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."
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."
The police officers, Chandler says, were simply following the law when they arrested Levy, and the fact that tenants invited her onto the property was not a consideration.
But Robert Doggett, an attorney with Legal Services of North Texas, questions the department's actions in this case. Apartment dwellers, he says, can delegate the right to be on the property to their guests, and unless those guests are engaging in activities that break the complex's rules or the tenant's lease, landlords cannot refuse to allow them onto the property simply because they don't want them there.
"What police are suggesting violates the penal code in terms of what is criminal trespass," says Doggett. "I don't know why they're so hot to trot to arrest people that aren't doing anything but trying to inform tenants of their right to try and change some of the conditions that they have to endure."
A jury will decide Levy's fate at her trial for a Class B misdemeanor charge on April 20th. "Obviously," she says, "Hughes and company have things that they're trying to hide. Otherwise, I cannot understand why they would feel so threatened by tenants forming a meeting without them being present.
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