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.

"This is highway robbery here," Pierre says of the money collected by managers from tenants. "That's what this is."

Like Delois Harris, Eliza Johnson was shocked when she received a $380 bill for a new refrigerator. But unlike Harris, Johnson refused to pay. Federal HUD regulations and MDHA lease agreements both state residents will only be charged for "damage" they do to their apartments. Since the damage to her old refrigerator wasn't her fault, Johnson thought it should be replaced without charge.

Marilyn Bell, daughter Keyah, and her cousin Dante Larry entertain themselves in Bell's Perrine Gardens apartment
Steve Satterwhite
Marilyn Bell, daughter Keyah, and her cousin Dante Larry entertain themselves in Bell's Perrine Gardens apartment

Johnson was beside herself one April morning in 1997. While carrying a laundry basket through the kitchen, she noticed that her refrigerator was making a loud whining noise. The appliance had made strange sounds before, and at one point it hadn't cooled properly. After repairs Johnson thought the problem had been fixed. She spent $190 in food stamps, stocking up on provisions for the month.

But the loud noise she heard that April morning prompted her to put down the laundry basket and open the freezer door. When she did, she recalls "a great bush of smoke" hit her in the face. The refrigerator was on fire. The plastic in the freezer compartment had melted, and the food, including a month's worth of frozen meat, was ruined. Johnson turned off the electrical power in her apartment, unplugged the refrigerator, and frantically called maintenance.

The work order written up when a new refrigerator was delivered had been checked "no charge" by the maintenance worker. Later, though, it was amended. A maintenance supervisor added a charge of $380. "I had no idea I was being charged anything, because it wasn't my fault, and it still isn't my fault," Johnson says angrily. "I can't be responsible if it caught on fire. It was probably just old and worn out."

Because she refused to pay for the refrigerator, the management office would not accept her rent payment for months, Johnson reports. And each month she didn't pay rent, a $20 late fee was added to her outstanding bill. Perrine Gardens manager Ruthie Riley declined comment for this story and referred all questions to MDHA's public-information office. Sherra McLeod did not respond specifically to Johnson's situation but says the agency is trying to help tenants, not take their money. Sometimes, she points out, appliances break down because tenants don't care for them properly.

According to Johnson, Riley also refused to reimburse her for the $190 worth of food she lost, even though she had receipts. The manager, Johnson says, wanted photographs of the damage.

Subsequently Johnson received a notice warning she was about to be evicted for nonpayment of $983.75 in outstanding maintenance fees, fines, back rent, and late charges. She met with Riley and told her she couldn't pay because she only had $200. But instead of being informed that a grievance procedure existed and being provided the opportunity for a hearing, as HUD policy requires, Johnson says she was told that Perrine Gardens might enter into an agreement with her to pay off the charges on a time plan. If Johnson provided a down payment, an agreement with the management office could be drawn up.

Reduced to tears and unaware of her right to demand a hearing, Johnson said she would come back with the money for a down payment on the charges. She finally signed the agreement some four months later, when the amount owed reached $1439. Johnson paid Perrine Gardens a down payment of $600 on January 26, 1999, and agreed to pay $60 per month in addition to her monthly $54 rent for fourteen months. "It was either you pay up, or you get out," Johnson recalls. (She paid off the balance this past December 29.)

If she only had herself to think about, Johnson might have held out and fought the charges, she says now. But her disabled daughter and two young grandchildren share her apartment. Johnson feared they would become homeless. "I got to the point where I was afraid when I came home that I would see my furniture out on the street," she recalls. The thought drove her to desperation. "It was very difficult," she recounts bitterly. "I feel like they really took advantage of me."

Three years ago the Florida Justice Institute, a Miami-based nonprofit legal-assistance organization, obtained refunds for some residents of the James E. Scott Homes public-housing project after threatening to sue over unwarranted charges. But residents at other complexes in Miami-Dade County have had no relief. Rudy Perez, Miami-Dade Housing Agency's director of public housing, says it would be impossible for MDHA to audit the application of maintenance fees in all 45 of the public-housing complexes it owns and operates. Maintenance departments and site managers, he says, decide whether a repair is owing to wear and tear or negligence. He also says the grievance process ensures tenants aren't charged incorrectly.

But Scott Homes manager Rick Johnson says he didn't know his company had charged tenants wrongly until he was contacted by the Florida Justice Institute, Inc., and educated himself on HUD rules. In March 1997 the nonprofit law firm contacted Johnson, MDHA director Rene Rodriguez, as well as national HUD offices complaining, in part, that residents of Scott Homes had been charged incorrectly and excessively for maintenance to their apartments, in violation of federal and state statutes. A.J. Russell & Company, the private firm that manages Scott Homes, also violated the Conventional Public Housing Dwelling Lease by refusing to accept rent and threatening to evict those who disputed the charges.

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