Stories about life in Liddonfield housing project and its impact on the Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood of Upper Holmesburg. These true stories reveal how government policy affected the lives of real people, from the project residents to area homeowners during the 5 decades of Liddonfield’s existence. Stories and articles are written by a former resident of the project.

FIGHT THE STIGMA!

FIGHT THE STIGMA!
Rosemary Reeves, Blogger, standing on Philadelphia Skyline

Sep 8, 2013

PART 5 OF SECTION 8: WHETHER TO MOVE OUT


Part 5:  Homeowners vs. Housing Authority Equals David and Goliath

By Rosemary Reeves

If you missed the first four parts of this series, click on the links below:




Part 4:  Improved Strategies


This part in the series gives advice on how homeowners 
can challenge powerful housing authorities by raising one Section 8 issue at a time and getting their friends and neighbors involved.
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In the legend of David and Goliath a small boy slays a giant with a slingshot and a stone.  Using his intelligence the boy, David, zeroed in on the giant’s weakness rather than its size and strength.  David slung the stone through a hole in his opponent’s armor and the giant fell to the ground.  

One might compare government bureaucracy to the powerful giant in the legend.  Ordinary people are often intimidated by a housing authority’s seemingly omnipotent power.  Homeowners who plan on moving away because their neighborhood is going downhill due to Section 8 view the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as too powerful to challenge.  Most people think that HUD can roll all over them and their neighborhood and there is nothing they can do about it because it is a government entity.  Inaction on the part of their elected officials supports that assumption.  Mayor Parris’ War on Section 8 backfired.  This also supports the notion that you can’t win when you challenge HUD.

There is a real biological flight response within the human brain that is triggered when we feel we are in danger and are unable to protect ourselves.  This is nature’s way of helping us survive.  The common perception is this:  Section 8 brings criminals.  We are powerless against Section 8.  Therefore we are powerless against criminals.  Therefore, we must flee.  In modern terms, that means selling our houses, leaving friends, relatives, good neighbors and perhaps even our old jobs behind just to live somewhere safer, somewhere farther away from public housing and Section 8 tenants.

WHY HAS HUD BEEN ABLE TO IGNORE THE PUBLIC?

The answer to this question may surprise you.  Most of us turn to sweeping generalities when we’re dissatisfied with government programs and that’s one reason why nothing gets done.  For instance, let’s pick apart this common complaint:

“HUD should do something about neighborhood decline caused by Section 8!”

Do something?  Do what?  Such a vague request can easily be ignored.  Also, what aspect of Section 8 is it referring to?  Does it mean troublemakers on the program?  The way the program is administered?  Now we will pick apart a complaint that is a little more specific but still too vague:

“The housing authority should do a better job of keeping criminals out of the Section 8 program!”

The words “do a better job” implies that the public wants changes in the way the program is administered that will help screen out those with a criminal record.  If this question was posed directly to a housing authority official, that official would probably say that criminal background checks are performed as part of a screening process that is already in place.  Be ready for standard answers like this that are often given by HUD and local housing authorities.  They have prepared responses for the kind of questions the public typically asks.

While we can give HUD credit for “doing something” to screen out criminals, it does not address the rise in crime that occurs in some neighborhoods once Section 8 comes to town.  For example, there are unwed mothers on the Section 8 program who have relationships with men that engage in criminal activity.  These men are not on the Section 8 program but visit the women often in order to carry on the relationship.  When they visit the neighborhood, they bring their guns and drugs with them.  Some move into the Section 8 residence illegally and then sell drugs out of it or on a nearby street corner.  I am not referring to all unwed mothers on the Section 8 program, of course.  Many are trying their best.

A good way to tackle an overwhelming problem is to break it down into parts.  Think about the issues you want to zero in on and target those one at a time.  Start by asking the housing authority for small things and build up to bigger ones.  This can be done by individuals or groups when dealing with neighborhood problems caused by Section 8 and I will explain how.

Section 8 voucher recipients must follow certain rule of compliance or have their housing vouchers revoked.  This is a good starting point for formulating a strategy.  Most people know you have the right to file a complaint with your local housing authority about a nuisance Section 8 neighbor, but just how easy do they make it for you?  Is the housing authority hard to reach by phone?  Are you put on hold for a long time?  Is the person who takes your complaint indifferent or rude?  Do you never hear back?  Does your complaint disappear into no man’s land?  To find out, grab a pen and notepad, give your local housing authority a call, attempt to make your complaint and take notes.  If you’re put on hold, time it.  Write down the name of the person you speak to and the date.  Ask if they’re going to get back to you and when.  When you end the call, give them a grade on an imaginary report card.  How well did your local housing authority do in handling your complaint?  Did they pass or fail?

