Revolution in the Projects

Hard-working and hopeful tenants are fighting to take charge of their homes and their lives.


Lena Jackson still remembers the day she learned children were lining up on their way to school at a drug dealer's apartment in her Cleveland complex. That's when she and other concerned parents decided they would have to take drastic measures if they were ever going to improve the rat-infested, graffiti-smeared public housing project that was their home.

"We were in fear for our children," remembers Jackson, a stocky woman who speaks with sincerity and determination. She has an air of graveness as she talks about what she had to overcome. "Just like parents in the suburbs, we wanted the best for them. We told our children they could be anything they wanted if they did their homework and worked hard. But we knew the environment was having an impact. We had to do something to restore the dignity in our community."

Jackson's troubles are not unlike those of many of the 2.5 million Americans who live in the nation's public housing. Security is sometimes so lax that shootings and stabbings are common, and drug pushers often have the run of the grounds. The smell of urine permeates hallways, and hot water can be a luxury.

Lena Jackson is one of hundreds of residents in at least 14 public housing projects who are working to give tenants control over their homes and their lives. Fed up with living conditions in the projects and too poor to move out, these tenants have taken over the management of their complexes from the housing bureaucrats who couldn't prevent the properties from becoming garbage-strewn war zones. Running their own complexes, tenants believe, is the only way to restore dignity to their lives.

From Boston to New Orleans, Washington to Chicago, tenants are transforming even the worst public housing projects into decent places to live. They screen applicants more closely than the overworked housing officials who live across town. They have established and enforced strict community standards. They have put youth to work fixing up buildings, instead of tearing them down.

Most importantly, tenant managers have injected a sense of pride and accomplishment into their neighborhoods. That's something that no outsider, no matter how well-intentioned, could do quite as well.

The public housing authorities that own the buildings haven't been entirely enthusiastic about the tenants' initiatives. Jackson says Cleveland public housing officials harassed her when they found out she was serious about taking over the management of her complex. Officials in Boston, St. Louis, and Washington have shown similar distrust of residents who want to run their projects.

But despite setbacks and compromises, the tenants are winning—on Capitol Hill as well as in their own neighborhoods. They recently secured the rights of tenants nationwide to manage their own projects and won in principle the right to buy their own units. They failed, however, to win provisions that would make the units affordable. But that's another battle for another year.

This is the story of how hundreds of public housing tenants like Jackson are making poverty programs work for the poor. They are former welfare mothers turned property managers, accountants, and day care workers. They are former drug addicts who are learning how to install windows and doors. Tenant leaders like Jackson are hard-working and hopeful, and they are revolutionizing public housing.

Public housing was created 50 years ago to eliminate slums and create jobs. An earlier plea from President Herbert Hoover asking businessmen to provide housing for low-income Americans had failed, and in 1937 the nation's first housing act was signed into law. Its purpose was to provide "decent, safe and sanitary dwellings for families of low income, and for the reduction of unemployment and the stimulation of business activity."

The idea was for families to stay in government-owned housing until they could afford to move out. The government paid the construction costs. Tenants would pay rent to cover operating costs.

Cleveland's Lakeview Terrace was one of the first projects in the nation. Named for its view of Lake Erie, the complex of brick, two-story garden apartments was developed by a private builder who stopped construction when the Depression hit. In the late 1930s, the nation's first public housing authority completed the complex and began housing those left destitute in the wake of the Depression.

When Lena Jackson came to Lakeview in 1970, it was still a pleasant place to live. She remembers the well-tended lawns with blooming tulips and the playground. "It was a beautiful place," Jackson says. "Crime hardly existed."

But soon, services began to dwindle and many of the two-parent families moved out. White families also left; black families, like Jackson's, remained.

Behind the decline in services and the exodus of tenants was a series of housing law amendments passed in the early 1970s. With inflation skyrocketing, Sen. Edward Brooke, a liberal Republican from Massachusetts, worried that tenants didn't have enough money to pay the increasing costs of maintaining public housing. His good intentions led to many of the depressing conditions of public housing today.

Brooke sponsored a series of amendments that reduced the amount of rent tenants had to pay to 25 percent of their monthly income, rather than the full operating cost of maintaining their apartments. Amendment supporters assumed that the government would make up the difference between what it cost to run public housing and what the tenants paid.

But the gap was never filled. Housing officials, by necessity, started deferring maintenance on the already aging public housing stock. Cities today face multimillion-dollar maintenance backlogs. Cleveland, for instance, needs some $143 million to pay for deferred maintenance on its 12,000 units, according to the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials (NAHRO). Los Angeles, NAHRO estimates, needs $483 million and Chicago about $743 million.

