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.

Those are the same issues now faced by residents of Perrine Gardens, Pine Islands, and other Miami-Dade housing projects some three years later. "The charges are supposed to be reasonable charges," Florida Justice Institute attorney JoNel Newman points out. "And those caused by tenant damage only. Residents also have clear rights to [dispute] maintenance charges."

Today Rick Johnson says the company handles charges differently. They try to be "reasonable." If a light bulb is burned out, a tenant can either replace it herself or call maintenance. If it is determined that the bulb burned out through no fault of the tenant, there is no charge. The same approach is taken with broken toilet handles or oven doors. "Scott Homes is almost 50 years old," says Johnson. "Things deteriorate over a period of time, especially if you have kids. You've got to operate within HUD guidelines but you can't be hard-core."

Director of public housing Perez, though, does not share that point of view. The reason for the maintenance schedule, he explains, is to let tenants know how much they will be charged if they must call maintenance. The idea is that residents should take care of things themselves. Instead of calling maintenance to replace a light bulb, they could save money by buying their own, he explains, pointing out that 60-watt bulbs can be purchased in a four-pack for around $1.99 from most stores, but if maintenance replaces the bulb, it costs $2.50 each. "That's why charges exist," Perez explains. "If we have to send out a maintenance person to replace a bulb, you're talking about 11,000 units. That's going to be very expensive. The whole concept is for the residents to handle it, just like I do in my house."

If residents are expected to do their own repairs, they must have the transportation to get to a hardware store and the extra money to buy supplies. Many don't. For example Marilyn Bell remembers that when she wanted to paint her apartment, she bought a five-gallon bucket of paint from the Perrine Gardens maintenance department because she could pay off the $50 over time. Home Depot doesn't offer such payment plans.

Bell, a 42-year-old grandmother with hair lightened to reddish blond, didn't think she should have to pay $50 to get paint for her apartment. Her unit hadn't seen new paint since Hurricane Andrew. Following a heated argument with site manager Riley, Bell succeeded in having the paint charge removed from her bill.

Riley also didn't charge Bell for a new stove and a new refrigerator, for unstopping a toilet, fixing a jammed back door, putting weather stripping on the bottom of her front door, and installing a new light fixture in the bathroom. She was, however, charged $60 for three new smoke detectors after complaining that one alarm beeped continuously. She regrets it now. "You think I would have let [maintenance workers] in if I knew I was going to get charged $60?" she asks incredulously.

Frustrated and angry over the number of complaints they'd been hearing, Perrine Gardens tenant representatives organized a meeting this past December so residents could raise questions about fees, fines, and regulations. Housing activist Barbara Pierre was there, and three lawyers from a Miami law firm also were invited.

About twenty women attended, many clutching work orders they believed showed they had been charged incorrectly for maintenance to their units. The attorneys, who hoped to aid the residents in retrieving their money, proposed a kind of health-maintenance organization for legal representation. For a $60 retainer, the lawyers proposed, they would be available to represent the tenants at a reduced rate. After the meeting, though, one attorney admitted he'd been disappointed by the turnout. He had expected at least 200 people. Without a significant number of participants, the HMO model for legal aid couldn't work.

Copies of the residents' work orders were given to Pierre, who promised to have them reviewed by the Florida Justice Institute.

Marilyn Bell attended that meeting but ducked out early. There is no way, she says, she can pay an attorney $60 per year and afford the legal fees if she needs representation. The gathering did prompt her to other action, though. The following afternoon she and some of her neighbors, seething over what they have come to believe is the housing agency's abuse of power, were eager to provide tours of their apartments.

In Bell's apartment the cheap plastic window shades each have a tear in the middle where they rub against the window locks as they are moved up and down. (The living room shades are hooked up with clothespins because the automatic rollers no longer function.) The closet door in the hallway is off its tracks. The back door doesn't fit its frame and either won't shut properly or sticks so badly it can't be opened. The smoke detector in the living room still beeps continuously, even though it's new. The cupboard door beneath the kitchen sink has broken off its hinges. The water heater is in need of repair or replacement. Holes in the exterior walls of the apartment invite rodents inside. Bell could call Perrine Gardens maintenance to have everything fixed, but she won't, because she has no idea how much she'd be charged for the work. "I just leave it raggedy," she shrugs.

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