Tenants Bring Pride, Efficiency as Managers of Housing Projects


In five years, Sharon Gipson became an expert on the many indignities of public housing: leaky roofs, stopped-up sewers, shoddy service, bloated bureaucracy. That was as a tenant.

Now she is determined to make big changes--as manager.

Gipson juggles both lives at LeClaire Courts, a housing project in which low-income people make high-powered decisions about their neighbors, their needs and the fate of their Southwest Side community.

Power to the poor. Across the nation, public housing residents are taking charge of multimillion-dollar buildings: collecting rent, screening new tenants, evicting drug dealers and deciding how to spend government dollars. Some even own property.


“Low-income people are taking their destiny in their own hands,” said John McKnight, director of community studies at Northwestern University’s Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research. “People are concluding if they don’t do it, no one else will.”

It’s happening in other arenas, too. In Milwaukee, some poor children choose their own private schools. In Detroit, low-income residents buy, renovate and sell buildings. In Denver and Omaha, fathers are crime-fighters.

“We cannot look to government to do things for us,” said Charlene Johnson, president of REACH, a Detroit-based community group. “We must do for ourselves.”

That’s what’s happening in cities such as St. Louis; Boston; Jersey City, N.J., and Washington, where tenants, not professionals, are the power brokers in public housing. It’s a shift some say is logical and long overdue.

“They better understand the problems of their own community,” said Justin Milberg, of the Washington-based National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. “They enjoy the trust of their own community. They’re a permanent solution. They’re not going to leave as funding runs out.”

The poor aren’t the only champions of choice.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp has made it a cornerstone of his agenda, establishing the Office of Resident Initiatives in 1989 and training public housing tenants to become managers.

About 15 resident management corporations are operating nationwide; more than 100 others are in training stages.

President Bush is another booster. In signing a housing bill in November, he declared: “When the people who live in public housing are in charge, the results are remarkable: More people pay their rent, maintenance improves . . . and neighborhoods spring back to life.”

In the first four years of tenant management at Kenilworth-Parkside, a public housing project in Washington, rent collections rose by 77% and hundreds of drug dealers were forced out, a report said.

A 1989 study said converting Kenilworth-Parkside to tenant ownership could save the government $26 million over 40 years.

But not everyone is enamored. Last year, White House Budget Director Richard G. Darman called “The New Paradigm"--the label a presidential aide gave to self-help programs--pretentious and a rehash of failed ‘60s ideas.

Even boosters say empowering the poor is no magic wand.

“I don’t think it’s going to wipe out all problems with the exception of tooth decay,” said Robert Rigby, director of the Jersey City Housing Authority. “In many quarters, it’s seen as a panacea. I don’t think in any way it represents that.”

In Jersey City, one tenant-management plan fizzled--high turnover of residents and community leaders were blamed--but in three others, vacancy rates and delinquent rent payments have fallen sharply.

Though empowerment is a new buzzword, the idea is not. Since the ‘60s, a long line of committed public housing activists, often black women, have preached the gospel of self-help.

But in recent years, there has been a “growth from a cottage industry to a major grass-roots movement,” said David Caprara, of HUD’s resident initiatives office. “It has just spread like wildfire.”

There also are new strategies. In Atlanta, for example, dozens of graduate students from a black university will move into a project this spring, operate programs and serve as role models.

Resident management, Caprara said, already has been a boon to communities, creating jobs in areas where unemployment is chronically high and leading to spinoff businesses, including a catering company, a screen door repair service and, at LeClaire, a reverse commuter shuttle to the suburbs.

“It instills pride and hope,” he said. “It restores a sense of community control.”

That shift didn’t come quickly or easily at LeClaire, a community of about 4,000 people living in modest red-brick row houses in the shadow of Midway Airport.

“When we started out, we were ignored,” said Irene Johnson, head of the resident management board. “They (local officials) thought we were a joke.”

But the residents persisted and, after working side by side for a year with the Chicago Housing Authority, took over in 1989. So far, the reviews are good.

Caprara calls LeClaire “a good case study in all the right ingredients for success.”

CHA Chairman Vincent Lane adds: “The management out there is doing at least as good a job or probably better than the management under CHA.”

A paid staff of about 30, mostly LeClaire residents, manages the day-to-day business, processing and completing repairs, balancing the books and deciding, with the CHA, on bids for major projects.

Since 1989, new windows have been installed for everyone. Most tenants have new storm doors and about half the 600-plus row houses have received new stoves and refrigerators.

Longtime resident Joselyn Pughsley sees other changes: Repairs that once took months now take days. That doesn’t surprise her.

“When you live in a place and you’re working there, you’re going to do a better job, you’re going to want the best for your children,” she said. “You’re going to take care of where you live and . . . what you consider yours much better.”

Yet, expectations can be too high.

“They think we can perform miracles,” said Gipson, the resident-manager, who has lived at LeClaire since 1984. “They think it’s ‘Bewitched'--twist your nose and it’s fine.”

There are painful decisions, too--especially evictions. There have been about 10.

“The first eviction . . . I cried all day and night. I didn’t sleep a week,” Johnson said. “But you’ve got a business to run. You sign on the bottom line of the contract. You don’t have any choice but to enforce the rules. You have to ask God to help you do what you know is right.”

Some residents curse and threaten staffers, while others “want us to look the other way,” Gipson said. "(They say): ‘You’ve lived here all your life, you know how it is.’ ”

There’s outside pressure too.

“There are so many people waiting for us to fail,” Gipson said. “Some people were taking bets, saying we wouldn’t make it six months . . . people with money who don’t think poor people can do anything. It’s just like a kid--if you label him slow or handicapped, he’ll be thought of that way the rest of his life. We’re trying to break those barriers, do our job and do it well.”

Johnson already senses a change.

“It’s like getting up each morning, taking a deep breath and letting it out real slow and saying: ‘This is our property.’ Now you’ve got the ball. You take it to the goal line. It’s up to you if you’re going to score or not.”

Gipson thinks they already have.

“My biggest success,” she said with a smile, “is we’re still here.”