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Public Housing : Tenants Learning to Take Charge

Times Staff Writer

In a public housing project apartment converted to classrooms, Margaret Love, 72, and three neighbors gather for last-minute instruction in something they never thought of doing--running a big business.

In other classes, Samella Lanford, a resident of the LeClaire Courts public housing complex for 32 years, learns to write bylaws and to prepare an annual report. She studies business etiquette and how to be a member of a corporate board of directors.

And Irene Johnson, who moved into public housing 22 years ago and reared three children there, works like an executive. She has a crowded appointment calendar, a travel agent and more phone calls than she can return in a day. Johnson regularly schedules interviews with reporters, meets with downtown business leaders and foundation executives, consults with consultants and commands a staff--most of whom are her neighbors--with finesse.

Part of a Revolution

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The women are part of a revolution that is dramatically changing the lives of thousands of low-income, public housing project residents. After decades of living as dependent occupants of crime-plagued housing projects, poorly run by under-funded public housing authorities, residents are forming for-profit businesses to independently manage the public housing developments in which they live and perhaps to someday actually buy the developments.

Although the examples nationwide are still few, experience has shown that when tenants run the property themselves, they often do it better and more economically than bureaucracy-bound public housing authorities. The tenants in LeClaire are on the threshold of a new phase of this revolution as occupants of more and more housing developments begin organizing for self-management.

Quality of Life

A legacy of the Ronald Reagan era, this is more than a cosmetic shifting of responsibility to the private sector. In housing developments from Boston to St. Louis already run by tenant management, the quality of life has improved. Rent collections have increased and crime has dropped. The housing stock itself, long neglected by local government agencies, has undergone dramatic renewal while a catalogue of other urban social problems, from gang terrorism to teen-age pregnancies, have abated.

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Tenant control is also tapping a previously invisible pool of leadership within public housing--tenants themselves.

“Tenant management makes everybody think about the people in public housing in a different way, as capable people,” says Leonard Rubinowitz, a Northwestern University law professor and researcher at the Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research. “They are not seen as people with deficits but people with assets and strengths. It makes use of those assets and strengths and it also puts people much more in charge of their lives.”

The movement toward tenant management represents a sharp turn away from housing and welfare programs of the 1960s and 1970s that left poor people dependent on government.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp, who as a congressman sponsored legislation making tenant management possible, calls the concept “a synthesis of New Deal programs and conservative thinking.”

Critics of the evolving tenant-management trend fear it is a way for government to back out of a commitment to provide housing for the poor and to divest itself of existing programs and housing developments.

So far, resident management corporations running public housing developments have been concentrated in older urban industrial cities in the East and Midwest. But their numbers are small. Only 20 of the nation’s 10,000 public housing projects have successfully implemented tenant management, while a handful of others have failed.

Efforts are under way to bring the concept to other cities across the country. In Los Angeles, community organizers hope to form tenant management groups in three Watts housing developments: Imperial Courts, Nickerson Gardens and Jordan Downs, which has also been targeted for sale to private developers by the Housing Authority.

‘The Way to Go’

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“We want to show the people that’s the way to go,” said Leon Watkins, an activist who is attempting to organize the first resident management groups in Los Angeles. “The key to success will be the people (in other developments) who have already done it.”

At least 60 potential resident management groups are in training across the country and another 200 have expressed interest in the concept, according to the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, which promotes black self-help efforts.

“I think you’ll see a lot of emphasis on resident management and initiatives generally intended to give residents much more of a stake in what’s going on in their own homes and neighborhoods,” says Kenneth J. Beirne, HUD assistant secretary for policy, development and research.

“Tenant management is appealing to more and more residents because they view their public housing developments as permanent homes in the community and desire greater involvement in their improvement,” says a study by the Metropolitan Planning Council, a Chicago-based research agency. “The availability of other low-income housing for female-headed households with children is almost non-existent, and many families do not want to relocate because they have been in the same development for many years.”

3,500 Residents

In a few months, the 3,500 residents of the 15-square-block LeClaire Courts development will become the newest group of public housing resident entrepreneurs to take control of their property--and their day-to-day lives--from the Chicago Housing Authority.

Their experience and their road to tenant management is typical of the movement.

After almost a decade of preparation and training, LeClaire residents in May will form a private management corporation to run the housing complex. The tenants will be responsible for rent collections, building repairs and policing their neighbors--a $2-million-a-year business they will run under contract from the Chicago Housing Authority, which will retain ownership of the property.

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A separate tenant-owned corporation is already hard at work creating small businesses--and jobs--within the housing development. A catering service that makes more than 500 meals daily for child-care centers around Chicago already operates at a small profit from a kitchen in the development’s community building. A coin-operated laundry, the first in the housing development in 20 years, is about to open. And plans are under way to begin a private bus line to take LeClaire residents to jobs in suburban DuPage County, metropolitan Chicago’s economic equivalent of Southern California’s Orange County.

Valuable Property

Johnson and her neighbors believe the twin efforts may eventually lead to tenant ownership of the valuable property in a rapidly improving neighborhood near Chicago’s Midway Airport, on the city’s southwest side.

“We may see a surprising number move toward home ownership within the next five to 10 years,” says Beirne.

So far, the transition from tenant management to tenant ownership through the formation of a co-op has occurred with help from government and private foundations and the profits from resident-run businesses.

“I think their (LeClaire residents’) chances of success are really excellent,” says Chicago Housing Authority Chairman Vince Lane, a private developer and a proponent of tenant management.

