Numbers haunt Durham project

Housing body gets heat over Hope VI

Staff WritersApril 23, 2005 

As part of a $35 million federal grant to transform one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, the Durham Housing Authority was supposed to nurture public housing residents displaced when their homes were torn down.

But nearly five years after the Hope VI grant was approved, the authority has lost track of many of the parents, children and disabled people relocated when the Few Gardens housing complex was demolished. That's leading some to question whether the agency has neglected the program's core mission -- helping public housing residents become homeowners.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is withholding further payments of grant funds targeted at community and supportive services until it is satisfied the authority is working more closely with residents, HUD spokeswoman Donna White said Friday.

Federal officials have also ordered the Durham agency to submit a complete reconciliation of the millions already spent.

"Hope VI aims to change people's lives, to increase the self-sufficiency of public housing residents," White said. "So we want the community and supportive services piece to work as well, if not better than, the brick and mortar. At this point, we are not pleased with how the community and supportive services component is going in Durham."

Just how many Few Gardens families the authority was supposed to track and how many there are whose whereabouts are unknown is in dispute. The issue was raised in January when a consulting firm hired to run the troubled agency estimated that the housing authority had lost track of up to half of the residents targeted by Hope VI.

"We need to account for every person -- 100 percent of the people," said Larry Jones, the consultant now acting as the authority's interim director. "You can't uncrack an egg. We're just trying to clean up the mess."

A version dated March 30 contains 712 individuals -- members of 265 families -- who lived in Few Gardens between the approval of the grant in July 2000 and when the community was finally torn down in the summer of 2003. But the list contains no current addresses for 38 percent of those families. And at least 85 families are listed as having been evicted from the homes they moved to.

If the authority does not know where the former residents are, it cannot provide them the services or enroll them in homeownership classes.

Number unavailable

Durham's Hope VI director, Gwen Simpson, said Thursday that her office might have lost track of some former Few Gardens residents over the years, though she would not provide a firm number.

"There is no problem with the list," Simpson said in an interview. "To my knowledge, the list is accurate. HUD is not concerned about this. There's no story here."

Simpson said that just because there is no address for a family on the new list does not mean that the agency does not know where the family is. The agency could have that information elsewhere in its files, she said. Others might have died.

"Either she's lying to you or she's lying to me," said RaShanne Woods, an authority board member and chairwoman of the agency's Hope VI committee. "This is a big deal to HUD, it's a big deal to the board, and it's a big deal for the residents kicked out of the program. The only people who don't seem to be concerned about this are Gwen Simpson and the DHA administration."

Shortly after the grant was awarded, N.C. Central University professors Isaac Robinson and Miles Simpson were hired to compile a detailed survey of those living in Few Gardens, then a public housing community with a citywide reputation for drug-related violent crime. The list they completed in March 2001 contains 598 individuals, along with their addresses in Few Gardens and their ages. Robinson later joined the authority's board.

Unaware of list

Shannon Pittman, an authority staff member hired in January and charged with making an accurate list, said Friday that she had never been given the original list or told of its existence.

When the March 2001 list is compared with the March 2005 list, however, the number of names has grown by 114 -- a result, the authority says, of those who might have moved in and out of Few Gardens while the demolition of the complex was delayed. But 42 names included on the original list have been dropped from the current version.

"There's no plausible reason for that," said Miles Simpson, who is not related to Gwen Simpson. "Something very odd is going on with the numbers. ... The whole purpose of the Hope VI project is to help these residents move into home ownership and the middle class. If you can't do that, you can try to paint whatever happy picture you want, but you have failed."

Another discrepancy is that the ages included with many names do not seem to accurately reflect the passage of time. Many are listed as being the same age they were in 2001. Others have aged more than a decade over the intervening four years, while some have even grown younger.

The ages are important because HUD requires that services be provided to those of working age -- defined as being between 18 and 64. Some of the questionable ages would place many of the residents either just younger or older than that range, effectively excising them from the study group.

"If that's an oversight, it's a purposeful oversight," said Woods, the agency's Hope VI chairwoman.

HUD now wants an accurate count of the number of Few Gardens families that the agency is helping to receive job training, complete their education or address other social needs.

After five years, only 43 of the 425 homes planned as part of the city's Hope VI program have been completed. More than 100 homes are scheduled to be completed by year's end.

The grant has the stated goal of selling at least 80 of the homes to those who lived in Few Gardens, and at least $2 million has been spent on programs to help make that happen.

To date, however, only eight former residents have completed the classwork and financial consulting designed to prepare them for homeownership. If more residents aren't ready by the time construction is complete, the new homes will be sold on the open market, with preference given to other low-income home buyers.

'Can't ... leave it'

"If you build a house, you can't just leave it sitting there," said Willie Jones, a senior vice president with The Community Builders, the housing authority's private development partner.

If only a handful of the Hope VI homes end up being sold to former Few Gardens residents, then Miles Simpson, the sociology professor, said the program will amount to little more than a taxpayer-funded gentrification program -- forcing out public housing residents to benefit middle-class home buyers.

"It's very sad," he said. "This could have been a national example of how to do a Hope VI. Now we're back to kicking these people out the door. It's a missed opportunity for Durham, and the poor will suffer."

Staff writer Michael Biesecker can be reached at 956-2421 or mbieseck@newsobserver.com.

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