Welcome to the Cruel World

Welfare reform has dramatically changed public housing in Miami-Dade County. Personal responsibility is the new refrain, and zero tolerance is the law.

Both fines and maintenance charges are collected by managers at each complex and are put into a general operating fund. The housing agency's power to collect fines and fees is hardly a secret. It is spelled out in the leases residents sign and explained in a 33-page booklet of community policies distributed by MDHA. Basically by signing a lease, residents agree to keep their apartments and yards clean, safe, and sanitary, and agree to annual inspections of their housekeeping skills. Tenants must find work, participate in volunteer community service projects, or attend family self-sufficiency programs. They also agree not to abuse drugs or alcohol, to pay fines for infractions of the rules, and to pay the cost of repairing damage to their apartments.

Along with the new accountability, public-housing tenants also have been given a stronger voice in how their complexes are run. Federal law requires that public-housing agencies with 250 units or more, such as Miami-Dade's, officially recognize an elected tenant council as the sole representative of its residents. In Miami-Dade's case, critics say the organization has not been an effective advocate.

Eliza Johnson balked at paying the Miami-Dade Housing Agency $380 for a new refrigerator
Steve Satterwhite
Eliza Johnson balked at paying the Miami-Dade Housing Agency $380 for a new refrigerator
Perrine Gardens managers may not be setting the best example by allowing their playground to deteriorate
Steve Satterwhite
Perrine Gardens managers may not be setting the best example by allowing their playground to deteriorate

On the surface tough love seems to be working. According to a 2000 study by the Miami-Dade Police Department, crime has dropped dramatically in Miami-Dade Housing Agency complexes since 1997, as it has nationally. The number of people receiving welfare payments in Miami-Dade County dropped by 39 percent between September 1996 and December 2000. And judging from a cruise along Circle Plaza, through the central area of the 274-unit Perrine Gardens in west Perrine, one could conclude that the threat of fines for littering and other infractions seems to have worked its magic, too.

The development looks as sterile as a deed-restricted gated community. Despite the number of children, no toys lie scattered in front yards. The Dumpsters aren't overflowing with trash. There are no ice cream wrappers blowing down the street and no graffiti marring walls. The grass is clipped short. Plants are pruned and well tended. The steeply pitched two-story duplexes look fresh, painted a warm beige. There are no barbecues sitting outside. The plastic outdoor chairs on front porches all have been approved.

But these outward signs of success, many tenants say, misrepresent a fundamental problem. While residents are being held more and more accountable for their behavior, they say MDHA isn't holding up its end of the bargain. Repairs aren't made, maintenance is shoddy, and rats and roaches continue to run rampant through Perrine Gardens. "They need to throw a tent over this whole place," grouses Bell, who says she received a few roach traps after complaining about the infestations to managers.

Eliza Johnson points out how her front door fits its frame so poorly that a wide gap runs across the bottom, allowing in cold, water, and vermin. And don't get her started on the rocks. Maintenance personnel charged Johnson $7.50 to remove rocks from the roof of her apartment, but workers have yet to fix a leak she says makes the bedroom walls feel like "tissue paper" when it rains.

Bell shoos her two grandsons off a playground built by the tenants and the housing agency in the grassy area she shares with several duplexes on her street. The tunnel slide lies broken on the ground. The steps to a tower are split in two. The benches surrounding the play area are stripped of their wooden planks. Bell says she has seen hypodermic needles and broken glass in the sand and fears the children may get hurt.

But Bell and Johnson's complaints go beyond fines, poor workmanship, and neglect of the playground. They believe the Miami-Dade Housing Agency is using its commitment to personal responsibility as a means to rip them off. Tenants have been charged hundreds of dollars to replace worn-out refrigerators and stoves. Those who complain have been denied their right to grievance hearings, and the threat of eviction has been used to force tenants to pay up.

While maintenance charges may seem like a small issue in the grand scheme of public-housing reform, it hits the residents where they feel it most: in the pocketbook. The issue also points to a central problem the reform movement has failed to adequately address. In an environment where tenant responsibility is the mantra, individual complex managers may overstep their authority. When those at the top tier of management ignore tenants' rights, problems can be compounded further down the hierarchy. Miami-Dade housing activists like Barbara Pierre, who is resident-council president at the Liberty Square housing project in Liberty City, believe that absent a strong resident-advocate organization, MDHA routinely has violated federal housing policies and ignored tenants' rights.

For instance Delois Harris, a 64-year-old great-grandmother and resident of Perrine Gardens, was charged more than $1170 in maintenance fees during the past three years while supporting her disabled daughter, herself, and two grandchildren on a small disability income. She paid $85 when burned wires caused an electrical short in February 1999. And she paid $380 for a new refrigerator when the old one began making a loud noise in June 1997 and another $299 for a new stove that same month. Harris dutifully paid the charges, happy that management at Perrine Gardens would agree to a payment plan. An examination of Harris's file, however, did not show that she was ever told she had a right to ask for a hearing to dispute the charges. "I had to pay it, because I had to have something to cook at for these children," Harris says, though she insists many of the problems were not her fault.

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