“This is the genesis of a whole new era in housing policy that taps poor people themselves as the most valuable resource in both job creation and the provision of housing,” says David L. Caprara, program director for economic development at the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.

“We’re past the test stage across the country with tenant management,” says Winifred Brown, director of the John D. & Catherine Mac Arthur Foundation’s Fund for Neighborhood Initiatives. “It’s clear (tenant management) can work better than the housing authority can do it. It is more empowering for the people, it’s certainly better economically.

“Tenants can do it much better. They can make better use of the money. Less money is lost on middle management. The dollars go directly to do what they were intended to do in the first place.”

Experiments with tenant management began about 20 years ago in Boston and later in St. Louis. HUD and the Ford Foundation expanded the experiment in the mid-1970s with mixed results. Backed with money from the Amoco Foundation, the concept was refined in the 1980s by the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. Using a $1.9-million grant from the Amoco Foundation, the National Center set up training programs that identified and prepared public housing occupants to assume management control.

Mirrors Others

LeClaire residents, benefiting from almost 20 years of successes and failures, are seen as one of the most promising of the evolving resident management groups in the country. And they are doing it in a housing development that mirrors hundreds of others.

Constructed with federal, city and state funds between 1950 and 1954, LeClaire Courts is among the least troubled and most desirable of Chicago’s 19 public housing developments. But it is not without problems.

Graffiti stains the walls of many buildings. Children walking home from school can buy drugs from dealers in telephone-equipped cars parked at street corners. In the last year, crime has increased 20% in the area. Unemployment is high. Property maintenance is poor. Of those who can work, 65% are unemployed. Females head more than 70% of the households.

Waiting List

Still, the two-story garden-style brick buildings, separated by broad expanses of grass, give the complex a suburban feel, and there is a 10-year waiting list for apartments.

When LeClaire Courts was built, it was at the very edge of the city surrounded by vacant fields. Its occupants, then predominantly white, are now 98% black.

“It was beautiful,” recalls Margaret Love who has been there since 1958. “It was the nearest thing to having my own home. It was paradise.”

‘You couldn’t get in without a marriage certificate,” adds Irene Johnson. “The housing stood for something. The grounds were nice. We had activities for youths. In the old days there were household inspections and you had to have good housekeeping or leave. It changed in the 1970s. That’s when all hell broke loose.”

First, maintenance of buildings by the Chicago Housing Authority began to slip until the only repairs were emergency repairs. “There have been no building improvements for the last 15 years,” Johnson says.

Then a change in rules and rent structure forced many longtime residents out in the early 1980s.

“It was a massive move-out. We lost a lot of stable working people. And with the new move-ins came new problems. People came from other developments. Crime went up. Prostitutes were on the corners. There were fights,” Johnson says.

‘We Were Stigmatized’

“We went out to get an apartment (out of the development) and realized we were stigmatized,” she adds. “Everybody thought that because we had three teen-aged sons and lived in public housing, that they were gang members.”

Convinced that moving out would be difficult and determined not to allow LeClaire to go the way of other crime and violence-plagued housing developments, Johnson and a handful of her neighbors looked for alternatives.

“We began to talk about what we could to improve the community, to improve life in the community. The issues were crime and housing.”

The surge in community concern at LeClaire was nurtured by a sophisticated social service agency at LeClaire--the Clarence Darrow Center. Darrow and its executive director, Stanley Horn, served as the housing complex’s “own little think tank,” says Chicago Housing Authority Chairman Lane.

Transferring Skills

“Our philosophy is transferring skills to residents,” says Horn. “We should, as an on-site agency, be in the background.”

“We look on the Darrow center as the parent,” says Johnson. “We are the child and we are almost grown.”

Early in the decade, the center began training 20 LeClaire residents in community organizing techniques as a prelude to preventing further deterioration of the development and possibly even to improve living conditions.

In 1984, aided by the Darrow Center, tenants received a $35,000 grant from the Amoco Foundation to study the feasibility of tenant management. They used the money to hire a resident as an organizer and to travel to both Washington and St. Louis to look at two of the most successful tenant management corporations. The grant also allowed the tenants to hire a University of Illinois professor to help them study their options.

This, Horn says, gave the tenant group “credibility.”

By 1986, the tenant organization had the support of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise and a variety of Chicago-based foundations and business institutions. They were able to hire professional trainers to begin teaching residents the fundamentals of management and running a business and to polish their organizing skills. Additional instruction was provided by the National Center.

The Chicagoland Enterprise Center, a business consulting and management service financed by the city’s biggest corporations, showed LeClaire residents how to get their catering service operating at a profit and is helping residents set up other businesses.

Support of the Chicago Housing Authority came reluctantly although the new chairman, Lane, is a strong supporter of the concept.

“If things continue the way they are now,” Lane says, “Nobody will be living in public housing, even if it’s free. If living conditions are going to change in public housing it is going to be primarily because the residents themselves have (reached a point) where they asked: ‘What can we do to help ourselves?’ ”

While tenants work on self management, the Darrow Center--the biggest single employer of LeClaire residents--provides a range of services from day care and literacy courses to teen-age pregnancy prevention programs, job training and family counseling.

And even though they have yet to take the keys to the property, the tenant managers in training have successfully marshaled more than $2 million in state, federal and city money to weatherize the development. In the first tangible sign of change under tenant control, attics are being insulated for the first time and thermal windows are being installed--two measures that will cut heating bills for both residents and housing management.

“For 32 years I’ve lived in a drafty house. Now I don’t,” says Samella Lanford.

Researcher Tracy Shryer contributed to this story.


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