By the mid-'70s, life for the tenants had begun to change. Washers and dryers went unrepaired. Fresh paint became a rarity in some communities. There was no money for security or flowers or playground equipment. Finally, by the late '70s, there wasn't even enough money to supply adequate heat and hot water in some housing projects.

It was in 1982 that a neighbor called Jackson to report that a drug dealer had 11-year-olds lining up outside the dealer's apartment. She and two friends went into action. They formed a parents' patrol so their children could go back and forth from school each day without fear.

They helped the police stake out the drug house. But that only stirred up threats from other dealers unwilling to give up their turf because of a couple of angry welfare mothers. The threats got so bad that Jackson placed two of her three daughters, Shameka, then 6, and Yolanda, 14, in the care of a friend until things settled down.

Jackson and other parents then turned for help to the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, which owns the property. They soon realized the authority couldn't solve their problem. So Jackson and other concerned tenants volunteered to help the housing authorities make the community a better place to live.

"They told us that we should pass out flyers that they gave to us," Jackson says. "Now we truly knew that this was not going to help us save our community. We had told them this is not going to meet our needs."

In Jackson's view, the local housing authority bureaucrats who managed Lakeview Terrace seemed concerned only with federal regulations and meeting their rent collection and occupancy quotas. "They didn't care who lived there. They went home at 5:00 P.M. They were just concerned about filling the units," Jackson said. "We had become a dumping ground."

So Lakeview Terrace residents went to local politicians to see what they suggested. That's when they learned that tenants of other public housing complexes had begun to manage their own properties successfully, even when housing authorities at first refused to cooperate.

Lakeview Terrace tenant leaders decided they needed to see for themselves how tenant management worked. Lacking money to visit any of the tenant-managed projects, they worked together to raise $700 by selling fish dinners, holding a car wash, and putting on a cabaret party with a deejay. With the money, they rented a van and sent 12 people on a 14-hour ride to check out the closest tenant-managed project, Cochran Gardens in St. Louis.

There, Bertha Gilkey and a band of tenants had transformed a crime-ridden complex into a vibrant community. Once so violence-plagued that its main building had been dubbed "Little 'Nam," Cochran Gardens represented what strong-willed, dedicated tenants could accomplish. (The project would later be featured on "60 Minutes," drawing national attention to tenant management.)

When Lakeview Terrace leaders arrived at Cochran they were amazed. They found well-tended yards, renovated apartments, and a day care center employing 25 former welfare mothers. The residents had begun a janitorial service, and former junkies were trained to reglaze windows and plaster apartments.

"We were impressed. We saw people taking control of their lives," Jackson says. "We thought that tenant management would be the only solution."

When she and other tenants returned to Lakeview Terrace promoting tenant management, Jackson remembers, local public housing officials were at first leery, then seemed opposed altogether. There had to be an election, the officials said. So the tenants held one.

Some 150 people voted and elected Jackson president of the resident council. To get started, they went to the Cleveland Foundation, a nonprofit community group, which helped draw up a proposal so the tenant council could apply for grants from public and private sources.

"That's when we really began to run into problems with the housing authority," Jackson says. The authority refused to give the tenant council a letter to enclose with their proposal establishing that the authority, as owner of the property, would work with them to test tenant management.

Fortunately, says Jackson, the mayor of Cleveland and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) intervened on the tenants' side and asked the housing authority to let the tenants at least try to manage the property. The housing authority then gave tenants the letter of approval—but not, Jackson contends, before it began an investigation to find out whether or not she had an unauthorized occupant or an unauthorized dog living in her apartment. Since housing officials had generally ignored many such violations, she believes they were trying to harass her into dropping the idea of tenant management. The investigations, she says, were unfounded.

The Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority tells a different story. According to Cindy Ward, assistant to the executive director of the authority, officials never really opposed tenant management at Lakeview Terrace. They were just concerned that tenants would be in over their heads. After all, how could second-generation welfare mothers and high-school dropouts cope with problems that professional accountants and managers couldn't solve?

"We were trying to be realistic in telling the residents just how difficult property management of public housing really is," Ward says. "No one was opposed to residents having a say, we just wanted them to know what they were getting into." Most public housing authorities have had similar reservations about tenant management. Although NAHRO and the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities both favor tenant involvement, they stop short of endorsing tenant management, which they say works in very few instances.

With the letter of approval in hand, however, Lakeview Terrace residents received a $46,000 training grant from the Amoco Foundation to set up a demonstration project. Next they set out to negotiate a contract with the housing authority—not an easy task.

