ASHEVILLE — One September afternoon, Bella Jackson, a Hillcrest resident, faced a team of housing inspectors. A Sept. 4 notice for the inspections had simply said they would start Sept. 8 and continue until all units were inspected. One of the largest projects run by the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville, Hillcrest houses hundreds of people. It took more than a week before inspectors arrived at the apartment Jackson shares with her family.
The inspectors were hired directly by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and their assessment was part of a larger overhaul of the management of local public housing. These inspections are intended to examine the physical state of units, and, according to housing authority administrators, their main focus is supposed to be physical maintenance. Violations are only acted on if they pose a major safety threat.
At Jackson’s apartment, the inspectors found some maintenance issues, she said, and HACA later repaired some of them. But they also “said we failed as tenants,” she said, because there was a fan in the hallway (due to the heat in the apartment).
“They said it was a fire hazard, when they could have just told us to move the fan,” she said. “In the bedroom, I had the laundry poured on the bed, and baskets to sort them. They said it wasn’t up to housekeeping standards and that other people had been put out. It was very patronizing.”
When they did a subsequent inspection, Jackson said, they entered the unit without prior notice, woke her up and again criticized her housekeeping. Her family had just returned from a trip out of town, she said. The next morning, she said, the inspectors came back, and Jackson was joined by a friend who works with a nonprofit and had a video recorder going.
“All of a sudden, they were real polite,” she said. Jackson is an activist who has been vocal about her concerns regarding some of the management changes coming to public housing.
When it comes to residents being “put out,” recent years have seen unexplained upticks in evictions of Asheville public housing residents due to “lease violations.” Some residents and local activists say such a rise poses a real concern, especially as it takes place as the Housing Authority has planned and approved a massive and sometimes controversial overhaul of its funding and management.
While HACA officials assert that the change, named Rental Assistance Demonstration, or RAD, will provide much-needed funding and better services for residents, questions over how much leeway it allows HACA to pursue public-private partnerships and whether transparency has been sufficient have already seen residents raise fears of displacement and possible privatization.
A recent rise
HACA tracks how many residents move out, and why, on an annual basis. Some residents move out voluntarily, while others do so because they’re convicted of a crime or don’t pay rent. Another category, “lease violations,” covers everything from housekeeping problems (public housing leases have cleanliness requirements) to failure to fulfill the requirement that residents must to perform eight hours of community service for an approved nonprofit.
In 2010-11, 78 households were evicted for lease violations. In each case, these numbers are for households, not individuals, so one eviction can end up displacing multiple people.
The following year, 83 households were evicted for lease violations. But in 2012-13, evictions for the same category rose sharply, to 135. The year after that, they dropped to 102 — a decline, though still higher than the lows seen between 2010 and 2012. During the same time, residents voluntarily moving out or evicted due to non-payment or criminal convictions stayed the same or declined.
The recent numbers haven’t been quite as high as those in 2008-09, when 143 households were evicted for lease violations during a time when HACA unsuccessfully pursued different overhaul of public housing under the HOPE VI program.
Certain housing developments saw higher increases than others. In 2011-12, for example, Livingston Heights in the Southside neighborhood saw just eight lease violation evictions. The next year, it shot up to 20. This year, 18 households were evicted.
Hillcrest, near downtown, saw a similar increase, from 11 evictions in 2011-12 to 22 the next year and 20 this year.
Why the rise in evictions? HACA’s Chief Operating Officer David Nash said he isn’t aware of any specific reason for it.
“I assume that there were problems with those leases,” Nash said. “There are problems that unfortunately come up from time to time, depending on who moves in. I don’t know of any overall trend that would explain the change from year to year. Enforcement has not changed.”
But the fact that the rise coincided with the years when HACA officials considered, and eventually passed, the RAD management overhaul has increased skepticism among some residents and activists about the timing and impact of that change. While the rules of the RAD program require HACA to house residents and offer them a new unit if the agency ends up redeveloping their project, it has no such requirement for residents found in violation of their lease.
“There’s a lot of fear,” said Priscilla Ndiaye, chair of the Southside Advisory Board, as residents have seen evictions rise and wondered why. “We have people who are afraid to speak up and say what they’re really thinking and feeling. They’re afraid there’s going to be some repercussions. At least right now they have a roof over their head. They feel, from what I’ve been told, that it would be held against them.”
