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Gimme Shelter

The courtyard at the new Treymore Apartments in East Dallas was filled with high-profile types--visiting dignitaries, elected officials, land developers--most of whom wouldn't be caught dead in a subsidized housing project if not for the staged photo-op that kept TV cameras rolling on a hot afternoon last September.

The city of Dallas had that day received the green light on its receipt of $47.5 million in HUD funds, and Mayor Ron Kirk seemed anxious to impress his guest, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo. The mayor and his entourage escorted Cuomo and Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson on a tour of the housing complex, which was almost ready for occupancy. Then the political threesome did what government types do when they dedicate anything of media value worth exploiting: They cut a ceremonial ribbon officially opening the 190-unit complex.

Now it was Cuomo's turn to speak to the crowd of curious onlookers. Walking decisively to the podium erected in his honor, he pronounced dramatically, "This is what affordable housing looks like. This is a model for the nation."

Alice Basey, then 38, stood in the crowd and wondered if she and the secretary were looking at the same structure: How in the world did he think her people were going to be able to afford a place like this? Who did Cuomo consider low-income? And being married to a Kennedy, how would he even know?

Since 1986, Basey had been living, off and on, in Dallas "Section 8" housing projects--her rent subsidized by federal dollars. She is the president of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT), a grassroots amalgamation of housing activists around the country organized to advocate the rights of tenants living in subsidized housing.

For the last several months, Basey had been waiting for an opportunity to discuss with Cuomo the housing needs of those she represented. So when she learned that the guest list of those meeting with him in Dallas included no tenants, she grew indignant. "I'm like, wait a minute. He's coming to talk to the mayor and all these people about housing. Are tenants involved in there anywhere?" Basey represents 5.2 million tenants living in subsidized housing--she wondered where the hell her invitation was. Last June, at NAHT's annual conference in Washington, she had met with Cuomo, who promised to meet with her board again soon.

But three months had elapsed, and, despite her efforts, no meeting had been scheduled.

And Basey had plenty to tell Cuomo. Last March, HUD instituted its new "Get Tough" policy toward Section 8 slumlords, laying down the law on decades of negligent and criminal behavior that HUD claims it will no longer tolerate. Landlords refusing to bring their properties up to some minimal standard of habitability risk getting kicked out of the subsidy program--their rental contracts canceled, their property foreclosed and sold. Caught in the crossfire are the tenants, who are then forced to take vouchers and find housing elsewhere. Basey and her contingent of tenants are categorically opposed to the voucher-assisted program that they believe is only a step removed from homelessness. That's why she was so desperate to make her case--and her feelings--known.

After Cuomo's speech, the stocky, round-faced grocery store clerk led a group of angry tenants toward the secretary. But Mayor Kirk must have seen them coming and tried to intercede, sticking out his hand. "What do you want?" he asked.

"I want to speak to Secretary Cuomo," replied Basey.
"This is not the time."
Basey grew insistent: "I came here to speak to Cuomo."
"Tell me," said the mayor. "I'll give him the message."

Not to be denied, she muscled her way past Kirk, she says, and got right in the face of the young Cuomo as TV cameras caught their confrontation.

"Hi, Alice," Cuomo said, looking awkward in front of reporters.
Basey blasted back. "You promised us a meeting, and you didn't have that meeting. You know that voucherization is not the answer to these problems."

"If we can fix it, we'll fix it," she recalls his saying.
"Why do you want to voucher people out? Why are you trying to make people homeless."

"You know we talked."
"Yeah, we talked. But what about that meeting? I want a commitment right now, in front of these people. Will you have a meeting with the National Alliance of HUD Tenants?"

"Yes, I'll meet with you," he agreed, obviously trying to appease her.
"When? Give me a day."
"Here, set it up with my aide," Cuomo replied, indicating someone nearby. Cuomo finally managed to move on, but not without publicly committing to a meeting days later in Washington with NAHT's board. Basey turned and addressed reporters. "He has not done anything to say, 'We're going to save your homes.'"  

