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

"They had us bring everything over there," Katherine recalls. "Birth certificates, Social Security cards, bank statements. The account didn't have but about $200 in it, and that don't stay in there very long."

About a week later, the Bookers learned they were rejected because of bad credit. Katherine called the credit agency and got a copy of their report. On it were three unpaid hospital bills totaling $1,006.

"I don't understand it," says Katherine. "I really don't."

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.

It's ironic that at a time when Fourth Ward residents need public housing the most, it won't be available to them. What's surprising is that more of them aren't panic-stricken by the prospect of having to find another place to live. Perhaps they have a false sense of security. After all, the neighborhood has proven quite resilient, despite being threatened with extinction since the late 1980s, when American General proposed a redevelopment plan that stretched from I45 deep into Montrose.

But the demolition of Allen Parkway Village transformed the Fourth Ward from sacred land -- the heart of it, known as Freedmen's Town, was first settled by freed slaves -- to a place dictated by "economic reality." In short, the land has become too valuable to allow it to continue being populated by poor people.

Late on a recent Friday afternoon, Arnold Rayford gathered with a few of his neighbors on an empty lot on Wilson Street. A table had been set up, and someone had brought out bags of cookies and plastic containers of fruit punch. Later someone would show up with some beer, and folks would gather to hang out and play dominoes.

But at the moment, Rayford, dressed in a pair of painfully creased khakis, a striped sport shirt and a series of silver chains around his neck that cascaded down his chest in layers, was recapping the end of the Fourth Ward as he and his friends know it.

"Every black politician in this country ought to be standing out here," Rayford raged. "This is the last black-established neighborhood, the last Freedmen's Town, in this nation. But how many of them are supporting our cause? None of 'em. These folks have misused us. They don't mean us no good."

The only public figure left standing in the Fourth Ward, the only voice still speaking of injustice, is Lenwood Johnson. The only problem is, no one seems to be listening anymore.

A decade ago Johnson had a U.S. congressman, a Catholic bishop, the American Civil Liberties Union and enough Anglo sympathizers on his side that he was regularly traveling to Washington, D.C., to meet with high-ranking officials from HUD. There's no doubt that if not for Johnson, APV would have been sold to private developers, and the Fourth Ward would now be an exclusive enclave of town houses and single-family homes.

Indeed, no one is more responsible for those 900 new units of public housing than Johnson. But in the truest sense of the cliché, he won the battle, but lost the war. He saved the housing, but not the tenants.

One of Johnson's closest allies during the fight over APV's demolition was Othello Poullard, director of the Center for Community Change, an organization based in Washington, D.C., that represents public housing tenants. With Poullard's help, Johnson and the Allen Parkway Village Resident Council secured a $300,000 grant from HUD to help design and manage the new APV site.

However, very little of that grant was ever allocated to the residents' group, says Poullard.

"He held up the plan expressing discontent over minor matters, and then time passed by. Time passed by, and what little support he had eroded, and people became tired and walked away from him," Poullard says. "Lenwood was marvelous at that stage when we were fighting to stop demolition, and we did. But when it became a matter of implementing a planŠ.

"I predicted to him this would happen."

To be sure, it would be grossly unfair to blame Lenwood Johnson for the current state of affairs in public housing, and Poullard isn't doing that. Neither man could have hoped to stop the wave of anti-poor sentiment that has dominated public policy the last few years.

The truth is, if Lenwood Johnson needed allies to prevent the destruction of public housing at APV, he needed them even more to protect the interests of the people who need that housing. And when they look around today, neither Johnson nor Poullard sees anyone.

"Sometimes there are enough bodies, enough people to organize, to demonstrate, to stay in the faces of the policy makers and the eyes of the press until they win concessions," says Poullard. "There are a variety of time-consuming measures which one shouldn't have to resort to but that are nonetheless there. I don't know which one would work in Houston, given the fact that Houston is not the most progressive city on the face of the earth."

Certainly not progressive enough to have thought of this: What happens to people who are too poor to get into public housing? Even those who are busy every day trying to provide low-cost housing don't have an answer.

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