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

While Etuk now considers the Historic Oaks at Allen Parkway Village "a blessing," he has been at HACH long enough to know that for 15 years, dating back to the early 1980s, the agency wanted to demolish all 1,000 units of APV -- nearly a quarter of the city's public housing stock -- and sell the land to private developers.

Though HACH managed to depopulate APV to a mere 22 families, in 1996, the housing authority was forced to accept a deal in exchange for permission from the feds to demolish 677 apartments at the sprawling site. The so-called guiding principles of that deal are spelled out in Stakes in the Ground, a one-page agreement negotiated by then-secretary of HUD Henry Cisneros and housing advocates led by Lenwood Johnson, president of the Allen Parkway Village Resident Council.

The agreement, which was also signed by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, stipulated that the APV site would not be sold to private developers, but would "remain for public use as low-income housing."

Fourth Ward resident Arnold Rayford: "Every black politician in this country ought to be standing out here."
Fourth Ward resident Arnold Rayford: "Every black politician in this country ought to be standing out here."
Lenwood Johnson has sued the housing authority before, and he wants to do it again.
Lenwood Johnson has sued the housing authority before, and he wants to do it again.

Three and a half years later, however, that means different things to different people.

"Prior to the demolition, the perception was that Allen Parkway Village was housing for the poor," says Robert Reyna, longtime spokesperson for HACH. "That only the most destitute lived in public housing. If that perception is out there, it's a misperception, and we have an obligation to change that."

It's not surprising that Lenwood Johnson feels an obligation to fight that change. Johnson sued HACH at least three times during the infamous standoff over the demolition of APV. The fact that he still has something for which to fight is testament to his effectiveness, which even his enemies admit was considerable, particularly for a black man who lived in what is still sometimes referred to as "the projects."

Johnson says he's prepared to sue HACH again, this time over its decision to turn poor people like Cynthia Flood away from the Historic Oaks at Allen Parkway Village. The way Johnson sees it, the housing authority is using the Quality Work and Housing Responsibility Act to renege on its promise to give preference at the new APV to Fourth Ward residents displaced by the city-backed redevelopment taking place there.

"That was to be expected," Johnson says. "We can get by -- all we have to do is pull up the records and see what the discussion and the intent was. But it'll take going to court."

The odds of anyone, even Lenwood Johnson, winning concessions for the poor are significantly longer than they once were. Even as the ink was drying on the 1996 agreement that saved APV as public housing, everything it stood for was under attack.

That same year, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to repeal the Housing Act of 1937 and replace it with block grants to states and local governments. Though the bill failed, Congress agreed to suspend the federal housing preferences that favored the homeless and others in desperate need of shelter. It did the same in 1997 and 1998.

Considering what could have been, the final housing bill approved by Congress and signed by President Clinton last October was actually something most advocates thought they could live with, at first. Congress did put a permanent end to the preferences, but it resisted a call to raise public housing rents: Most tenants will continue to pay no more than 30 percent of their income in rent. And, unlike changes to federal welfare programs, eligible families will continue to receive housing assistance without time limits.

Moreover, housing authorities were given leeway to enact policies that help welfare reform efforts. For instance, housing authorities can give preference to families trying to move from welfare to work, offering some much-needed stability to those trying to get and keep a job.

What this all means ultimately depends on the housing authorities themselves -- how they determine who needs housing and, then, who gets it. Jeff Lubell, a housing analyst for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, based in Washington, D.C., says the more families making $40,000 a year that are admitted into public housing, the fewer units are available to those earning half that, or much less.

"That just makes sense," Lubell says. "There is already a significant gap between the number of people who are low- and extremely low income and the number of units available to those people. So we have a problem that appears to be staying at least as bad, if not getting worse."

Indeed, last month, less than a year after HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo declared the Quality Work and Housing Responsibility Act "a historic victory for America's people and communities in greatest need," the federal housing agency issued a warning that the housing crisis confronting the nation's poorest families is "large and growing."

HUD'S report, The Widening Gap: New Findings on Affordable Housing in America, found that in 1997 there were only 36 affordable units (costing no more than 30 percent of income) for every 100 households with incomes below 30 percent of the area median, a population that grew 3 percent, to nearly nine million households, between 1995 and 1997.

Meanwhile, rents rose at twice the rate of inflation, contributing to a 372,000-unit decrease in affordable units over the last six years. The HUD study concluded that, nationwide, one of every four renter households is burdened by excessive rent, "threatening many with homelessness."

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