In Dallas, the battle over low-income housing is being waged on many fronts: by fiscal conservatives who want to cut funds for public housing and the bloated HUD bureaucracy that administers them; by social liberals who want to guarantee every American a roof over their head; by North Dallas homeowners who want to keep their neighborhoods unchanged and are willing to go to court to see that happen; by profiteering landlords who risk losing properties that have given them a windfall for nearly 25 years; by HUD officials torn between doing what's best for tenants and what's best for HUD.

But no one is more affected by the shifting sands of public-housing policy than the 16,000 tenants living in the Section 8 apartments dotting this city. The shrinking supply of affordable housing has sent shock waves through the city's minority community. But rather than get lost in the political shuffle, it has risen to the occasion, spawning a new breed of advocacy, a grassroots movement on the part of tenants like Alice Basey who are hell-bent on taking control of their lives and staking claim to their homes. Challenging the powers that be, they are organizing themselves into tenant groups and making their feelings known to satisfy one of the most primal needs: shelter.

When her children were babies, Alice Basey dreamed of the day when she would move into a house of her own. She imagined cooking Christmas turkey, corn-bread dressing, greens, and sweet-potato pies in a sun-drenched kitchen. From the kitchen window, she'd watch her kids romp and play in the family's spacious back yard. She'd plant azaleas and roses along a white picket fence. She'd be able to provide them what they needed, when they needed it. Basey always wanted the best for her six children. Public housing wasn't in her plans.

"We were very poor. Very, very poor," says Basey of her own childhood in Houston. "We started off with no bathroom in the house. And finally, one day, we had a bathroom...We always wanted something better."

Beginning when she was 18, two common-law marriages produced six children in 10 years. In Houston, after a couple of stops and starts, Basey worked as a manager for a wrecking service. It was here that she grew personally interested in landlord-tenant disputes. "We were evicted. I was at work," says Basey, "and the landlord took everything I owned. Everything...They took it and sold it for the rent. That's what they said. But they're not supposed to do that. I didn't know that then. I know it now."

When her employer decided to move his operation to Dallas in 1983, she relocated as well.

One of her first apartments here was at Cedar Glen in Oak Cliff, a "project-based" Section 8 complex--the kind of housing project that was built, owned, and theoretically maintained by a private entity with the help of handsome federal perks like low-interest loans and guaranteed monthly rent. Being a Section 8 tenant, Basey had to pay 30 percent of her rent; the federal government picked up the tab for the rest.

"I labeled it public housing too," she says, "and I didn't really want my kids to grow up there." To avoid the stigma, she moved her family several times before finding a home in East Dallas to lease. "I was working almost 24 hours a day trying to afford that house," she remembers. "I could earn what I wanted, but the job took me away from my children."

Basey's life changed irrevocably in 1993 after her oldest child, 16-year-old DeUndrea, a basketball player at Skyline High School, died from a massive heart attack. "He was playing basketball on a park court when he went up for a slam dunk, came back down, collapsed," she says, snapping her fingers, "and died instantly."

A burial policy eventually paid off, but not in time to cover the cost of his $3,500 funeral.

Within six months, Basey moved her five children into Lake June Village Apartments in Pleasant Grove. "I'd asked the Lord to just bless me to get somewhere with some Section 8," she remembers. "I had to get someplace where I knew I could afford the rent, where I knew I'd be able to take care of my kids as a single parent."

When Basey moved her family there, the 100-unit complex looked like a South African shantytown. Paint on the exterior walls was chipped and cracked and faded. Tenants negotiated their cars through an unlit, potholed parking lot. There was no on-site security force, and gang members aimlessly congregated in the walkways and yards, intimidating people from setting foot outside by their mere presence and an occasional gunshot. Like merchants at a flea market, drug dealers openly sold their wares.  

The absence of an access gate made the complex vulnerable to the rest of the city's scum, who entered at will from two huge, vacant fields nearby. Thieves burglarized apartments and hid their loot in these same fields, where Lake June's 300 to 400 kids sometimes spent their summer afternoons, stumbling over weeds, trash, and an occasional dead body. There was no youth center or park nearby.