The community group she heads is tasked with representing the concerns of neighborhood residents — many of whom live in public housing — in dealing with local governments, nonprofits and HACA as multiple changes in the area unfold.
Whatever the reason for the evictions, the displacements caused by them worries her, given Asheville’s high housing costs and the low-income status of the former residents.
“There’s very few options,” she said. “Where are they going? Are we not part of creating a higher homeless population in Asheville?”
Terms of engagement
According to the Buncombe County Clerk of Court’s office, there are about 80 eviction filings from HACA a month. Reasons include failure to pay rent and criminal convictions as well as lease violations. Most of those filings don’t result in residents being put out on the street. Nash noted that HACA frequently dismisses the proceedings if the resident pays their overdue bills or otherwise resolves the issue at hand.
“We’re a landlord; we have a lease that’s regulated by the federal government, so it has some extra protections,” Nash said. “We know it’s a challenge for some folks, and we work with them. We don’t evict people for one non-payment of rent, though we file it in court. It’s part of letting them know we’re serious.
“Most of the time, we allow them to pay up until the point where the sheriff’s going to come lock the door,” he said. “A majority of the filings are dismissed because the person pays or the situation is resolved.”
Nash said that there is an appeals process, one that he thinks gives residents a fair chance to make their case and is more than what residents in private housing receive. For anything that’s not a violent criminal or drug offense, tenants can make an internal appeal as well as fight the eviction in court.
So every time an eviction happens for any non-criminal reason, the project manager makes a decision. Then they informally review it with their supervisor. If the supervisor agrees with the eviction, the tenant can ask for a formal hearing, usually with Nash or HACA CEO Gene Bell. If they uphold the eviction, then it goes to court.
“There, the manager has to prove their case to the satisfaction of the court, and the tenants can make their defenses,” Nash said. “So there’s essentially three steps of due process review before there’s an eviction,” not counting a tenant’s right to appeal further with the courts if a magistrate rules against them following HACA’s internal appeals.
However, when the authority shifts to RAD, the process will be shortened to one informal hearing before HACA proceeds to court.
As for housekeeping, HACA’s rules and regulations range from possible safety issues (disposing of garbage, keeping sidewalks clear of hazards) to more subjective cleanliness requirements such as “keep closets clean and neat.”
“I’m sure there are concerns that they’re arbitrarily enforced,” Nash said. “But there are several safeguards for that, including giving people two or three chances to clean up any issue they had.”
The only time HACA evicts based on housekeeping alone, he added, “is for severe safety issues.” In the case of the pre-RAD inspections like the one Jackson faced, “They’re using their own judgment with things,” Nash said. The only time those inspections should deal with housekeeping problems is if there’s a safety hazard, “not routine things like laundry on the couch,” he said.
While he doesn’t have an explanation for the rise in lease violation evictions over the past two years, Nash asserts that evictions just for community service hours or housekeeping are rare.
As for the enforcement of the community service requirement over the past two years, “we have to do that under federal law,” he said, adding that eight hours a month isn’t a huge amount to ask from residents. Usually, he says, HACA gives the residents as much as an extra year to complete the requirement. Residents who work elsewhere 20 hours a week or more are exempt, as are new mothers, the pregnant, disabled, elderly and some other categories of residents.
“It’s a federal statutory requirement that if the taxpayers are paying part of their rent, they need to give back to the community in this modest way,” he said. “It’s not up to HACA’s discretion.”
According to Jackson, fulfilling that requirement isn’t always as easy as it sounds in theory. Active with several community groups, she said that for years neither she nor her husband have had a problem fulfilling her service requirement. “We volunteer a lot,” she said.
But during her first years in public housing, she remembers, the requirement posed a serious issue, and the way the program was administered caused some concerns. She notes that, as residents are responsible for connecting with a nonprofit themselves and arranging for the service hours, it can add another layer of bureaucracy and transportation challenges for those juggling children and jobs. The requirement, she asserted, isn’t always clearly explained or documented for new residents.
“All we had was food stamps, so we couldn’t take the bus to get anywhere, and they expected us to do community service,” she said. “It was really hard, and I almost got evicted. I called around and couldn’t find anywhere that would allow me to do my community service with my son. When you’re first getting started, it can be really hard.”
