People who live in subsidized housing are trying to improve conditions by organizing unions. To do that, tenants from around Ohio recently held the first statewide Tenant Summit on Housing in Cleveland. But having clean and decent housing is only one ingredient in helping low income citizens rise out of poverty. ideastream's Mike West has the story.
Mike West: A hotel near the airport was the gathering place for about 150 tenants, social workers and government housing officials. Workshops included How to organize a rent strike, Tenant/Landlord laws and How to form and maintain a tenant's union. Cleo Busby is the chairman of The Alliance of Cleveland HUD Tenants.
Cleo Busby: That's the type of information we are trying to get out to people with a conference like this, is that there are way you can function as a community to make your community better.
MW: Public housing projects and subsidized units are either managed by government employees or privately owned. For-profit companies receive "market-level" rent payments. They can also get tax incentives in exchange for operating low income homes. But in both cases taxpayers cover most of the rent. Busby feels low income residents are often victimized and no one cares whether they live in broken down apartments.
CB: And the perception of the general public that low-income housing facilities are just filled with low-life's and criminals and all that is just ridiculous. It's a lot of decent people, a lot of good people that live in subsidized housing and those are the people that are here today, that are to say we don't want those things and we want to be educated on how we can make our communities better.
MW: There are at least 30,000 subsidized housing units in Cuyahoga county and they're all in high demand, with a less than 1% vacancy rate. Taxpayers pick up the tab for 70% of the rent. But Busby says the government doesn't always get what it pays for.
CB: In the multi-family buildings when the owners and the managers come they sign a contract with HUD to manage those properties - they guarantee safety and a sanitary housing. That is part of the contractual agreement they make with HUD but they are not living up to it and our job is to empower tenants with the tools they need to make sure that they live up to there contractual agreements.
MW: Tenant activism can work. Longwood Estates in the Central neighborhood of Cleveland is an example. The 800-unit complex was shut down after inspectors found 4,800 code and safety violations. Conditions were so deplorable that in 1998 the complex was seized and slated for demolition. But tenant groups pressured the city and hud until they agreed to have the apartments rebuilt. Ownership was passed to the Finch Group and the buildings were transformed into Arbor Park Village. Wesley Finch is the chairman of the Finch Group. He's proud of the new community but says it's only one part of what his tenants need to get out of poverty.
Wesley Finch: Providing bricks today simply does not make it. The people who are living here for the most part have other issues and other problems they have to deal with. A lot of them are very young people teen-agers having children. And we need to teach these people, who are often 13 to 18 years old, basic nutrition, we need to give them an education so they have a skill to work. We have to provide them with pre-natal care. We have to provide them with early child care.
MW: To help in these areas, Finch is working with Cuyahoga Community College on setting up education programs for tenants. The complex is also providing space for a day-care center operated by a church.
WF: It's the type of business where you can feel very good about what you do and you can make a very reasonable living in doing it. But there are challenges. I'm not going to sit here and tell anybody that longwood is a complete success or will be a complete success. Day-in and day-out there are challenges. We have worked on many, many properties like this over the last 20 years. Most have been successful, some have not and you do the best you can with what you have.
MW: Clean, safe housing is a top priority for tenant union leaders. And they also agree that if society wants residents to leave someday, the poor need other types of help. Rose Bardwell conducted a workshop at the summit. She's the vice president of The Cleveland Tenant's Organization Board. Bardwell's topic was teaching low income residents how to access social services.
Rose Bardwell: And I think that's a vital part of public housing is also the social aspect. And there's not very many multi-family housing units that have a support system as far as a social network, job placement daycare issues also health issues.
MW: Bardwell says money management should also be at the top of the priority list, as well as learning persistence.
RB: Is the need for budgeting, living on a limited income and budgeting and knowing where they would need to go for assistance. A lot of individuals regardless of even if they even live in public housing or not they do not know that services are out there. Therefore they maybe choose to contact one person and they reach the dead end and that's pretty much where it ends.
MW: Other problems facing the low income may be even harder to solve. Public housing advocates are worried because they say subsidized apartments are leaving the market and not being replaced. Tenant leaders also warn that a growing number of senior citizens are being forced to seek a limited number of subsidized housing units. They say elders are having trouble paying for rising rents and prescription drug costs. In Cleveland, Mike West, 90.3.