Critics say the federal government has spent too little to maintain public housing over the years. Now many of those apartments and town homes are in bad shape, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development is experimenting with a controversial new approach to improvements. Sandy Hausman has details.
When the federal government decided to tear down public housing in Hopewell, south of Richmond, it partnered with a non-profit company to construct and manage new, federally-subsidized town homes. Shantell Brown’s mother had a heart condition that made in risky for her to climb stairs, but Community Housing Partners put her on the second floor of a new building.
“She died. They found her on the bathroom floor dead,” she recalls.
That was just one of many complaints received by the Legal Aid Justice Center where Kim Rolla is a staff attorney.
“We obtained copies of a number of notices that told tenants at this newly redeveloped property – the Summit at Hopewell – that their kids couldn’t take the trash out, or they would be charged a fee," Rolla says. "If their children were left in their apartment without an adult – someone over 18 supervising – that they would call child protective services. That they would receive eviction notices and their vouchers – which make housing affordable – would be taken away if their children played outside without adult supervision.”
And Katrina Jones, whose daughter was disabled by a random gun shot fired into her back yard, says the place she was assigned didn’t work for someone in a wheelchair. Community Housing Partners offered her $30,000 to move out. Jones accepted the deal but now finds her rent has risen from $400 a month to $1,400 – and her job at Walmart barely covers her costs.
"I’m about my kids and family, and the people who are building these homes, they’re just about making money. They don’t care anything about what the family is going through. Nothing!" Jones concludes.
Community Housing Partners, which built the Summit at Hopewell in exchange for tax credits, says it’s investigated those claims and found most to be false. There was no evidence, for example, that the woman with heart trouble asked for a first-floor unit, although one was available. Andy Hall is Chief Administrative Officer of the Christiansburg company.
“We launched an internal investigation to which we assigned senior management," Hall explains. "That investigation entailed interviews with 10-12 current or former emplooyees. We reviewed every single resident file. We even shipped the property computer off site to have it scanned and tried to rebuild any files or traces of files or anything that we could uncover.”
Community Housing Partners did find evidence of certain policies that were not kid-friendly.
“House rules had gotten to the point where we did need to change them a little bit," Hall says. "We worked with legal aid and we did that by February first. If residents had contacted us, we absolutely would have put a stop to it.”
Hall says his organization is mission driven and has developed a number of programs designed to help low-income children succeed.
“We invested 1.2 million dollars, and those services typically do revolve around kids: after school programming, food security programs in the afternoons, are key to our mission, and we know they’re the future of our communities.”
But the Legal Aid Justice Center pressed ahead, filing a number of complaints with federal agencies. The Department of Housing and Urban Development is now investigating, and its findings could prove important to about 13,000 people who rent from Community Housing Partners in Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, Kentucky and Florida.