By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
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By Camilo Smith
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For one thing, says Suzanne Sere, an attorney for the legal foundation, HACH's plan to deconcentrate public housing ignores the agency's "needs assessment," which shows that more than 90 percent of the 17,000 families waiting for housing have incomes below 30 percent of the area median. Moreover, while HACH wants to raise income levels, it's doing very little to help tenants increase their earning power through job-training and continuing education, nor does the housing authority plan to give preference to participants of local welfare-to-work programs.
"These kinds of policies would go a long way to getting more poor people in," Sere says. HACH can afford to be more generous, she says. Two-thirds of tenant rents are guaranteed by the government. "Public housing is a social service," she says. "That's why they get federal funds. But they want to treat poor people like regular tenants."
Indeed, like everyone else in the business of owning and renting apartments, HACH is picking and choosing who its tenants will be. That process now includes checking the credit histories of applicants. The agency's spokesperson, Robert Reyna, says HACH used to run credit checks on every applicant, but halted the practice in 1990. Nonetheless, he says, "it's sound business practice," and in January it will become standard operating procedure at all 15 of Houston's public housing sites.
"Every three months we're charging off as much as $25,000 to $30,000 in uncollected rent," Reyna says. "What are we supposed to tell the taxpayer? 'They're poor, so just let it go.' The intention [of credit checks] is to make sure we are managing taxpayer dollars in the most efficient and effective way possible."
HACH officials deny they are rejecting applicants from the new public housing units solely because they have delinquent debts. Etuk says credit checks are "just one of the areas" HACH considers when screening applicants, and then only to determine whether or not former public housing tenants owe back rent to the housing authority. The agency also conducts criminal background checks.
But the Press spoke to nearly a dozen Fourth Ward residents and families who were rejected at the Historic Oaks at Allen Parkway Village, and according to the rejection letters they received from The Habitat Company, bad credit was what disqualified most of them.
Like Tina Alford, a painfully shy 34-year-old mother of three who has lived on Buckner Street for ten years. A former postal clerk, Alford has been out of work for a year. She and her family, including a 13-year-old with sickle-cell anemia, survive on about $500 a month in public assistance, plus another $180 in child support payments. Alford says she knows only one person who was accepted at the new APV site -- her mother, who has lived in the Fourth Ward for 24 years.
"A lot of people when they find out they're checking credit won't even go over there to apply," Alford says. "They know it's a waste of time."
Housing advocates say rejecting applicants for having bad credit is not only wrong but, perhaps, against the law. Some legal experts argue that while federal regulations permit housing authorities to check the credit histories of prospective tenants, they cannot deny applicants based solely on that information.
"The housing authority really ought to be focusing on how this person deals with rent obligations," says Fred Fuchs, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Central Texas. "Does he or she have a good rent-paying history? And if the rent-paying history is bad, then the question should be: Is their rent overburdened? Is this a case where the family is paying 50 percent of income for rent and then some for utilities, and they were doomed to failure?"
Fuchs, who recently settled a lawsuit over a similar policy enacted by a small housing authority in rural Texas, says housing authorities must consider mitigating circumstances, such as the possibility that a medical emergency, divorce or job loss may have forced an applicant into a financial crisis.
"Middle-class people, to say nothing of poor people, have credit problems," Fuchs points out. "It's ridiculous for a housing authority to be doing that."
It can also be infuriating when it happens to people like Katherine and Robert Booker.
The Bookers have been married for 31 years. Robert Booker is 52 and works as a parking lot attendant downtown. He makes about $800 a month, barely enough to pay all the bills, including their $250-a-month rent. They live in an apartment in the 1000 block of Genessee, just a few blocks from the Historic Oaks at Allen Parkway Village. Katherine Booker, 54, used to work, but hasn't since the day 15 years ago when the Bookers' eight-year-old daughter was killed by a City of Houston vehicle.
"It took them seven years to decide it was an unavoidable accident," Katherine recalls. "After that, everything started falling apart for us."
Katherine was diagnosed with congestive heart disease. A few years later, Robert started having stomach problems. More recently, they found out their apartment is slated to be demolished, by HACH, as it turns out, to make way for 400 units of public housing the agency committed to building in the Fourth Ward.
Earlier this summer they decided to apply for an apartment at the Historic Oaks at Allen Parkway Village. But if the Bookers thought that because HACH was tearing down their current address, the agency would give them a new one, they were wrong.