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Involuntary servitude



In October 1998, Congress passed one of the most sweeping revisions to the U.S. Housing Act of 1937, the law that began public housing as we know it today. The Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act, as the new law was called, gave the nation's 3,161 housing agencies the autonomy to perform a wide range of routine functions -- from doing criminal background checks to setting up resident advisory boards.

Much of the act focused on how to get tenants to leave public housing -- a theme of personal responsibility President Clinton and the Republican-controlled Congress sounded throughout the 1990s as they worked to severely limit the terms of welfare. The law was "the triumph of empowerment over institutional choices," former New York Congressman Rick Lazio, who authored an early version of the Quality Housing Act, said at an October 1998 news conference. "It's the triumph of accountability, both personal and on the part of housing authorities. It's the triumph of family and responsibility and work."

One of the more controversial aspects of the Quality Housing Act was a provision requiring unemployed public-housing tenants to "volunteer" eight hours of community service a month. People over the age of 62, the disabled and students were exempt from the requirement. For everyone else, it was either work for free or face eviction when the lease expired.

This part of the Quality Housing Act was so controversial it was defunded, at the request of Harlem Congressman Charles Rangel, during the 2002 fiscal year. Back then, the Bush administration hadn't yet developed an opinion on the community service requirement. But during appropriations for this fiscal year, federal authorities decided to reinstate the requirement. In June the Department of Housing and Urban Development sent a memo to public housing agencies notifying them that the program should start no later than Oct. 31.

Critics say it unfairly focuses on public-housing residents, instead of the myriad subsidies handed out to nearly everyone else. People receiving tax-paid vouchers to live in privately owned apartments, for example, are not required to donate time to receive subsidized rent. Nor is forced labor required of college students receiving Pell Grant money.

"There's subsidies for a certain kind of gasoline," says Frank Howell, a Missis-sippi State University sociology professor who has written about rural welfare programs. "There are subsidies for certain kinds of cars. When you get into this position of being fair, you have to talk about programs that many of us enjoy and don't want to give up."

Indeed, the nation's largest housing-related subsidy is the interest homeowners deduct from their annual income taxes, a freebie worth $66.5 billion in 2002, according to the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation. (Counting home sales and property write-offs, the middle-class subsidy totaled more than $102 billion, according to the same committee.)

The requirement also sends a not-so-subtle message to public-housing tenants: "It is somewhat condescending in that very few people are affected by this legislation," says one congressional aide. "It is supposedly for people who don't provide a service back to the community -- as if they are different from everyone else."

Some public-housing observers say the work-or-else law isn't as draconian as intended. Congress, they argue, is not interested in involuntary servitude; rather it wants to shepherd public-housing tenants into self-help programs. On-the-job training, job search assistance and vocational education are among the exemptions to the Act. "With the passage of these welfare-to-work programs, the government was saying, 'Society is willing to support you with a safety net but we want you to demonstrate that you're doing your share to receive public dollars,'" says Stephen Niles, an attorney who works with Washington, D.C.-area public housing agencies. Volunteerism might also help public-housing tenants network, Niles says. "There is the idea that being some place at a specific time in itself is useful."

But according to Catherine Bishop, an attorney with the National Housing Law Project, the community service requirement was meant to cull malcontents. "Some people believe the intention was far more evil," she says. "Some say it is an attempt to ensure people living in public housing are the most deserving but the least likely to rock the boat."

Bishop says if Congress truly wanted to help public-housing residents break out of poverty, it would enforce the "earned income disregard," another provision of the Quality Housing Act. This provision is an enticement for tenants to move out of public housing by allowing residents to keep most of their paycheck when they get a new job or a raise. Instead of automatically jacking up the rent, housing officials are supposed to wait a year, raising it gradually over two years so tenants can save enough money to afford a market-rate apartment. But housing authorities often fail to tell tenants about the program. "Very few residents know there's this carrot out there," Bishop says.

A bunch of hogwash

Three female residents of the Griffin Park housing complex, a group of beige eightplexes wedged between I-4 and the East-West Expressway offramps, say the Orlando Housing Authority has been using the community service requirement as a pretext to threaten them with eviction.

The women, all in their late 20s, unemployed and mothers of small children, are subject to the community service requirement. They spoke to the Weekly on condition of anonymity, fearing they would be evicted for speaking to the media.

Employment, they say, has been difficult to come by since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. "If your work history is not that solid, [employers] tell you, 'We'll give you a call,'" said one of the tenants, a tall, thin woman. "But they never call. I've been on and I've had second interviews. I know how to present myself. Two years ago I could find a job the same day I looked .... Now all you can get is McDonald's for $5 an hour."

The women say the apartments they rent, for up to $230 a month, are barely subsistence-level. When the plumbing backs up, water seeps from the upstairs bathroom into their kitchen cabinets. They complain of rats. "The rats have been here before we were here," says another of the women. "They'll be here after we leave. They're in the walls. You'll have to tear down these buildings to get to them."

"We're stuck in a black hole here," the third woman says. "I feel like this is a black hole."

She is full-figured and chain-smokes cigarettes while talking on her porch. She finished her eight hours of community service for November by working a full day at the Salvation Army senior complex on West Colonial, mopping floors and cleaning restrooms. Another of the three women worked for Victory Outreach doing yard work and painting. They see the public-service requirement as another in a long list of reasons for the housing authority to evict them.

"They always threaten us with the lease," the third woman says. "It's just a bunch of hogwash. I've seen them kick people out of here with nowhere else to go. Where else is there to go but a homeless shelter, with kids on top of that? They don't care. As fast as they empty them out, they fill them back up."

Vivian Bryant, the Orlando Housing Authority executive director, says her agency has identified 280 of 5,000 residents required to perform community service. Bryant says tenants are often confused about who initiated the new requirement. "Many of our residents were mad at us," she says. "They thought we were the ones who were doing it. We had to show them the federal regulations."

Some housing authorities have gone on record saying they don't favor having to be the community-service police. Bryant admits the paperwork is tedious, but she has to follow policy. "I'm just glad I have a job," she says. "We've figured out a way to do it because we have to do it."

Two women in the Sanford Housing Authority, the second-largest in Central Florida, said they would have difficulty completing the community service requirement. Mary Turner is a 37-year-old unemployed mother of four children, one of whom has asthma. "I'm very upset because I know I don't have time to do this," Turner says.

Trumella James, who lives in Lake Monroe Terrace, works part-time at a group home, feeding and tending to the elderly. Under the terms of the Sanford Housing Authority's community service requirement, which will be announced to tenants Nov. 20, James will probably have to do eight hours of community service. "I work 20 hours a week, that's enough for me," she says.

Indeed, one of the Sanford tenants flat-out refuses to abide by the community service requirement. "Quite a few of us don't like it and we're not going to do it," the tenant says. "We disagree totally."

Which raises a dilemma: Will housing authorities actually evict people for failing to work for free?

"I don't think the tenants really understand what is going on and the real complaints and problems will come later, when they haven't performed the necessary hours, clearly aren't exempt and are faced with losing their housing," says Treena Kaye, an attorney with Central Florida Legal Services. Then Congress will find out how self-sufficient these former public-housing tenants can be.


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