Welcome to the Cruel World

Marilyn Bell moves a white plastic chair, approved for outdoor use by the Miami-Dade Housing Agency, on to the small cement porch of her apartment and takes a seat. Light saturates the sand-colored buildings of Perrine Gardens on this late November afternoon, turning them an incandescent golden yellow. For Bell and the others who live in the 274-unit public-housing complex, this is freedom time.

The manager of Perrine Gardens, Ruthie Riley, has closed her office for the day and driven off. If Bell decides to drink a beer on her front porch, or fire up a barbecue grill, Riley isn't around to point out that these actions are against the housing agency's rules.

There is still an hour or so before night falls and the drug dealers take over the street. The tinny tinkling song of an ice cream truck provides background music. Children chase one another and tumble to the grass, wrestling over a toy.

From a side street arises a loud clatter. "Here comes one now," says Bell as a shopping cart rumbles past, pushed by one young boy while another balances on the metal braces connecting the front and rear wheels. The children keep some fifteen shopping carts, each stripped down to its frame, stashed around the complex. This is the time they bring them out, hooking the carts together to create a long snaking beast that Bell calls Perrine Gardens' version of Disney World. Her point is that the children can make magic from nothing.

Bell sips a beer and lets her eyes wander over this flattened landscape, this shaky bit of permanence in South Miami-Dade County. Looking at the scene from her porch, it can seem like things don't change much in Perrine Gardens. She's lived in the complex since 1989, watched her children grow up here, and her grandchildren now play outside in the late-afternoon sun.

But change does come, and it often blows into the lives of public-housing residents on an ill wind. Their hold on this borrowed patch of earth is tenuous. To survive they have learned to bend to it and go on as best they can. It's safer not to look up, not to expect too much, hope too much, or complain too much, unless it's to a neighbor. A preponderance of the evidence suggests nobody else is listening.

Any trauma can threaten to shake a family loose: a flood after a heavy rain, a disabling accident, a lost job, an arrest. Or a new government program that's supposed to make your life better.

When a new doctrine of personal responsibility swept through public housing in the mid-Nineties, many people not from places like Perrine Gardens applauded the end of a system they saw as fostering soul-numbing passivity. Welfare reform compelled poor families on government aid to take the first steps toward financial independence and self-sufficiency. Welfare-to-work whispered of economic independence, a future, and a way out of public housing.

Today welfare payments are temporary. Tenants must either work or volunteer, or be threatened with loss of benefits. Parents must answer for the actions of their children. Today an entire family can be evicted from public housing for three years if any member is caught selling or using drugs.

Personal responsibility doesn't end there. Life in public housing is subject to a host of rules intended to instill pride among residents, compelling them to invest more of themselves in their community. So if an ice cream wrapper blows into your yard at Perrine Gardens, you might wake up to a $15 littering fine. If your refrigerator leaks, it can cost several hundred dollars to acquire a new one. And if you don't pay up, the message you hear is blunt: Get out.

Bell was threatened with eviction after her son was arrested. One of her neighbors, Eliza Johnson, faced the same threat when she refused to pay for a refrigerator that had caught fire.

Of course if they had $15 to pay littering fines, or nearly $400 to buy new refrigerators, the residents of Perrine Gardens or Pine Islands probably wouldn't be in public housing to begin with. But the rules are different now. Reform was supposed to make it easier to work your way out of public housing. Now it's getting harder and harder not to be kicked out.

If complex manger Ruthie Riley hadn't already driven off for the day, she could look upon the scene from Bell's porch and spot numerous violations of Miami-Dade Housing Agency regulations. First of all children aren't supposed to be on the grass, let alone wrestling there. Even walking on the grass can result in a ten-dollar fine. Drinking alcohol outside your apartment also can endanger your tenancy. If Bell decides to grill her fish instead of fry it, she'll need a special permit from management before starting the barbecue. "This," Bell sighs, "is like a prison here."

Eviction is a powerful threat for people like Bell, who can't afford to rent an apartment in the private market. At age 43 she supports her three children on a $512 monthly Social Security disability check and a $159 food-stamp allotment. Since May of last year she has paid $58 per month in rent and receives a monthly $60 utility allowance at Perrine Gardens. Because of welfare reform, she no longer gets federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children (now called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) for the care of her offspring. Nor has a job materialized that would make up the difference. Bell says she can't commit to steady work because of a back injury she suffered in a bus accident several years ago. But that is the least of her troubles. She undergoes counseling for depression. Her twenty-year-old son, Rollie, is in prison. Her seventeen-year-old daughter, Keyah, suffers from epilepsy, which anti-seizure medication has not been able to control. And just about every month the food and the money run out.

