The Housing Authority: Clustering, A Housing Authority Ignoring Its Stated Mandate – II of V

At the center of the Housing Authority controversy is a proposed 144-unit quadraplex project known as the Suncrest Townhomes. This proposed project is slated to be located near Sunland Park in a concentration of other low-income projects. The Suncrest Townhomes is a proposed partnership composed of local developer Ike Monte and the Housing Authority’s nonprofit entity, the Paisano Housing Development Corporation. According to documents submitted in the proposal, the project is intended to provide housing for low-income individuals earning from $8,650 to $24,720 annually. The complex is to be funded, at least partially from the sale of Federal Tax Credits created for this purpose. Although the Housing Authority has tried to portray the illusion that it only owns three other low-income units in the area, the reality is that there are at least 680 low-income units within a quarter mile of each other, although not all owned by the Authority. In addition to this, another 160-unit complex targeting extremely low-income earners is expected to be managed by the local Housing Authority under the Section 8 program in the area.

During the 1960’s and 70’s, it became prevalent in the nation to build large public housing projects in clusters within the city’s of the nation. People soon realized that the “clustering” of these projects was not only discriminatory upon the low-income earners but it also created social problems for the communities in which these were located. The clustering of low-income earners effectively separated them from the rest of the city and in effect ostracized the residents from their own community. This segmentation of the neighborhoods has led to problems with schooling and increased criminal activity. According to an article in the local daily on January 17, 2003, Sun Metro has refused to service the area, (which coincidently is the same area destined for the Suncrest Townhomes), after dark because of rock attacks against the buses. According to the article, residents of the community were forced to return home before sundown because of the lack of transportation. Since these residents are predominantly low-income wage earners and their transportation is usually limited to the buses which were no longer servicing this community, this in effect, segregates them from the rest of the community.

By separating the low wage earners from the rest on the community, the city sends a strong message to those in the projects that they have no opportunity to participate with the rest of the city. This eventually leads to resentment between neighborhoods and the perception that once in the tenement you could never leave it. In some ways, this could be an underlining cause of the rock throwing incidents.

In the late 1990’s, El Paso seemed to jump on the bandwagon of declustering projects by demolishing 124 units of the 240 units known as the Kennedy Brothers Memorial Apartments. According to some reports, the complex was riddled with crime, drugs and gangs. Unfortunately in early 2001, those units were replaced with another 174-unit development, which spans over 15 acres. The Kennedy Estates is a surreal complex made up of approximately 174 identical units, with some selling for $65,000, while the others are rentable units located near the remaining Kennedy Brothers.

From the research to date it is obvious that clustering low-income wage earners in sections of the community is not only detrimental to the neighborhoods but also to those the Housing Authority advocates helping. The question that the community should be asking themselves is why is the Housing Authority so intent on seemingly grouping the economically depressed population into clusters? According to the Housing Authority’s mandate, it is incumbent upon them to help low-income wager earners rise above their poverty and better integrate themselves into the economy of the city. What better way to do this then by building low-income housing projects among a broad section of the community instead of clustering them together? By their own actions, the Housing Authority seems intent on clustering low-income wage earners into cookie-cutter communities, raising the question, is El Paso’s Housing Authority following their stated mandate or is there another agenda as of yet not made public?

This issue of “clustering” has even led the State to enact legislation against “clustering” low-income projects together. Starting in September 1 of this year, SB 264 specifically declares that projects within one mile of another Low-Income Housing Project will not be funded. Fortunately for El Paso’s Housing Authority this mandate will not effect them as the Suncrest Townhomes will be “grand fathered” if approved, even though the proposed location of this project is only 100 feet from the Mesa Townhomes, another Low Income Housing Tax Credit Project. Even though this may not apparently affect them, the obvious problem with this project in regards to clustering has by some indications made the proponents of the project suggest that they would consider moving it to another location. The problem with this suggestion is that the current stage of the project is such that moving it at this time is impossible as the State of Texas has specific language prohibiting the change of site once the application has been submitted. Some individuals have speculated that it may be possible for the Suncrest Townhomes project to affect a change of site after an award is extended but no one has come forward to positively offer this as an alternative.

Clustering was also the lynchpin of City Representative Anthony Cobos’ written opposition to this project. In his letter addressed to the Governing Board of TDHCA on May 28, 2003, Cobos’ wrote that one reason for his opposition is “the overabundance of public housing currently, with over 591 units existing and another 200 planned by the local Housing Authority this year”. Cobos added, “the Suncrest Townhomes project is reaching the point of discrimination and red-lining, by forcing poor families to live in one isolated area”. Even U.S. Congressman Silvestre Reyes, in a letter to Edwina Carrington, Executive Director of the Texas Department of Housing, dated July 9, 2003 writes that “the issues raised by Representative Cobos merit detailed review of this project by the TDHCA board with particular attention being paid to issues of public housing concentration”. Congressmen Reyes submitted this letter in effect to rescind a previous one he had originally submitted in support of the Housing Authority’s Project. Even the City of El Paso has jumped into the mêlée of this issue as it held a contentious debate in regards to this specific project. On the June 17, 2003 City Council Agenda, in the additions to the Agenda, under the Consent Agenda, the item; “Resolution that the City of El Paso expresses to The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs its opposition to the public housing project known as Suncrest Townhomes project #03223”, the City Council in effect said, “we don’t want this project”.

Cobos’ opposition to the project, according to testimony given during the Council’s debate was based on the notion that by allowing this development to continue, the city would in effect allow the clustering of the economic disadvantaged of the city. According to his argument, allowing this building to proceed would cluster low-income individuals within a specific part of the city while at the same time lowering the property values of the surrounding neighborhood. After lengthy discussions, City Council, on a tie vote, broken by Mayor Joe Wardy; City Council sent its strong opposition to further “clustering” of the city’s poor.

It is assumed that just the notion that there might be a clustering problem should be sufficient grounds by which any entity who truly believes in its mandate that “reject[s] the idea that public housing should be a way of life” as Rudolf Montiel proudly proclaims in his Welcome Letter on the Housing Authority’s website would be sufficient grounds by which to withdraw from this project. Of course, it is much easier to pay lip service to a mandate then it is to actually live by it.  When there is doubt as to the sincerity of any entity, the best course of action is to determine the truth by the quantifiable actions of the entity. In this case, the evidence suggests that the El Paso Housing Authority would rather ignore its mandate for the people it says it serves in return for as of yet unknown benefit. This unknown benefit should be sufficient cause for concern for the taxpayer’s of El Paso. Unfortunately this debacle is only the beginning as the Suncrest Project has still more problems then just clustering.

Author’s note: This is a five part series that started on Friday, today’s piece, tomorrow’s piece, Tuesday and the conclusion on Wednesday. Tomorrow’s portion is titled: Insubordination: You Wouldn’t Let Your Employee Get Away With It, Or, Would You?

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