Housing Panel Censures Tenant for Anti-Drug Signs

Times Staff Writer

The San Diego Housing Commission slapped a San Ysidro tenant activist with a lease-violation notice when she posted public signs in a campaign against neighborhood drug dealers, stirring neighbors’ fears of retaliation, according to testimony to the Housing Commission Thursday.

Donna Byrd-Reis said she posted the signs in her car windows after she found her tires slashed Labor Day, in the midst of her yearlong battle against drug dealers, drug users, alien smugglers and transients who she said used the parking lot of her Alaquinas Drive apartment complex.

Byrd-Reis, who said she and her family had been threatened by dealers because of her campaign to drive them from the Vista del Valle project, plastered her windshield with banners reading “TIRE WORK: COURTESY OF DRUG DEALER & ‘GANGS’, INC.” and “DRUG DEALER, WHAT’S NEXT, WHO’S NEXT?”

Fear of Retaliation


Three other tenants, fearful that they could be hurt by retaliating dealers, complained to the Housing Commission, which operates the complex, said Dana Sievert, housing program director.

Byrd-Reis was given 24 hours to remove the signs or be given a lease-violation notice for endangering the safety of other tenants. On Nov. 4, the sanction was made official, eliminating Byrd-Reis’ status as a tenant in good standing.

Although the penalty has little practical effect--Byrd-Reis would have to commit three more infractions before facing eviction--it does prevent Byrd-Reis from becoming the apartment block’s official representative if it forms a tenant council, Sievert said.

“It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” said San Diego Councilman Bob Filner, who represents San Ysidro and has worked with Byrd-Reis and Residents Organizing to Assist Residents, or ROAR, the tenant group she leads. “If I get a parking ticket, I’m not disqualified from being a city councilman. We should be working with her, instead of ignoring her.”

Filner, who is a housing commissioner, promised to investigate Byrd-Reis’ claim Thursday.

“If we want to express ourselves, the San Diego Housing Commission should allow us to do it, whatever form it takes, as long as it’s non-libelous, non-profane, and doesn’t incite a riot,” Byrd-Reis said.

But Sievert, who agreed that the project was the site of drug activity, said that Housing Commission administrators took action in consideration of other tenants’ safety.

“As property managers, we need to be concerned with the overall safety of the place, and we’d had some calls about that,” she said. “The residents were concerned that whoever did the first action would come back and retaliate for the sign.”

‘Beyond Activism’

“It goes beyond activism that is totally constructive,” said Evan Becker, the Housing Commission’s executive director.

The commission fulfilled Byrd-Reis and fellow tenants’ most urgent request Thursday, when it approved a contract to hire security guards for Vista del Valle and two other apartment complexes it manages.

Three security guards will patrol Byrd-Reis’ parking lot from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. on a trial basis beginning Feb. 1, Sievert said. The move is a significant policy shift for the Housing Commission, which had been wary of the expense, potential liability and precedent of getting into the security business, Becker said.

Protection Needed

But Byrd-Reis and some other tenants believe that security guards are the only way to permanently rid the complex of dealers. Although police have been responsive to calls, even Byrd-Reis has refused to testify in court because of fear of retaliation, she said.

The Housing Commission has secured doors and windows, improved outside lighting and added landscaping in an effort to deter drug activity, but failed, she said. Byrd-Reis said she has taken photos of drug dealers and confronted transients to no avail.

“That type of activity is like cockroaches,” she said. “You bring the light and they disappear.”

Byrd-Reis said she plans to appeal the lease-violation notice.