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.'"

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Muriel L. Sims