Inside, tenants fought off infestations of cockroaches and rats. Kitchen cabinet doors hung off their hinges. Mismatched assortments of linoleum tiles were haphazardly slapped on damaged floors. Tenants cooked on 20-year-old stoves, stored their food in refrigerators as old as the complex itself. The maintenance crew responded to problems caused by frequently backed-up plumbing two, three, four days later.

"Tenants were bickering with one another," remembers Basey. "The manager didn't have any idea what was going on--or she didn't care as long as she got paid."

Basey abhorred Lake June's conditions, but it was the only thing that separated her children from a homeless shelter. Or worse, the streets.

"Ask everybody, anybody here right now," she insists. "If they could afford it, would they move and get off government assistance? Subsidized housing is not a choice. None of this is by choice."

How public housing programs got into such sad shape is a story highlighted by bureaucratic neglect, opportunistic entrepreneurs, and political wrangling. Certainly, the federal government's intentions were honorable when Lyndon Johnson elevated the Department of Housing and Urban Development to Cabinet-level status in 1965. His War On Poverty resulted in a boom of public-housing projects designed to benefit the elderly, the disabled, and the poor.

It wasn't until 1974, however, under President Nixon's watch, that HUD rolled out its twofold Section 8 subsidized housing program to also help the working poor. In the tenant-based program, low-income individuals could obtain government vouchers and present them as rent to private owners who met certain HUD requirements, including their willingness to accept vouchers.

Under the project-based program, HUD began enticing developers to construct apartment complexes designated for the poor by offering low-interest, Federal Housing Administration-insured mortgages. Texas began building these subsidized complexes, and now an estimated 38,000 of the state's low-income apartments are subsidized by Section 8 contracts. Nearly 7,000 Section 8 apartments in 81 complexes are scattered throughout the metroplex.

Once built, HUD signed Section 8 rental assistance contracts with the owners, agreeing to subsidize their units (at the 70/30 rental split) for as long as 20 years. In exchange, owners agreed to keep their apartments in a safe, sanitary, and decent condition; to submit to annual inspections; and to make necessary repairs in a timely manner.

The only problem was, they didn't.
Guaranteed revenue streams; low-interest, federally insured 40-year loans; and attractive investment returns lured real estate speculators, absentee landlords, and limited partnerships into the equation, many of whom turned their properties over to inept or deceitful management companies.

The next two decades of HUD history are replete with scandals involving fraud and cronyism--much of it in Section 8 programs. President Reagan's HUD secretary, Samuel Pierce, left office under accusations that he turned a blind eye while his staffers gave housing contracts to his friends.

Closer to home, HUD's Dallas asset management branch, responsible for ensuring that owners keep their properties financially sound and in livable condition, was found negligent in a 1994 audit. HUD's inspector general reported that "due to inadequate supervision, tenants in multi-family projects live in substandard conditions, HUD suffers financial losses, and distressed properties go without needed HUD assistance."

Section 8 landlords, at times, found it cheaper to grease the palm of a federal housing inspector, who would then turn his back on properties that had fallen into disrepair. The practice of equity skimming--where owners, obliged by HUD regulations to plow profits back into maintenance, instead used the money to line their own pockets--became rampant.

Again in Dallas, Credit Finance Corp., which now manages the day-to-day operations of at least three Section 8 properties--Prairie Creek, Highland Hills, and Rolling Meadows--was cited by HUD's inspector general in both October 1995 and August 1996. The company was accused of making unauthorized distributions to owners and improperly diverting operating funds, among other violations, in an amount totaling over $300,000. A spokesman for Credit Finance denies the allegations and says they are still being contested.

"I can't help but think," says Alice Basey, "that if HUD had come out and done their housing quality standard inspections on a regular basis, if they had made sure the owners were putting money into these properties, if they had done the follow-up with the owners...there wouldn't have been these problems."  