"Every time we would bring something to the table, they had 99 reasons not to negotiate," says Jackson. To break this resistance, the tenants hired an attorney.

He "told us we should ask them to put all their answers in writing and ask to see the federal regulation they were citing to prevent tenant management," Jackson recalls. This tactic worked, and in November 1985, a year after negotiations began, tenants signed a contract with the local housing authority to manage the complex. The newly founded Lakeview Terrace Resident Management Firm became the tenth resident organization in the nation to manage public housing.

And that's when the really difficult work began.

The first action of Lakeview tenant managers was to hire a 24-hour security service. They also got residents involved in community clean-ups. They opened a community center and began the renovation of more than 100 units.

The public housing authority was right—it is tough to manage a community of some 624 families, like Lakeview, especially under complex federal guidelines. There were jealousies. Under its contract with the housing authority, the tenant management firm had a million-dollar budget. Other tenants, "even the ones who had supported us, thought we were making lots and lots of money," Jackson remembers. (In 1986, she began receiving $462 a month from the federal government for managing the property—money that would normally go to a housing authority bureaucrat.)

The tenant managers began enforcing leases. Resident managers, unlike public housing officials, knew which families were making more money than they reported. Jackson had to evict one of her best friends for not paying enough rent.

"It was the middle of winter and the bailiff put her things out on the street," she said. "My children got so mad at me, they told me I was the worst mother they had ever seen. But I knew we couldn't play favorites."

While Jackson and other tenants were working at the grassroots level, Robert L. Woodson was busy in Washington. Disappointed with government programs to help the poor, Woodson had founded the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise in 1981 to promote neighborhood-based self-reliance, including tenant management.

Interviewed in his stately office overlooking Dupont Circle in downtown Washington, Woodson explains that government welfare programs form what he calls "a Poverty Pentagon"—the people they employ have as much self-interest in continuing even failing programs as defense contractors have in Pentagon programs. The best people to create solutions to poverty, he says, are those who have overcome it.

In 1984, the National Center brought together leaders of tenant groups from around the nation for a roundtable discussion. It was the first time most tenant leaders had met. They shared their victories and discussed the problems they still had to overcome.

They saw that public housing, designed as a temporary way station for low-income people on their way up, had become the permanent home of the hardcore unemployed. When housing projects were just temporary homes for people moving up and out, it made some sense to have bureaucrats control them. But public housing now often housed several generations of poor families. Housing projects hadn't aged well under the old bureaucratic management. Projects in the nation's major cities were decrepit monuments to well-intentioned but failing poverty programs.

Many housing authorities didn't oversee work done at the projects, let alone try to punish people for throwing trash out of windows or for painting obscene words on walls. Managers should be required to live in the projects they manage, tenant leaders agreed, because only tenants can truly set and enforce community standards.

There were other problems, too. Some of the tenant leaders had taken jobs in the past only to see their rent go up because they were making more money, and rent, thanks to the Brooke amendments, is pegged to income. And centralized control of public housing funding forced well-managed public housing complexes to subsidize mismanaged ones.

Something had to change.

In 1986, the unusual team of Rep. Jack Kemp (R–N.Y.) and D.C. Delegate Walter Fauntroy, a liberal Democrat, said they would cosponsor a bill to help resident groups who wanted to manage their complexes. When they announced the bill, it was to reporters at Washington's Kenilworth-Parkside project—an appropriate backdrop. There, a tenant management team led by Kimi O. Gray had increased rent collection from $40,000 to $83,000 monthly and helped tenants set up small businesses, such as a screen-door repair shop that employs 65 persons year-round and about 75 additional youths in the summer.

The Kemp-Fauntroy bill sought to duplicate this success throughout the country. It gave tenants the "right to manage" their complexes if they met certain procedural requirements and offered families living in tenant-managed complexes the "right to buy" their units at market rates after a three-year demonstration period. It also guaranteed tenant management corporations more control over modernization projects.

The bill also gave tenant management corporations two new sources of revenue: If they increased rent collections, they could use the additional revenue in their communities—for example, as seed money for small businesses. And the bill provided $5 million over two years to train as many as 50 tenant groups.

As the Fauntroy-Kemp bill was making its way through Congress, one of the pet peeves of tenant managers emerged as a contentious issue. Many of them complain about shoddy work done by groups—primarily unions—that negotiate contracts with housing authorities. They say housing officials often seem too busy to make sure the work is done properly.

