Life in a broken home: Local public housing ‘subpar’

Published 6:38 am Friday, June 10, 2016

Tina Smith is a single mother.

In addition she works as a babysitter and she fosters several children. She’s something of a mother for the whole neighborhood, and she said generally looks after the kids at Sunset Acres, a public housing facility on Union Avenue. On hot, sunny days, she makes sure the kids stay hydrated with cold drinks. She feeds them, if they show up to her house hungry. Years ago she and her boyfriend set up basketball hoops across the street, in a park.

Her neighbors call her the “counselor of the projects.”

Smith has been living in public housing for 16 years, and she’s been five years at her current address. Smith said she saw public housing as a good way to save money so she could take care of her kids.

“That’s why I moved into the projects to get some low income housing, so I could take care of these kids,” she said.

And in all that time, she said she’s paid rent, every month and on time.

“I always pay my rent,” she said.

Except this month.

She knows she’ll be evicted, but she doesn’t care. Smith said she’s protesting what she says is shabby treatment by the Bogalusa Housing Authority. The office is only yards from her front door, but she said no one there will listen to her complaints or fix her home.

Smith said she’s sick of her son, CJ, sleeping in a room with a shattered, broken window. She said she’s tired of unfurling an extension cord to connect her stove to an outlet across her kitchen each time she wants to make dinner. She’s tired of the chipped, dirty off-white paint.

“The walls haven’t been painted since I’ve been here,” she said.

And mostly, she said, she’s tired of being ignored.

She said Raymond Jones, the deputy director of the Bogalusa Housing Authority, said her home was “nasty,” and too unkempt to fix.

Jones would not comment for this article, except to say the accusations made by residents were exaggerated. The director of the was not available for comment.

But, according to people with the Housing and Urban Development office in New Orleans, local complaints are legitimate.

“There was evidence of damages that have gone unattended to and significant maintenance issues that required attention. These issues, coupled with the age of the developments, makes the conditions subpar,” said Patricia Campbell, a HUD regional public affairs officer with Region VI.

It’s likely that representatives from the regional office didn’t even see the worst of it. Campbell said that when workers toured the facilities recently, they just looked at the outside of the public housing units. But by merely driving past, the regional office determined the units in Bogalusa are subpar.

Campbell said there are several reasons for the conditions.

“The conditions that we found were a combination of both tenant neglect and the lack of management oversight,” she said. “These conditions were consistent with the past physical performance reports, which we shared with mayor and Housing Authority leadership.”

Jones is far from the only complainant. Three of her neighbors shared similar stories, though they declined to be interviewed on the record. One frequent complaint was the seeming indifference of the local Housing Authority staff. Smith said the staff only inspects once a year or so, and even then they don’t go into each unit. Several neighbors confirmed this.

Smith said even after inspections, however, there are no improvements made.

Smith points to a gaping hole in her kitchen screen.

“They been like that since I got here,” she said. That was five years ago. In the warm, still air of the kitchen, flies buzz. Several alight on the ceiling, drawn by grease stains.

In response to the conditions, Campbell said her office has made several recommendations, including creating a new residents’ board and teaching cleaning skills to tenants.

But one thing her office is not doing is removing any of the local personnel from their positions.

The office is also not recommending any immediate repairs to fix the subpar conditions.

“We have recommended several methods to improve the quality of living in these developments,” said Campbell. “Most importantly, we stressed that there is not one particular place of blame, but accountability for these conditions and the agency’s turnaround rest with agency leadership, staff and the clients being served. Some of the suggested methods include one, stronger lease enforcement, two, creation of a resident council to involve residents in creating the necessary changes, three, maintenance staff training, four, resident training, and five, increasing the frequency of unit inspections to minimize damages that could go undetected or unreported. All of these suggested methods promote shared accountability. The Mayor has said she is willing to take the necessary steps to ensure the housing authority moves in the right direction.”

Campbell said she believes the local Housing Authority office will fix the homes at some point.

“In terms of repairs, I think that this is a situation that everyone agrees did not just happen overnight, and therefore it will not be fixed overnight,” she said. “However, the (Housing Authority) must immediately repair any imminent health and safety violations, such as non-working smoke detectors or open wiring.  The (Housing Authority) has told us they have an overall plan for the property that we have not yet seen.”

Mayor Wendy Perrette said she is sympathetic with residents’ complaints.

“Everybody deserves a quality of life. Quality of life is important,” she said.

However, Perrette said there’s not much the city can do. The city council appoints board members to a public oversight board, but Perrette said that board doesn’t exist to deal with day-to-day management issues at the housing authority.

“It’s not the board’s fault. The board’s not a part of the day-to-day operations. They’re on the financial end,” she said.

The Housing Authority gets most of its oversight from the federal governent.

Gretchen Brown, who has been on the board for a decade, said she hopes at some point new units can be built. Brown said the board has been in talks with a developer for new public housing.

“We’re just trying to get it financed,” she said.

Brown said better housing is why she agreed to serve on the board in the first place.

“That’s the reason I got on the board,” she said. “That was my dream, to get some up to date housing.”

However, until then, Brown said she believes a residents’ council board could make a difference because it would give a voice to those who are frustrated.

“If you have a good residents’ council, you’ll have a good housing development,” she said.

In another world, Smith could have been one of the residents on the council. Smith said she’s agitated for improvements for years and she takes pride in her home and the neighborhood.

But in this world, Smith won’t be a part of whatever council gets formed. In this world, Smith will be gone, having given up after years of neglect.