Compounding the problem was a Republican majority that stormed the halls of Congress in 1994 and demanded that bloated bureaucracies like HUD go on a drastic budgetary diet. Both HUD and Congress explored expanding the voucher-assistance program, a measure opposed by many housing activists, but seen by some as a panacea--less costly than rehabilitating project-based apartments and a way to ease the transition of welfare recipients forced to join the ranks of the working poor. "Targeting new vouchers to help families move from welfare to work is a sound investment," said HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo. "It rewards men and women who are willing to work hard to climb out of poverty under their own power."

Against this backdrop, tenant groups began to organize, local coalitions of the nation's poor intent on empowering themselves so they could hold on to what little they had and try to make it better.

In January 1995, housing activists from the Texas Tenants' Union came to the Lake June apartments, assuring residents they had a right to better living conditions and urging them to organize. Alice Basey figured it was about time. "I was tired of moving from place to place," she says. "Uprooting my kids, taking them from their friends...asking them to start over. Everybody should have roots." For better or worse, Lake June Village Apartments was the place she finally decided to call home.

Weeks later, Basey sat in the cafeteria at nearby Florence Middle School with more than 100 of her low-income neighbors, listening intently to Sandy Rollins, executive director of TTU.

"They told us that something could be done," Basey recalls, "that we didn't have to live like that. They said we had to organize...I didn't understand. I wondered how we could make the owner do anything.

"They were telling us all these things we could do for the kids. And after my son's death, I needed something...to keep me focused. So I had this great vision, this great plan in my head. If I couldn't do for my son, I wanted to make sure things were right for the other kids."

That evening, residents officially organized themselves into the Lake June Village Tenants Association; Basey was later elected president. Her fervor for the cause--a certain pit-bull tenacity that could wear others down, became immediately apparent. "She stays in there and hangs in there," says Robert Doggett, an attorney for Legal Services of North Texas who has worked with Basey. "She has good common sense and boils it all down to 'this is what is going on here.' Some people hate when people do that."

Rollins' staff met several times a month with Basey and other tenant leaders at Lake June, convincing them that there is strength in numbers and teaching them how to use that strength to negotiate with management. After several months of training, the committee began meeting with a representative from HUD and John Jett, district manager of Insignia Residential Group, the firm responsible for Lake June's day-to-day operations. Tenants had decided their first priority was safety. They planned to ask for an access gate and on-site security.

According to Basey, Jett met with her committee and agreed to the changes.
"When?" Basey pressed.
He told her the gate would go up as soon as he got the money, remembers Basey.

"When will that be?" she asked.
"I don't know," she recalls his saying. "We're working on it."
Basey says that was the typical management response at the time. "Tenants here were not heard. They were excused...and it went no further. So nothing ever got done if management didn't do anything."

In subsequent meetings, says Basey, Jett insisted that management didn't have the necessary resources to change conditions. So when someone from TTU mentioned that HUD was taking applications for drug-elimination grants, tenants decided to broach the subject at the next meeting.

"Will you file for the drug grant?" Basey asked Jett.
He refused, according to Basey.
"Why not?" she persisted.

"I don't have time, and you're not going to get it anyway," she recalls his saying. "They won't give you the money."

Applying for the grant would involve a significant amount of paperwork, but if received, the money would provide funds for a fence around the property, better outside lighting, drug counseling, activities for the kids, and perhaps an on-site computer learning center. Tenants eventually convinced management, with subtle pressure from HUD, to apply for the grant.

"Lake June's management was ready to do business as usual," says Rollins, "but HUD's presence at the table in those initial meetings probably made the difference."

"HUD, as far as Lake June is concerned, has been very supportive," says Basey, "But not all properties are treated in the same manner, and they could have done a lot better job overall."  

While Basey led negotiations at Lake June, she received word that TTU wanted to send her and four other local residents to Washington for the National Alliance of HUD Tenants' first annual conference in May 1995. Organized in 1992, NAHT is a multicultural mix of organized tenant groups living in the nation's subsidized housing complexes. The alliance's goals are to permanently preserve subsidized housing and to improve tenants' quality of life. More specifically, it works to help tenants promote tenant ownership and control over the properties they live in and to make HUD accountable to them.

