Union busting

Managers of a publicly subsidized apartment complex try to shut down tenant organizers

Hughes and Lepovac, Levy says, screamed at her and demanded to see her driver's license. They accused her of being an outside agitator from New Jersey and said that if it wasn't for the fact that she was a woman, they would have thrown her out of a window.

Levy is from New Jersey, but has lived in Dallas for two years since coming here to serve with Volunteers in Service to America at the Texas Tenants Union, where she's now employed.

"I was getting a little scared at the screaming," she says. "I didn't want the video camera on, but I couldn't make them turn it off. After about a half hour of debate, I finally lost my temper, which might not have been smart. But then I got up and started screaming back, telling them they were all in big trouble for this. It was nerve-wracking."

Hughes, who declined to provide a copy of the videotape, relates a different version of the September 16 meeting. "She walked in the door," he says. "When we introduced Mr. Lepovac, she said, 'You're the son of a bitch.'" Hughes says Levy continued to curse Lepovac, resorting to calling him a "capitalist pig. She just lit into him like she thought she was Norma Rae or somebody.

"Ms. Levy is a professional, paid agitator," he says, "who serves no other purpose but to come in and disrupt community and to interfere with people who are trying to provide quality housing. She had no business at that property. Her approach was totally unprofessional and unethical."

Says Levy: "I wouldn't walk into a meeting with three men 6 feet tall and start calling them pigs. I walked in in my little sundress, showed them the material I was going to pass out at the meeting. Then I was berated and had my driver's license taken. You've got to be kidding."

The managers called police to the meeting, and they issued Levy a criminal trespass warning. She knew one of the officers, she says, and was able to persuade him that, as an organizer being paid to do her job with a HUD outreach and training grant, she had a legal right to be there. A handful of tenants, whom Hughes describes as "one dope dealer, one hooker, and one little old mentally retarded girl that didn't know any better" eventually met that day, but Levy had to conduct the meeting with her feet firmly planted outside the property.

"I think it's a downright disgrace to try to tell the people that live on these properties who they can have come out to educate them," says Alice Basey, president of the National Association of HUD Tenants. "It's depriving people of the privileges of a learning experience and education."

Hughes insists that Regis Square has a tenants' council working closely with management. But several residents, including Marilyn Robinson, who was among those requesting the meetings, say they've never heard of the council and have never been invited to any of its meetings.

Even if a council already exists, says attorney Grow, HUD tenants have a right to organize themselves and elect their representatives. "The last thing owners want is for residents to be brought into the decision-making process," he says. "Historically, owners have been very comfortable and cozy with a two-party relationship between themselves and HUD, without anybody else looking over their shoulders."

On October 27, the day Levy was arrested, she was coming out of Robinson's apartment. Robinson, who had helped Levy pass out the fliers, says that after Hughes and Lepovac "jacked Dina up" in the office, Levy asked her to have the next meeting in her apartment. "I feel like I can invite whomever I want to my apartment," she says. "If I'm standing outside in front of my door, you still can't tell me who to invite, because I'm still paying rent here."

Shortly after Levy and another worker left Robinson's apartment, manager Scroggins and two police officers confronted her and demanded she leave. "She kept sneaking on and passing out fliers," says Scroggins. "She had fliers in her hand. She was walking, knocking on doors, and putting fliers on doors. She was not at anybody's apartment."

Levy says she tried to reason with the officers to no avail and agreed finally to leave. After she asked for their names and badge numbers, says Levy, they cuffed her and hauled her off to jail. "If the management of the property does not want someone on their premises, and they've been warned by the management in the presence of an officer, and we're called back, then the person will be arrested," says Sgt. Jim Chandler, information officer for the Dallas Police Department.

Levy's experience is not the first example of owners trying to run off tenant organizers. In Los Angeles, an organizer was arrested while she sat in a tenant's apartment. And a complex owner in Chicago has been charged with ordering the gangland-style execution of a community organizer murdered in December. "A lot of this commotion that we're beginning to see is a result of the fact that there's more at stake now because the rules are changing," says tenants' attorney Grow. "In the past, these programs were pretty much on autopilot for 20 years."

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