In this computer age, many people will want to file their Section 8 nuisance neighbor complaint through the local housing authority website.  When doing so, they should scrutinize it as well.  Is the website user friendly?  Is it easy to find the link for filing a complaint or do you have to hunt for it?  Does it have a search bar?  If it does, try typing a key word into the search bar.  Does it bring up the information you’re looking for?  What about the overall content?  How much of it is geared toward the average citizen as opposed to Section 8/public housing tenants?  Search for the Rules of Compliance while you’re at it.  Are they hard to find or just not there?  The site should clearly list the rules that Section 8 tenants must follow.  If it does not, give the housing authority a failing grade.

You’re doing great.  You’ve zeroed in on your first Section 8 issue.  It’s a small issue that could yield big results, it has nothing to do whatsoever with race or prejudice, it is not cost prohibitive and the housing authority has no cause for objection.   Housing authority officials may be unaware that their website poses a problem for its users, that the compliance rules are unclearly worded on the site or that there is a need for more content geared toward the general public.  We should tell them what we need from their website or customer service to make it easier to file a complaint.  A neighborhood organization’s Information Officer for Section 8 issues can inform their housing authority contact about long hold times or suggest improvements to their website.  

If you’re acting as an individual, you can write your first Letter to the Editor to local newspapers stressing that the Section 8 nuisance neighbor complaint process is cumbersome, slow or poses some other difficulty for a citizen who wishes to file a complaint through your local housing authority.  Also, if there is content you think the housing authority should have on their website but doesn’t, such as a clear list of Section 8 compliance rules or a separate page of frequently asked questions geared toward average citizens, stress why you think adding such content is necessary.  

The next time you run into one of your neighbors this is how you can respond when she asks, “What’s new?”

Just say, “My letter to the editor is in the newspaper!  Did you see it?”  If your neighbor hasn’t read it yet, tell her what it’s about.  If she has, then ask her what she thinks of it.  This is your chance to share what you know and spread the word.  Explain how public officials pay attention to what is written about them in the newspapers.  Mention that you hope other people decide to write Letters to the Editor like yours, but don’t ask them to do so directly.  Avoid being pushy.  Just drop the hint and allow them think about it in their own time.  Let the nuisance Section 8 tenant do the rest of the convincing with loud music late at night.  A good neighbor who can’t sleep will remember what you told them while they’re tossing and turning.

HOW TO PUT POWER IN YOUR LETTER TO THE EDITOR


Well-written Letters to the Editor can be an effective way to put pressure on the housing authority and politicians.  Public officials pay close attention to what appears about them in the media, so mention them by name.  Be specific.  Instead of just asking for the official to “do something,” explain exactly what the public needs from the housing authority.  It will be one of many requests, both large and small, so start with something small and relatively easy for the housing authority to do.  Keep it polite and avoid any hint of prejudice.  Also, as explained in part 2 of this series avoid the use of words and phrases that make it sound like it’s your individual problem with the housing authority.  If there is no list of Section 8 compliance rules on the website or if there are long hold times when you make a complaint by phone, it is a hindrance for the general public, not just you.  Remember, there are thousands of people in your city who are going through the same thing and they read the newspaper.  This is one way to reach a large segment of the local population.  

In your Letter to the Editor, begin by stating the problem.  Here is a sample introductory sentence:

“The (name of city) Housing Authority has the duty to provide an easy means through which members of the general public can file a complaint against a nuisance Section 8 neighbor.  However, citizens attempting to do so online encounter a slow and cumbersome process of having to hunt for the complaint form on the housing authority’s less than user friendly website.  In addition, the Rules of Compliance are missing from the website when they should be prominently displayed.”

Next, be specific about what the general public needs from the housing authority. Here is a sample sentence naming a fictitious housing authority director:

“Housing Authority Executive Director J. Smith should make it a priority that filing an online complaint is simplified through easy to follow links and a clear and complete list of compliance rules appears on the website as expeditiously as possible.”  

This accomplishes several things:

1.   It mentions the official by name
2.   It states specifically what is needed from the housing authority
3.   It contains a polite reference to timeliness

Conclude your letter with something similar to this:  

“Perhaps Mr. Smith would like to write a response letting the public know whether improvements to the housing authority website can be made and if so, when.”  This respectfully encourages Executive Director Smith to inform the public one way or the other.
  
GET YOUR CLOSE FRIENDS TO WRITE LETTERS TO THE EDITOR AS WELL

You’ll want to tread lightly with casual acquaintances and neighbors, but you can be pushier with close friends.  Friends might tell you they’re too busy to write letters to local newspapers, so here’s how you might coax them.  The next time your friend asks you for a favor, offer your help gladly.  In exchange, they must provide one Letter to the Editor.  Have them write about the same issue as yours, except in their own words.  If you wrote about a problem with the housing authority website, their letter should cover the same subject. This creates a buzz around the issue as the general public reads about it.

Next:  Turning up the heat – putting pressure on the people you’ve elected by zeroing in on Section 8 compliance.

RELATED STORIES:

Conclusion:  Putting Pressure on Politicians by Zeroing in on Section 8 Compliance

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