By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
When tenant organizer Dina Levy ventured out to Regis Square Apartments to inform residents that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development might cancel the complex's federal rental-assistance contract, she expected some resistance from management. After all, Regis Square made the August 8 list of 450 properties targeted nationwide by HUD because the department considered it substandard, and landlords, as a general rule, would rather keep such damaging information to themselves.
"Unfortunately, decisions are made in Washington," says Levy, "and information trickles down to the local offices, but it very rarely reaches the residents. Owners know what's going on sometimes, and managers sometimes know. Some local HUD officials know, and some don't. But very often there's this complete absence of an attempt to get this information to the people it affects the most, and that's the residents."
So Levy anticipated resistance, but she never expected to be arrested and tossed into jail last October. After spending 14 hours behind bars, Levy was released on bail, but faces trial next month on a charge of criminal trespassing filed by Regis' management.
Levy's legal squabbles with Dennis Lepovac, the owner-representative at Regis Square, and Roy Hughes, the president of Squire Management Co., began in August. She and two other activists from the Texas Tenants Union, a housing advocacy group, were passing out fliers to residents at four properties--Murdock Terrace, Pleasant Village, Grove Village, and Regis Square--on the HUD hit list. The properties all have contracts with the federal agency to rent subsidized housing to the poor under the Section 8 program. Last year, HUD began cracking down on landlords who fail to maintain their properties.
"HUD may decide to cancel your current Section 8 contract when it expires and give residents vouchers [to help pay rent at other properties]," warns the flier. "If HUD cancels the contracts, you will be forced to move with your vouchers...Come to the town meeting on Thursday, September 4th and find out what you can do about it!"
Hughes issued his own letter to Regis Square residents dated the day of the meeting. "The notice placed on your door August 29, 1997, by special interests from outside our community," reads the letter, "contains information that is FALSE AND MISLEADING. Changing from HUD Section 8 to a Section 8 voucher or certificate DOES NOT MEAN YOU WILL BE FORCED TO MOVE...It is unfortunate and extremely disturbing that any legitimate and reputable organization would resort to false information to promote their agenda."
While it's true that cancellation of the Regis Square contract would not automatically displace residents, tenants were forced to move when HUD canceled the contracts at three other Dallas properties--Prince Hall Village and Coston Arms in Oak Cliff, and Meadowgrove in South Dallas--earlier last year.
Regis Square tenants complain of leaking roofs, a heavy bug infestation, cracked floor tiles, and rotting carpets inside their apartments. And they're leery of drug dealers who congregate around the outside of the property. No one--including Hughes--knew what HUD planned to do about any of the properties listed on the August 8 notice. Regardless of what might eventually happen, it was important for tenants to know what could happen.
"Many tenants in these developments are unaware of how the program works, how much subsidy they get, what their rights and obligations are under the program, and what's going on with the program," says Jim Grow, a staff attorney with the National Housing Law Project, a nonprofit legal assistance group.
Hughes' letter served its purpose. Only five residents from Regis Square showed up at the September 4 meeting in the Pleasant Village community room. "The ones who really believed us," says Levy, "were the ones who had just been displaced from Meadowgrove. They knew we were telling the truth." Afterward, the group requested their own meeting at Regis for the following week.
Regis tenant Tenilia Kenny says that as fast as the activists put up fliers announcing upcoming meetings, workers at the complex removed them. "[Jovita Scroggins, the on-site manager] had the maintenance men snatching them off of our doors," says Kenny. Shortly after the Regis Square meeting was announced, Levy received an angry telephone call from Hughes.
"He was screaming, then he was being nice, then he was screaming again--'You're not going to get away with this.' And I said, 'Look, the tenants have a right to organize, and they want to have this meeting, and we're going to have this meeting, and that's the end of it. I'm not going to have this discussion.' He said, 'OK, but would you please come out here and meet with me and the owner an hour before the meeting?'"
Hoping to defuse the tension between them, Levy says, she agreed to meet with him, but she realized she was being ambushed the moment she walked into the leasing office. "I went by myself, which was a mistake," she says. "And when I got there, there was Roy Hughes, Dennis Lepovac and a very huge guy who was introduced to me as 'Bull' holding a video camera, which was focused on me at all times. They shut the door, and the three of them just started really going to town."