Bell makes the most of whatever bounty life may bring. The beer takes the edge off her worries. Later she has promised to dig some fish out of the freezer and fry it up for the neighbors. They'll each donate a couple of bucks to the pot. In that way Bell will make it through the days that remain until the next check arrives.

One day soon Bell hopes she'll finally receive a settlement from the bus accident and be able to buy her own house. It will be a blessing come from bad, but a blessing that will get her out of public housing. If she isn't kicked out first.

Public housing is a different beast today than it was when President Bill Clinton first ran for office. In the early Nineties the federal government seemed to have lost the war on poverty to a hormone-driven gangsta army. Poor black neighborhoods, and the public-housing projects at their hearts, were converted to drive-through money factories with drugs as the sole product. America shopped there in spite of lurid news reports of turf wars fought with AK-47s, innocent children killed by stray bullets, and crack-crazed criminals willing to murder for ten bucks. News accounts of life in the projects often featured mothers and grandmothers afraid to let their young ones venture outdoors.

But it wasn't only the drug epidemic that had America wringing its hands. The national mood turned sour on welfare and its recipients as well. The system began to be viewed as a first cause in the perpetuation of poverty. It was criticized for creating a culture of dependency passed from one generation to the next. The "welfare Mom," supposedly having baby after baby to collect extra aid or trading food stamps for crack cocaine, became the symbol of everything wrong with government programs. Mothers were accused of raising a generation of girls who, following Mom's example, dreamed no further than their own government-subsidized apartment and a gaggle of children for income security. The boys, according to the stereotype, were allowed to run wild. And with no daddy around to provide a different example of manhood, they looked to the gold-draped drug dandies for cues about what it meant.

Clinton capitalized on this shift in thinking during his 1992 campaign with a declaration that, if elected, he would "change welfare as we know it." The climate was right. From the problems within public housing, the rot went all the way up to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), an agency accused of squandering hundreds of millions of dollars. The Republican-led Congress held the president to his promises by forcing through a sweeping welfare reform act that went beyond what even he had proposed in 1994. Pressured into compromise, Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996. Thus a sweeping experiment in social engineering was begun that would change radically the way the nation had helped its poor for the past 60 years.

The goal was to end lifetime reliance on government aid and foster individual responsibility and self-initiative, with a prod from the government if necessary. The reform act made public assistance a temporary stop-gap measure, put limits on the number of years one could draw a welfare check, and gave current recipients a deadline to either get a job or be cut from the rolls. Ending the long-standing entitlement to cash benefits was the most dramatic shift in policy, and the results can be measured in millions of dollars saved and plummeting welfare rolls. But that was only one prong of reform. Welfare-to-work also brought a raft of regulations in its wake aimed at making tenants accountable for their living conditions. Rules already on the books had new purpose when viewed through the rubric of responsibility

To enlist families in the drive to clean drugs out of public housing, Clinton instituted a "one strike, you're out" policy in 1996 that gave housing agencies the authority to evict residents if any family member were charged with a drug offense or violent crime -- even if those charges did not result in a conviction. Because the arrest of her son Rollie could lead to Bell's eviction from public housing, she removed his name from the lease as resident of the family apartment. Her neighbor Eliza Johnson did the same following her son's arrest.

The Miami-Dade Housing Agency, a county department funded by the federal government, also began aggressively scrutinizing the behavior of tenants and levying fines when that behavior was found wanting at the public-housing projects it owns and operates. MDHA had long held the power to fine residents for infractions of rules and charge them for damages to their units, says public information officer Sherra McLeod. But in the past four years, housing-project managers began to enforce those policies with newfound ardor as the climate in public housing shifted and pressure increased to manage the complexes more efficiently.

Maintenance fees and fines collected from residents of Perrine Gardens almost doubled from 1995, when the complex reported collecting $6666 in fees, to 1999, when the complex collected $12,136, according to figures supplied by MDHA. The files of several residents show that tenants now are being charged for maintenance work that was performed for free in the mid-Nineties.

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.

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.

"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.

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.

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.

In 1998 she paid $70 for seven new window shades for her upstairs bedrooms. A year later all but one needed to be replaced because they had been ripped by the window locks. In mid-December Home Depot had similar shades on sale for $1.99 each. "If they get torn up again, I got to put a sheet up," Bell remarks. "Can't afford new blinds."

Using a sheet instead of a window shade, of course, would be a violation of Miami-Dade Housing Agency rules.


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