Jackson tells of kitchen cabinets she has seen fall off walls days after installation and of flooring that buckled within weeks. Bertha Gilkey of Cochran Gardens recalls one contractor who would punch in at the complex at 8:00 A.M., go across town to the business he owned, and return at the end of the day to punch out.

"Unions see public housing as their feeding trough," Gilkey says. "It's rampant throughout the public housing—you don't get what you are paying for."

Tenant managers, in contrast, often prefer to hire residents, who Gilkey observes "have a vested interest" in getting the job done right. "What they do directly affects them and the lives of their children," she explains.

Battle lines were drawn when Rep. Bruce Morrison (D–Conn.), who had been the head of a local poverty law office, offered an amendment to the Kemp-Fauntroy bill designed to allay union fears that they would lose jobs if tenant managers put residents to work. Morrison, according to the 1988 Almanac of American Politics, is "a special favorite of unions." Half of the $294,000 in political action committee (PAC) money he received in the last election cycle came from labor.

He says union leaders, such as members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), had come to him and asked him to block the Fauntroy-Kemp bill. "I told them tenant management should be given a chance to work," Morrison explains. So instead of opposing the popular bill, he set out to do what he refers to as "insuring the right of workers."

Michael Kerr, of AFSCME's legislative affairs office, refuses to comment on the tenant management provisions. "Why don't you just quote Congressman Morrison?" he said, when asked whether AFSCME wanted to kill the bill if it didn't contain the Morrison amendment. Then he hung up.

The Morrison language states that "the Secretary (of the Department of Housing and Urban Development) may not waive…rights of employees under collective bargaining agreements." Attacked by Gilkey and Kenilworth-Parkside's Kimi Gray as "antipoor and antiblack," the amendment seemed to bind tenant managers to union contracts negotiated by public housing authorities. The AFL-CIO insisted that tenants shouldn't be able to do even volunteer work in their own communities unless the work was subject to existing collective bargaining agreements or HUD gave its express permission.

The tenants were infuriated. They felt that liberal lawmakers, who claimed to represent their interests, didn't trust them to make their own decisions. Even many members of the Black Caucus refused to cross the unions.

Instead of letting other people represent the poor in Washington, the tenants themselves came to lobby for the legislation. To finance the trip, some held special fund-raising events in their projects. Others, like Bertha Gilkey, used profits from tenant-run services such as Cochran Garden's day care center.

"It was incredible," says Woodson, a tall, slim man who speaks with excitement about the tenant managers and the progress they've made. "Some people just could not believe that these low-income black women were out lobbying against the people who had traditionally represented the poor. And they were lobbying for a bill that Republicans were pushing. It blew people's minds."

But they failed to swing enough votes to stop the Morrison amendment. And the House Democratic leadership prevented a vote on an amendment sponsored by Kemp and Rep. Richard Armey (R–Tex.) that would have enabled tenants to buy their units at 25 percent of market value with special equity-financing provisions. The Congressional Research Service estimated that families with an annual income of as low as $8,000 could qualify to buy their own units under Kemp-Armey. Under the "right to buy" at market prices, a family must have an income of $30,000 to $40,000 a year to qualify—and almost no one with that much money is even allowed to live in public housing.

In February, the Kemp-Fauntroy bill, with the Morrison amendment attached, was signed into law. Just what the amendment does remains to be seen.

So far, it has caused few problems. Morrison contends that his amendment binds public housing authorities to find jobs elsewhere for union members whose jobs had been taken over by residents. And Lena Jackson says her project has made a smooth transition; many union workers were moved to other "estates," as Cleveland housing officials refer to housing projects. With new resident managers cracking down, rather than cross-town bureaucrats ignoring problems, union workers will at least have to do the jobs they're paid for. The real problem, says Bertha Gilkey, has been with oversight—not labor.

The road to tenant management is not an easy one, nor do all attempts succeed. "Some people say, 'Let's do TMC (tenant management councils),' like they would say, 'Let's do lunch.' It just doesn't work that way," says Robert Rigby, executive director of the Jersey City Housing Authority. After working with three successful tenant-managed projects and one unsuccessful project, Rigby has identified the qualities that make for success.

Stable and experienced—or at least well-trained—tenant leaders are a must, he says. Often such leaders emerge from existing community organizations, such as a tenant security effort organized at one Jersey City project to monitor who came in and left the buildings after dark. Groups set up to tutor students, operate laundries, or establish lunch programs may also develop future managers.

Another key ingredient is a good working arrangement with the housing authority. "This notion that a TMC can tough it out themselves is a fallacy," Rigby says.

And having enough funds to make capital improvements is essential to maintaining the support of residents. "If they are cold in the winter," he says, "tenants are not going to be receptive" to following rules set out by new tenant managers.

