 400 public housing units in the neighboring Fourth Ward, as well as 100 more scattered throughout the city.

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