Placed in the Discard Pile
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."
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.
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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.
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."
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."
In Houston, more and more people are living on that edge, and every year more of them fall off and become homeless. Every January the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County surveys the demand for homeless services by having shelters throughout the area record data on each person who comes through the door in a 24-hour period.
In 1996 the coalition recorded its lowest occupancy rate, 80 percent, since it began taking the annual survey in 1992. The most recent survey, however, conducted on January 29, 1999, found that 96 percent of the area's 2,572 emergency-shelter beds were occupied. That, despite what the agency called a "significant" increase in the number of available beds. Overall, despite continued economic growth and prosperity, more than 4,000 families called on the homeless coalition for help in 1998, a 95 percent increase over 1997. Nine out of ten calls sought emergency shelter.
And for the first time ever, says Pamela Williford, executive director of the coalition, more women than men checked into homeless shelters, and three quarters of them brought children.
"There's definitely a widening of the gap between those who have the means to survive and those who don't," Williford says. "And we haven't really seen the effects of welfare reform yet. It could get very interesting."
Even as it demands that housing authorities accept fewer poor people, the federal government is spending more money on the homeless. In 1994 Houston and Harris County agencies that offer services to the homeless received just under $8 million in McKinney Act homeless grants from HUD. Every year since then those agencies have divvied up, on average, $12 million.
In the last half-decade, the number of assistance programs, such as day shelters and food banks, has more than doubled. Transitional living centers increased from four facilities to 41. Housing for specific populations, such as single men, families affected by HIV and the elderly, has also increased.
Earl Hatcher runs the single-room occupancy and supportive services programs for the nonprofit Housing Corporation of Greater Houston, which operates two SROs downtown, the New Hope and 1414 Congress, and is renovating the old King George Hotel as another. Hatcher points out that while federal money for new public housing was cut off in the early 1980s, there has been a veritable boom in the construction of facilities for the homeless.
"The Salvation Army, SEARCH, the Open Door Mission -- all of these places have undergone big expansions and have much better facilities," Hatcher says. "A lot of people, especially women with kids, aren't in a shelter because they're absolutely homeless, but because it's better than a run-down, drug-infested apartment. It might be to the advantage of some people to declare themselves homeless, go to a homeless shelter and get a referral."
That's what Sue Barbosa did. Ten years ago Barbosa and her one-year-old son fled an abusive relationship for the streets. She checked in at "just about every shelter in Houston," she recalls, "then we lived with a friend for a couple months, and then for two months with his mother."
She eventually got into a job-training program at SEARCH, the city's largest homeless shelter. Today she's an office manager for a real estate company. She rents an apartment, "in a pretty decent neighborhood," for $750 a month -- roughly one-third of her $2,500 monthly salary. Not bad, but it's still a burden: There are food and utility bills, as well as a car payment. And, of course, child care. Barbosa has four kids now, aged six to 11, but can afford child care for only three of them.
"It's costing me $450 a month right now, but it goes up in the summer," she says. "My oldest has to be at home by himself for two hours after school."
A cheaper place to live would help, but Barbosa knows she's lucky to have what she's got. "Where I'm at now is expensive," she says, "and it took a long time to find. We're not living in poverty, but I'm probably not going to be able to afford anything better because of child care."
Even when the government was building it with some regularity, public housing was never an entitlement. It has always been more like a lottery, with the supply so woefully short of the demand that landing a unit was a combination of luck, circumstance and persistence.
Now it will also take money. Not a lot, but enough that employment has become a must, preferably something that pays more than minimum wage. That all but dooms any chance that those already on HACH's public housing waiting list will qualify.
Their only hope would be the Historic Oaks at Allen Parkway Village, where the agency plans to establish a "mixed-income" tenant base, with 111 of the 500 units set aside for the poorest families. But because HACH has set up what's known as a "site-based" waiting list there, those on the regular public housing waiting list aren't even eligible, nor will they be considered for one of 400 units HACH has planned for the Fourth Ward.
All of this is more or less spelled out in the housing authority's fiscal year 2000 plan, which the agency is preparing to submit to HUD for implementation in January. For several months now, legal-aid attorneys from the Gulf Coast Legal Foundation have been reviewing the plan, and they're troubled by it.
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.
"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."
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 plan.
"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.
"If you're going to have people living on minimum wage," says Earl Hatcher of the Housing Corporation of Greater Houston, "we are duty-bound to try and create a decent, affordable place for them to live. Everybody has to have housing. Whether that's realistic or a pipe dream, I don't know."
E-mail Brian Wallstin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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