Public housing crusader works to invest in the `good' tenants. William Lindsey faces his biggest challenge: tackling Miami projects

In the shrinking and dispirited business of public housing for the poor, William Lindsey is a tough-minded enthusiast with an idea. Mr. Lindsey is taking on what may be the messiest failure in the business, Miami's housing projects.

Lindsey forged his ``oasis technique'' for cleaning up projects and encouraging neighborhood development more than 13 years ago in Fort Lauderdale. His approach spread across the country and attracted interest from overseas before Miami - just a half an hour south of Fort Lauderdale - began to take notice.

The public housing agency in Dade County, which includes Miami, is one of the nation's largest. It has been deteriorating for at least six years - physically and managerially. A grand jury last year called the agency ``one of the largest slum lords in Dade County.''

Enter the Oasis Institute: Bill Lindsey and his staff of four.

A slum neighborhood, according to Lindsey, has ``good'' residents and ``bad.'' At least 90 percent are good, he says, and carefully investing in them can create an oasis of stability.

Safety, cleanliness, and rehabilitation spread out from there - according to the oasis theory - safeguarding both public and private investment in the neighborhood.

As for the bad residents, Lindsey believes in doing everything within the bounds of the Ten Commandments to send them packing.

In Lindsey's housing projects, the resident who destroys a refrigerator every few months does not get a new one. A neighbor who has maintained his unit gets the new one. The destructive resident gets the neighbor's old unit.

Under Lindsey's 13-year tenure as director of the Fort Lauderdale Housing Authority, some slum apartment complexes have been transformed into stable, attractive, and reasonably safe places to live.

He developed a national reputation as a ``slum buster,'' but other cities were slow to try his approach. He chalks that up to bureaucratic resistance. So do other observers. ``Public housing nationally tends to be strongly resistant to innovation,'' notes Ken Beirne, a writer who until recently was a policy analyst at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

But lately, the resistance has been yielding. Lindsey's nonprofit Oasis Institute has launched programs in Houston; Los Angeles County and Garden Grove, Calif.; Louisville, Ky.; Lawrence, Mass.; and Gainesville and Tampa, Fla.

Lindsey or other Oasis Institute staff members typically set up new programs themselves, then leave it to local managers after a year or so.

Miami, however, is a new test for Oasis. Lindsey and company will be consultants, but they will have wide latitude in managing the entire agency - six times the size of Fort Lauderdale's.

Resistance here is stiff, too. The county commission voted Oasis its contract only after hearing two hours of objections from community members. The county housing projects, says community activist Georgia Ayers, need money, not outside experts.

``I dare Bill Lindsey or anybody else to come in here and tell me how to run social services,'' Mrs. Ayers says.

Dade County's problems are simple, she says: ``I've been in the projects and called maintenance, and you always get the same answer. They don't have any money.''

Lindsey is undaunted and unconvinced. ``They've had the money,'' he says. ``Where is it? Every place we've been, people say, `We just need more money.'''

But public housing is not going to get any more money anytime soon, he says. Federal spending is headed in the other direction. Housing authorities need to work smarter, to do more with less, he says.

The cry for more money is a way for officials to escape being held accountable for neighborhood quality of life, he adds. ``I can always say I need more money. When the streets are on fire [as in Miami's 1980 riots], you can come back to me and I'll say, we need more money. We don't buy that.''

In fact, a central problem for public housing projects is that tenants and neighbors tend to defy investment by tearing property up. Says Mr. Beirne: ``A lot of modernization money ends up being wasted, like parking a Porsche in the middle of the street. It's destroyed in milliseconds.''

Since the oasis technique enlists police and residents in a tight-knit team to protect housing investment, Beirne says, ``I suspect it's less expensive over time'' than other housing approaches.

Some of the most enthusiastic supporters of the oasis approach are the police. Oasis often begins by establishing close alliances between responsible residents and police, who are frequently seen as hostile invaders. The results have been striking.

``We've never had to have more police in oases,'' Lindsey says. ``We've had fewer, working smarter.''

How well the oasis technique actually works to spread stability and investment into the surrounding neighborhood is not as clear.

After 18 months of the oasis technique, Gainesville housing officials say crime is down considerably but have not seen a rise in property values.

After a year in Garden Grove, Calif., housing officials find oasis difficult to establish in highly transient private apartment complexes with numerous absentee owners.

Fort Lauderdale's Citrus Park Apartments - once an overcrowded, out-of-control tenement - has become physically and socially healthy. Surrounding property values have risen slightly, says local realtor Jerry Carter, but little private investment has followed. Abandoned buildings still blight the area and the drug-dealing has simply moved across the street from the project, he says.

``I haven't seen anybody updating their property,'' says Pearl Boxer, another realtor. ``They're just maintaining what they've got.''

Mr. Carter adds, however: ``Private homeowners in the area, I would say, are not as anxious to move away as they once were.''

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