"I went to all these classes, and I heard from tenants from all over the country who were going through the same things we were at Lake June...I learned we could make owners fix and repair things and take care of their property. I was like, 'I want to do this. I know we can do this.'"

Basey was elected to sit on NAHT's board as a regional representative at the first conference. At its second conference in '96, she was elected to a two-year term as president of the organization.

"I brought back to Dallas with me what I learned at that first conference, and, with the help of God and the knowledge He'd given me, I decided I was going to make a change in the complex where I live."

Basey devoted herself full time to tenant organizing and began working as a volunteer at TTU, organizing other subsidized housing projects around the city, urging residents to fight for better living conditions. Slowly, with Basey at Lake June's negotiating table, tenants began seeing noticeable improvements in their surroundings.

"Owners have to hear the voices of their tenants," says Basey. "They have to be partners because we live here. We know what the problems are. Who can tell you more about a problem than we can?"

HUD denied Lake June's original request for the drug elimination grant, but that didn't stop Alice Basey. Lake June again applied in 1996 and this time gained approval for the $121,000 grant. "I think tears came to my eyes," recalls Basey. "It was like a burden was lifted off. Instead of having to beg for donations for the activities we wanted to see happen, we knew we would have access to money to do things for our children."

Although tales of harmony between Section 8 owners and their elderly tenants are legion, it was much rarer to find landlords of minority complexes like those at Lake June who were responsive to tenants' demands. Many just had to be bullied into it.

The news conference was held jointly to stress the gravity of the situation. Last March in Washington, HUD Secretary Cuomo stood side by side with the nation's top prosecutor, Attorney General Janet Reno, and announced an initiative on the part of both HUD and the Justice Department to "Get Tough" on reprobate Section 8 landlords.

"Our message is simple," threatened Cuomo. "If you are a landlord and you abuse your position, your lease is up. HUD is not in the business of subsidizing rich landlords so they can live in luxury while their tenants live in slums." After years of willful blindness and improper oversight, HUD, with legal backup from the Justice Department, was throwing down the gauntlet. Cuomo's announcement launched a two-year, $50 million "Get Tough" campaign designed to crack down on landlords in 50 cities--including Dallas--with the largest concentrations of subsidized housing. Together, the departments would aggressively hunt down unscrupulous landlords--who, they believed, were a relative minority of Section 8 owners--foreclosing on mortgages and pursuing civil, even criminal remedies where appropriate. "Landlords who receive federal funds must realize that if they don't play by the rules, they will lose out in the end," said Reno.

Initially, Alice Basey and other tenants' activists were excited by HUD's about-face--until they learned what these new enforcement actions meant for tenants. If an owner refused to make repairs or was cited for financial improprieties, HUD planned on canceling their Section 8 contract. That meant that entire housing developments might lose their subsidized status and that huge numbers of tenants might be forced to leave their homes. HUD's remedy was to provide vouchers to these displaced tenants, but Basey and the NAHT remained adamantly opposed to voucher assistance, which they call "forced voucherization."

"Anytime a person doesn't have a choice about whether they move or stay in their homes," says Basey, "that's forcing them out."

And what assurance did Section 8 tenants have that there were enough landlords willing to accept vouchers? "You have people discriminating against people with vouchers," she says. "White people discriminate against you, that's one of the biggest things happening here right now about the North Dallas area. They don't want any low-income people out there...Then you're coming with this piece of paper saying you can't afford to pay the rent."  

"There has never been a time," counters HUD spokesman Victor Lambert, "when someone has been put out of a building, has no place to go with a voucher and ended up on the street."

But Dallas' Section 8 tenants don't want to be among the first. Basey and NAHT worry that congressional budget cutters, riding on the success of slashing federal welfare entitlements, would have an easier time cutting a portable voucher program than funding for brick and mortar.

