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"Racial Discrimination and Neglect in Tucson's Federally Subsidized Housing,"

by Linda M. Bohlke January/February 1994 issue of Poverty & Race

With a grant from PRRAC, the Southern Arizona People's Law Center undertook an 18-month comparative study of the privately owned, federally subsidized (Section 8 Set-Aside) and conventional public housing stocks in Tucson in order to document racial discrimination, neglect and structural segregation. Using tenant satisfaction surveys and on-site inspections to record comparative data on differential allocation of housing services based on race, we examined eight federally subsidized and conventional public housing complexes.

Low-income people of color residing in Tucson's federally subsidized complexes face deteriorating, substandard conditions as a direct result of years of "intentional neglect, hostility and disrespect on the part of the private owners and managers and as a result of government indifference and inaction towards these problems. Our study also found that substandard housing conditions in the federally subsidized housing stock occurred with greater frequency and severity than at conventional public housing sites (an issue discussed in detail in our full report).

As a result of a long history of neglect, federally subsidized housing, particularly those complexes housing predominantly families of color, is in substandard condition-including structural flaws and pest infestation that seriously threaten tenants' health and safety. Despite that fact that the federally subsidized complexes were built within a year of one another, the worst conditions were recorded in those complexes where people of color are in the majority, revealing a clear pattern of structural segregation. Conditions range from holes, cracks and rotting wood in ceilings walls and floors; moldy, disintegrating carpets; leaking windows, pipes, and ceilings; windows and doors that do not properly open, close or lock; severe rodent and roach infestation; electrical problems and balconies hanging dan-gerously from sides of buildings were found with alarming frequency at these complexes. At one federally subsidized complex housing predominantly families of color, newer building codes specifying the distance between balcony bars were not enforced, posing a danger to small children who could fit between the bars and fall from balconies. When residents attempted to address this problem with the use of chicken wire and other netting, they were threatened by management with eviction if they did not immediately remove the wire or netting.

In contrast, repair problems recorded at the federally subsidized complexes occupied predominantly by European Americans were, as one tenant described them, more "cosmetic" in nature. Repair needs at these complexes related primarily to surface finishes, countertops and cabinetry; closet doors that were missing knobs or did not open or close properly; and carpets that were old and in need of replacing.

Tenants in federally subsidized complexes housing primarily people of color were more likely to experience mistreatment, disrespect and intimidation by management than were than were tenants in the European American complexes. One Latina American was threatened with eviction for having a patio chair on her patio. Two elderly Latina residents, each of whom had lived on the property for over 14 years and who rarely came out of their apartments, were threatened with eviction for allegedly littering the grounds. Another example of management's disrespect for tenants at these complexes was their response to tenant complaints of severe pest infestation. The common management response to these complaints was to blame the tenants' "lifestyles." Yet, Univ. of Arizona Professor of Entomology Martin Taylor pointed out that the persistence of pest infestation is due in fact to the existence of numerous structural flaws: holes and cracks in baseboards, corners, walls, ceilings and floors.

Two private Tucson-area management corporations in particular, J.C. Harry and Associates and Biltmore Properties, exemplify the neglect and racial discrimination that results in the substandard conditions characterizing Tucson's federally subsidized housing stock. At these complexes, housing primarily families of color, tenants were two to three times more likely to experience severe pest infestation as well as two to three times more likely to encounter repair problems seriously threatening their health and safety, compared with the complexes housing European American tenants managed by these two companies. These companies' attitude was summed up well by an attorney representing J.C. Harry and Associates. In response to a protest demanding immediate repairs organized by tenants at this complex, he was quoted in the Tucson Citizen as saying: "When you pay below market value, you sometimes have to settle for lesser service." The situation was not much better for tenants in the Biltmore-managed property. Despite repeated tenants pro tests and demands, no office personnel spoke Spanish. As a result, Spanish speaking Latino American residents were denied access to complex services, including the ability to register repair complaints.

We also examined both the specific availability of amenities and tenants' overall satisfaction with them. The study found that federally subsidized com-plexes housing primarily families of color were less likely to be provided with basic in-complex amenities, such as laundry facilities and playground equipment. When these amenities were` provided, they were more likely to be in substandard, hazardous condition than the same facilities found in the primarily European American complexes. For example, none of the surveyed complexes housing primarily households of color were provided with playground equipment in decent and safe condition. While playground equipment was provided at one of these complexes, it was in a serious disrepair, with missing slide steps, missing and broken swings, posing a safety hazard to the children. Two of the complexes were not provided playground equipment or even a designated area where children could play. In contrast, European American complexes were not only provided with playground equipment and laundry facilities in decent and safe condition but one complex even had a swimming pool!

The problems uncovered by this study are symptomatic of the systemic flaws underlying the federally subsidized programs themselves. These flaws must be addressed if HUD is to fulfill its charge: to provide every American, regardless of income, with "decent, safe and sanitary" housing.

Without aggressive federal oversight, private owners and management cor-porations running these complexes are expected to police themselves for fair housing violations. In effect, they are given free rein to discriminate by denying access to tenants based on race and by neglecting complexes situated in low-income neighborhoods of color. HUD neither compiles nor keeps records on the ethnic/racial composition of federally

subsidized complexes. It remains to be seen how HUD can adequately enforce federal fair housing guidelines and mandates when it has no established system to track either the process of integration or differences in the allocation and quality of housing services based on race.

Housing advocates have now been told that, under the Clinton Administration, we will have the opportunity to "reinvent" HUD. It is in this spirit that our study ends by making several recommendations.

First, if the Clinton Administration is serious in this commitment, it must turn away from the attitude that characterized prior administrations. It must abandon the attitude of indifference, of "getting out of the housing business." The prob-lems plaguing the federally subsidized housing stock are deeply embedded and can only be resolved through direct federal management and ownership these complexes.

Second, because the conditions documented in this study not only violate federal fair housing standards, but con-tinue to pose a serious threat to the health, safety and well-being of the tenants, we call for immediate Congressional hearings on racial discrimination, neglect and structural segregation in federally subsidized housing.

Beyond documenting neglect, substandard conditions and racial discrimination in Tucson's federally subsidized housing stock, each stage of this study has served as a vehicle for tenant organizing and empowerment. Tenants of federally subsidized and conventional public housing complexes have participated at every stage of producing this study. The process of producing this study led to the organization and consolidation of several nascent tenant associations in the federally subsidized housing complexes surveyed. In addition, the process of collecting data and producing this study h aided in initial efforts at building a tit wide tenants' union to address comm. ( housing problems faced by low-incur tenants throughout Tucson.

This study has led to numerous demonstrations organized by tenants in the complexes surveyed, with the help of t: Southern Arizona People's Law Center ( to raise the community's awareness the plight of tenants in federally subsidized housing. Tenants demanded the government officials-in particular HUD-immediately address the persistent substandard conditions threatening their health and safety and that t private owners and managers responsible for the persistence of these conditions held accountable.

Lastly, tenants at two of the federal subsidized housing complexes survey have taken up the recommendations the study and have gathered signatures on petitions at their complexes demanding that HUD remove the private management corporations and directly manage their complexes. To date, this demand has gone unanswered and ignored

Linda M. Bohlke is a Commun Advocate at the Southern Arizo People's Law Center, a private, n( profit law project (606 N. 4th Ave Tucson, AZ85705, 602/623-7306). the full 104 page report, Unfilled Promises Racial Discrimination and Neglect Tucson's Public and Federally-Sul dized Housing, is available for $10.
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