What’s more, many residents work at service jobs that don’t reliably give them enough hours to be exempt, so that can add to the challenges.
“It sounds good on paper,” Jackson said. “I’m all for community service. But the way it’s enforced can be really hard to figure out. For a lot of people, it just feels like one more obstacle to figure out.”
Keith DeBlasio, vice chair of the Hillcrest Residents’ Association, said the difficulties don’t stop there. As a disabled person, he added that the difficulty of becoming officially certified as disabled means that many people are often required to work community service hours despite facing significant physical or mental issues.
“I’d estimate almost 50 percent of the people here are disabled, whether they’re diagnosed or not,” he said, especially if, because of their poverty, they can’t access proper medication or treatment. The impression he’s left with, he noted, is that the community service enforcement is often arbitrary.
‘Some people get behind’
Late last spring, Nash stood in front of residents from each project and defended the move to RAD. With the shift, he explained, the community service requirement was going away. The residents in the room at each meeting expressed audible relief.
Yet one resident, who asked to remain anonymous due to fears of retaliation, faced eviction around the very same time Nash was reassuring the residents that community service requirements would be a thing of the past. Court filings show that HACA filed to evict her more than a month after those meetings, citing the fact that she and her daughter, who had recently given birth, each owed around 100 hours of community service.
“They wait until people’s hours build up and then send them the notice,” the resident, who has lived in public housing for almost a decade, said. “Some people get behind, but I feel like once you’re behind 40 to 50 hours, they should send a note instead of waiting until there’s 100 hours and they’re ready to put you out for it.”
She said that the notice was a shock, as it gave them just a month to put in over two weeks of full-time work or face homelessness. She’d often worked community service before, helping to teach other residents skills with a local nonprofit, but after she got a part-time job, the requirement became difficult to fulfill, she said.
In this case, Pisgah Legal Services represented her. While a judge sided with HACA, eventually the resident was able to clear the hours and prove her daughter was exempt due to her pregnancy and child-care responsibilities. But for residents already in dire straits, she noted, navigating the system to avoid eviction can prove a major challenge.
“How was she supposed to do community service when she was taking care of newborn kids?” she said. “They still said they weren’t going to exempt her from community service. I had to fight for my apartment. I finally got her exempt after going to DSS and getting three or four papers saying she was exempt. It was just a bunch of mess when they [HACA] could have just exempted her.
“I felt like they were just trying to give me the runaround, like they wanted me to lose my apartment. But I fought for it, and I kept it.”
Nash said that HACA had little choice in proceeding with pushing for eviction for community service violations, despite the fact that the requirement was on its way out.
However, he did note that over the summer — though he didn’t specify what date — the authority decided to stop evicting residents if they failed to fulfill their community service hours.
“There was no particular cut-off. We just decided that right now, pending the RAD conversion, it didn’t make sense to evict people if that was the only reason,” he said.
Fears and doubts
“Nobody has come to me about it,” Nash said of concerns about evictions. “I’m happy to respond to any of them.”
But Jackson, for her part, is critical of the way HACA and HUD inspectors and staff have behaved in dealing with inspections and community service issues.
“It’s not an attitude that you’re a person and maybe you have a life and a situation going on,” she said. “We’re always expected to be the model tenant, ready to host them whenever they drop through.”
Ndiaye said that she believes that whatever the reason, a rise in evictions coming during a major transition for public housing calls for more thought about how the changes proceed and whom they impact.
“If we don’t assist people in becoming part of sustainable living, we’re going to be impacted too,” she said. “The crime rate is going to go up, and you’re going to have people flooding the homeless shelters. The children aren’t going to be functioning, and it’s going to create an even greater impact on society.
“We have an increase of bitter and angry community members,” she added. “We’ve got to have some critical conversations. We have to do better.”
Any rise in evictions, Jackson said, doesn’t bode well for one of the last guaranteed sources of housing for many in Asheville who might otherwise be homeless.
“Public housing is where people end up, people who’ve been homeless, who’ve had felonies, who have bad credit,” Jackson said. “This is where we live because nowhere else will take us, especially in Asheville right now because of how popular it is. If they change here, where is everybody going to go?”