Instead, why not renew rental contracts, asks Basey, even if the landlords are responsible for the substandard living conditions of their tenants? Demand that they make the necessary repairs, or find new owners willing to take over the existing properties if they don't. Or foreclose on the properties, then turn them over to nonprofit agencies--or even better, let the tenants themselves maintain them. But don't cancel the contracts in favor of vouchers, says Basey: That essentially endorses homelessness.

In June, three months after the "Get Tough" policy was announced, Basey headed for Washington, hoping to express her concerns to Secretary Cuomo during NAHT's annual conference. Upon meeting with him, NAHT's governing board applauded HUD's new enforcement efforts, but wanted HUD to endorse NAHT's agenda: saying no to the use of vouchers and using contract nonrenewal as a tactic of last resort. Cuomo promised to consider these concerns, Basey says, and to discuss them in greater detail when he met with the board as agreed before the end of summer.

But in August, when HUD issued a notice targeting 450 substandard properties nationwide--eight in Dallas--with nonrenewal of their rental contracts, Basey felt betrayed. There was no subsequent meeting, no further dialogue. In Dallas, HUD would cancel contracts at Prince Hall Village and Coston Arms in Oak Cliff, and Meadowgrove in South Dallas. Low-income tenants were displaced from each.

Small wonder Alice Basey was frustrated when she confronted Secretary Cuomo at the dedication of the Treymore Apartments in Dallas last September. With cameras capturing the moment, Cuomo had little choice but to accede to her demands for a meeting.

A week later, Basey and NAHT's board flew to Washington and met with Cuomo at HUD offices, where they were escorted into a long conference room and left waiting for the secretary. Cuomo came in, walking and talking fast. "We're just trying to penalize the bad owners," she recalls his telling them. "Were just not putting up with bad owners."

"We don't want to put up with bad owners either," Basey told him. "And the way your program is written right now, it's penalizing the tenants."

Cuomo told her that she just didn't understand.
"Mr. Cuomo, we understand very well. This is why we're here. We understand very well that your vouchers do not work. The vouchers are only good for one year, and nobody has to take them. So you tell me: How is this not going to make anybody homeless?"

Cuomo agreed that he would consider the NAHT agenda before proceeding any further.

Basey left the meeting slightly amazed: A poor woman from the projects, a single mother with five kids, had just sat down with one of the heads of the U.S. government--and he actually listened.

On December 29, HUD's assistant secretary, Nicholas Retsinas, issued a clarification memo to its field offices. "While it is the Department's responsibility to ensure that owners and management agents fulfill their contractual obligations," wrote Retsinas, "the termination of the Section 8 contract and subsequent relocation of the residents is considered the action of last resort."

Although HUD still plans to issue vouchers, Basey was thrilled by the small victory she shared. "I feel like they...really want tenant involvement," says Basey. "And they realized the impact they were having on people. It's finally sinking in: Save our homes. Don't destroy our homes."

But storm clouds continue to gather over the future of low-income housing as supply continues to dwindle. Nationwide, there are now only enough publicly subsidized units to house one of every four families poor enough to qualify. In Dallas, new public housing starts have been ensnared in vicious legal battles that pit North Dallas homeowners against HUD in cases that may linger in the courts for years to come. Conceding that public housing is often too costly to repair, the federal government has set upon a plan to tear down its most dilapidated developments.

Much of this pales when compared to the far larger crisis, one that threatens to displace millions of Section 8 tenants. Unrelated to any "Get Tough" campaign, thousands of contracts, originally signed in the late '70s and early '80s, are expiring of their own accord. The cost to renew these expiring contracts is expected to increase from $4 billion in '97 to $23 billion by 2006--an expense many in Congress are unwilling to bear. Secretary Cuomo calls this "perhaps the largest challenge the agency has faced since its inception." Again, the Clinton Administration is touting vouchers as at least part of the answer.  

The contract at Lake June Village, where Basey has fought so hard to improve living conditions for its tenants, is due to expire next year. But Basey remains stoic. "The owners, HUD, the senators, the congressmen--all must realize how important it is for people to keep their homes. We're not through...Taking away project-based Section 8 will make people homeless, and the fight will continue until they see it our way.


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