Anatomy of a public-housing takeover

Uncle Sam seized control of the Beaumont, Texas, housing authority last week, aiming to speed integration.

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Eva Westbrook has spent 23 years in the lovely-sounding but plain-looking Magnolia Gardens housing project in Beaumont.

For the past decade, Miss Westbrook has been on the waiting list for a low-income housing voucher that would let her leave the projects and rent a home of her own. But every time she's checked on her status at the Beaumont Housing Authority, the staff has told her she had to start all over again at the bottom of the waiting list. Her name wasn't even on the computer.

"I went back to the office to complain, and they said they couldn't do nothing," says Westbrook, an African-American mother of five. She breaks into tears. "I'm sorry. I've been waiting so long for a home that maybe I could rent to own."

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It's stories like this, along with what federal officials say is evidence of discrimination, that prompted the US Housing and Urban Development agency to take control of the local housing authority in Beaumont last week.

It's a step reserved for the worst cases, yet it's a step the Clinton administration has been more willing to take than any previous administration in history. While local officials decry the move as an unwarranted abuse of federal power, civil rights advocates and low-income housing tenants praise the move with three words: "It's about time."

The Department of Housing and Urban Development "only does this in the most extreme cases, but this is a more activist HUD, and they've been doing more of it since the mid-1990s," says Susan Popkin of the Urban Institute, author of a book about the federal takeover of the Chicago Housing Authority. "Now, housing authorities are being held more accountable than in the past."

Even Beaumont's detractors note that the city of refineries on the east Texas coast does not easily fit the stereotype of a racist town - unlike all-white Vidor, 10 miles away, which once specifically forbade blacks from residing in its public housing. After all, Beaumont is 30 percent black. The BHA staff is about 60 percent black. The residents of BHA housing are more than 90 percent black.

Under scrutiny since 1985

But whether poor service is the result of racial malice or mismanagement, HUD argues that the effects fall disproportionately on the minority residents who make up the bulk of BHA tenants. Given that, the federal agency argues it was required by law to take over the BHA.

The roots of the federal takeover in Beaumont go back to a 1985 federal court ruling, which said that most public housing authorities in 36 east Texas counties had failed to racially integrate their low-income public housing.

The US Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars discrimination in federal programs that offer financial assistance. Beaumont, with 40 percent of its budget coming from HUD, thus had an obligation not only to desegregate its housing projects, but also to locate any new units in nonminority neighborhoods. HUD argues that Beaumont was not moving fast enough to build or to find those homes.

State officials say Beaumont violated the spirit of the 1985 ruling by not moving residents out of mainly black projects and into housing in white areas.

"It takes a little work to find landlords who are willing to accept [low-income] vouchers," says Bill Hale, executive director of the Texas Civil Rights Commission, a state agency. "Apparently, the Beaumont Housing Authority didn't really try that hard."

According to Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo, the BHA takeover was the culmination of decades of mismanagement and two years of intense negotiation with housing authority officials. Mr. Cuomo says the decision came when federal officials realized the BHA not only had failed to replace demolished units, but also had developed an apartment complex for people with moderate to high incomes. Federal officials argue the BHA should have focused on its original purpose: to provide low-income housing.

But John Goodyear, the former chairman of the BHA board of commissioners, argues that HUD never has a right to take over a local government entity, and that in any case, there was no cause to take over the BHA over some minor disagreements and accounting errors.

"It's a political act in a political year," says Mr. Goodyear, sitting in the office of his audio-equipment business. "I couldn't believe what Cuomo was saying when I read the papers. They said we were discriminating against minorities. Ninety percent of our residents are minorities. Key department heads of the agency are minorities. I don't see how you can get more desegregated than that."

Blindsided by takeover?

Most of the authority's arguments with HUD have been minor, Goodyear argues, noting that until recently, HUD was asking Beaumont to help manage other local housing authorities in east Texas. As for the high-income apartment complex, he says Beaumont did so out of necessity. Faced with federal funding cuts, it sought extra income by doing what it thinks it does best: build and run apartments.

"I'm still convinced we did a damn fine job," Goodyear says.

From her small two-bedroom unit in Magnolia Gardens, Elizabeth Wrighting says BHA was a lousy landlord. As a member of the project's residents council, she says people would come to her with complaints, but would rarely attend meetings with BHA officials, because they didn't believe anything would get done.

"They feel like no matter what they say, nothing's going to be done about them," Ms. Wrighting says. "They're slow in doing repairs. We've been having trouble with sanitation. And we haven't had security in two years."

But Wrighting says she doesn't worry about the housing authority anymore, even though she's been on the waiting list - usually at the bottom - for the past five years. She recently applied for a low-income housing voucher from another agency, the East Texas Housing Authority, and it has already given her a voucher. She expects to find a home on the town's west end within eight months.

"All I need to do is find a home," she says with a smile.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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