Last month, Margarito Gutierrez went door to door in the Estrada Courts public housing project, collecting money from his neighbors so he could attend a housing conference in Washington. One tenant gave four pennies. Another kicked in two quarters. In all, Gutierrez raised $627.
Gutierrez, a member of the Housing Authority Residents Advisory Committee, returned from the conference three weeks ago with a message for his fellow tenants: Beware that the Housing Authority could sell Estrada Courts in East Los Angeles to a private developer just as it plans to do with the dilapidated Jordan Downs public housing project in Watts.
On Tuesday, according to Gutierrez, Housing Authority officials summoned him to the manager’s office at Estrada Courts to rebuke him for going to Washington and for appearing on two Spanish-language television stations in Los Angeles to criticize the proposal to sell Jordan Downs. A housing official defended the visit to Gutierrez, claiming the tenant needlessly frightened other project dwellers.
Gutierrez, 44, a longtime resident of Estrada Courts, said Wednesday that he was grilled during a 20-minute meeting with Leonard Karter, the agency’s group operations manager for Eastside projects, and Georgina Garcia, the manager of Estrada Courts. Karter posed a series of questions on the trip to Washington and on his television appearances, Gutierrez said.
“He started to interrogate me. ‘What did I say in Washington? Who gave me permission to talk to television? Why was I making people afraid?’ ” Gutierrez, who speaks little English, said in Spanish.
Karter said Wednesday the thrust of the meeting was to assure Gutierrez that Estrada Courts was not for sale. Karter denied that he inquired about the Washington trip, but acknowledged asking about the television appearances, including questions about Gutierrez’s motivation and who initiated the interview.
“We discussed the free speech thing,” Karter said of the Tuesday meeting. “Anybody can say what they wish but at the same time, he had a responsibility not to alarm tenants.”
The meeting occurred Tuesday afternoon--the same day that Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky assailed the Housing Authority and its executive director, Leila Gonzalez-Correa, for proposing a ban on public comment by the agency’s employees. Gonzalez-Correa has introduced a policy that would prevent employees from writing or speaking to housing commissioners, City Council members, government workers and reporters without the executive director’s permission.
Yaroslavsky introduced a motion Wednesday recommending that the Housing Authority Board of Commissioners reject the proposed policy and that Gonzalez-Correa be required to appear before the City Council. The motion was scheduled to be heard next week.
Gutierrez reported the meeting with Karter to David Etezadi, a Legal Aid Foundation attorney who represents East Los Angeles tenants. Etezadi said he was “outraged” by the incident and considers the actions by housing officials “a violation of Gutierrez’s rights.” Etezadi pointed out that, a year ago, the Housing Authority sent a police officer to question a tenant who had signed a petition calling for Gonzalez-Correa’s resignation.
“I think it is an intimidation tactic,” Etezadi said. “Clearly, they are trying to extend the gag order to residents.”
Etezadi said Gutierrez called him Tuesday “very much upset” that he had been reprimanded by the Housing Authority.
“Mr. Gutierrez has been working real closely with residents throughout the city to oppose the sale of Jordan Downs,” Etezadi said. “His fear as a tenant representative stems back to a year ago when the executive director guaranteed that the Housing Authority would never sell a development. He, as well as other residents, feel incredibly betrayed. He has been quite active since the announcement of the sale warning people that the same thing could happen in their own developments.”
On Wednesday, Gonzalez-Correa issued a bulletin advising tenants that the Housing Authority had no plans to sell Estrada Courts, housing officials said.
Gutierrez, a factory worker who has been on welfare since he was laid off two years ago, lives in a clean, well-kept five-bedroom apartment in Estrada Courts with his wife and six children. A captain of his Neighborhood Watch program, Gutierrez was elected two years ago by tenants at Estrada Courts as their representative on the residents advisory committee. Since then, he has been a relentless activist in organizing tenants at Estrada Courts to keep their project clean and crime-free.
In news interviews that aired over the last week on television stations KMEX Channel 34 and KVEA Channel 52, Gutierrez said he feared that Estrada Courts may be put up for sale because tenants have spotted groups of Chinese investors walking through the project on weekend mornings.
Gutierrez said he attended the National Convention of Urban Homesteading and Resident Management conference in early March because he wanted to learn how residents became owners and managers of public housing projects in Washington and other cities. He hopes to begin a process this year for residents to take over Estrada Courts.