Successful tenant managers are now working to help out fledgling groups—and to control their own political destiny. In the wake of their political battle, tenant management groups have formed an association, headed by Mildred Hailey, the first resident manager of the Bromley-Heath project in Boston. The association, Hailey says, aims to "make the poverty programs work for us."

Another tenant organization, designed to work in coordination with the association, is the National Tenant Union, led by Gilkey, a former Black Panther who doesn't intend to lose any more battles. The National Tenant Union has been registering voters and is targeting politicians for defeat. Morrison is on their list.

"We are going to put heat under the feet of congressmen and senators who are not voting in the best interest of people living in subsidized housing," vows Gilkey.

"Housing authorities are still putting so many stumbling blocks in our way," she says. "Housing authorities say, 'We just don't think you are ready yet.' Now, you tell me the difference between that and the philosophy of the South African government?" She is organizing and training tenant groups who have not yet been able to take over the management of their projects.

Gilkey says residents of the complexes also have a major responsibility in making tenant management work. "A lot of us talk about freedom, but we really don't want to be free. Freedom is not something that's given. It's something that's earned, it's something that's taken.…You have got to want to chart your own destiny," she says.

"Millions of dollars have been poured into antipoverty programs and they're giving it all away to people who are not poor—who aren't even doing a good job," she contends. "In 25 years we haven't learned. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., said, 'If not now then when? If not us then who?' That is our philosophy."

At Lakeview Terrace, it has been three years since residents took over. During that time, 124 apartments have been renovated. More than 50 residents are employed in the complex for the I same money it had cost the housing authority to employ 9 workers. Tenant employees plaster walls and tend grounds. They have become carpenters, plumbers, and electricians. Residents can take classes held at Lakeview to qualify as certified exterminators. From 2:30 to 6:00 P.M., the community center runs a latchkey program that provides children with supervised playtime, a hot meal, and help with their homework. There are weight lifting classes and other sports and a computer for children. And, despite occasional disagreements, the housing authority and Lakeview tenant managers are now working together effectively.

"It's a new day," Jackson says. This year's goal is to get a convenience store on the property, maybe a 7-Eleven. And in three more years, Jackson dreams that she and other tenants will be able to buy their own homes.

Rita McWilliams is a Washington, D.C., writer.

The Project's Going Condo?
Virginia I. Postrel

The American public housing residents who pioneered tenant management never imagined they'd wind up giving advice to the British government. But they have.

It all started in 1979, when the Thatcher government launched a bold program to sell off public housing units to their tenants. The program was a smashing success. By last fall, more than 1 million tenants had bought their units at a discount, taking substantial operating losses off the taxpayers—and turning many of the new homeowners into Tory voters.

Still, some U.S. critics of privatization claim the British experiment can't be duplicated here. Most of the units sold, they note, were single-family dwellings akin to townhouses. It's a lot harder to sell a single unit in a multifamily project.

All true. In fact, the British program itself is running into problems. Units in urban "tower blocks," large, multifamily complexes that resemble U.S. housing projects, have been nearly impossible to sell—even at discounts as high as 70 percent off the already-low market value.

But there are important differences between the United States and Britain, differences that may make large U.S. projects easier to privatize. For starters, U.S. units are simply better built. Many British buildings are cheaply constructed, '50s-vintage prefab jobs that are literally crumbling with age.

By contrast, the typical U.S. project may have graffiti and look bad, but the construction is sound. "It may need a lot of work done—a lot of plastering work, it may need the heating system worked on, but it's not actually falling down," says Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation, an expert on housing privatization.

Also, Americans are already used to cooperative modes of home ownership. Condominiums and building coops are common here—and many were once rental housing. Public housing could be converted the same way, with the tenant management organization becoming the new condo or coop board.

In fact, Kimi Gray and others involved in tenant management here have traveled to Britain to teach privatization advocates how to get people in large buildings interested and involved in running their projects. "It's an interesting twist that while the right-to-buy idea was imported here, now we're beginning to see some of the tactics reexported back to Britain," says Butler.

In the United States, he predicts, tenant management "is going to be not only the best but probably the only route to privatization." By cleaning up crime, cutting operating costs, and putting many residents to work, tenant management organizations make ownership not only economically feasible but also attractive. "Nobody's going to become an owner if the place is a jungle," Butler remarks.

British privatization shows that tenants will be willing to pick up full operating costs in exchange for a chance to own their own homes at a price they can afford. American tenant management demonstrates that tenants can run large, multifamily complexes. The trick now is to combine the two.