------- A Presentation on Allen Parkway Village to the Unitarian Fellowship, Wirt Road by Lenwood E. Johnson, January 12, 1997. ------- The following was excerpted from a Sunday morning service at the Unitarian Fellowship in Houston, Texas. Transcribed from audio cassette by Emily Nghiem: P.O. Box 981101, Houston, TX 77098 (713)867-5998 who welcomes your comments and contributions to the Allen Parkway Community Campus: Telephone: (281)-709-3001 Lenwood Johnson, APV Resident Council and Free Man's Neighborhood Association, e-mail: January 12, 1997. Wirt Road Fellowship. Lenwood Johnson, Speaker. Emily Nghiem: I light this candle for peace and justice, and equal voice in government. Lenwood Johnson: I am Lenwood Johnson, from Allen Parkway Village. I would like to light a candle for the many of our homeless individuals who are on the streets tonight. Because this weather is horrible. And especially with so many little kids who are homeless, too. So many people are slipping through the net, and becoming homeless, and being kicked out of their property and whatnot. But I say that in light of the 1,000 units, structurally sound units at Allen Parkway Village that could have easily been made livable for about $7,000 a unit, which is just being torn down because the city wants to redevelop that area. So I light a candle for all those who need housing, and I am recommitting myself at this minute, at this time, to continue to fight for those who have no one to fight for them. Music and Readings: "We are a gentle, angry people ... a justice-seeking people ..." William Ware's two selections from Kahlil Gibran: "The Two Cities" and "The Palace and the Hut." William Ware: I would like to introduce our speaker for the day. His name is Lenwood Johnson. He is a native of Brenham, Texas. He attended Prairieview A&M University for 3 years with a major in physics. He stopped school to work--because of the lack of money--[and continued to work]. After working several jobs, Johnson got a job in the petrochemical industry. Mr. Johnson spent 15 years in petrochemicals, working for such companies as Exxon, Upjohn chemical company... In 1978 he became very ill, quite likely from chemical exposure. Mr. Johnson was a single parent when he became ill, and could not afford housing in the private market, so in 1980 he managed [to get] an apartment in the Allen Parkway Village. When Johnson saw the conditions in the public housing units, he used his skills to help other public housing residents and was elected the president of the Resident's Council in 1983. Since that time...for 16 years, Mr. Johnson has led a fight to save Allen Parkway Village (that's how long it's been on the chopping block, and that's how long he's worked to try to save it) and has been able to influence the passage of Frost-Leland legislation in Congress to have the APV listed as a historical district by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Mr. Johnson also served on Boards of the Low-Income Information Service out of Washington, D.C. and the National Low-Income Housing Coalition. In 1990, Mr. Johnson received a Congressional appointment to the National Commission for Severely Distressed Public Housing. That commission was to find solutions and make recommendations to Congress. Congress eventually passed a bill implementing those recommendations, and that is called the HOPE VI program, which I hope he will explain more. (Mr. Johnson, please.) Lenwood Johnson: Thank you very much. Mr. Ware read a piece earlier that talked about people engaging in activities to help their fellow man, and I think that is what God wants us to get involved in--to engage in activities that help our fellow man. There are many, many books of the Bible, in the New Testament and in the Old Testament, and sometimes we get confused, but one of the things we have to just remember is that people are God's children. And if you put God in the parent's position, you can understand that he loves his children, all of them--the good ones, the bad ones, and between. Parents love their children. And if we work with God's children, and we do things to help God's children, and we do things to aid God's children in living a wholesome life, you will be looked on affectionately by God. And that's in our day-to-day dealings: How would God treat his own children? That's all we need to ask ourselves, and we need to act accordingly. The introduction that Mr. Ware gave was kind of lengthy, and he said he wanted me to explain the HOPE VI program. There was an 18-member commission appointed in 1990, where Congress had a choice of appointing [members], [in other words], the House had a choice of appointing 6 commissioners, the Senate had 6 commissioners, and the President had 6 commissioners that they were going to appoint to this commission that was going to deal with severely distressed public housing and how to eliminate it by the year 2000. That commission traveled all over the country, and in some cases overseas. (I didn't make the overseas trip because they had kind of a reimbursement policy, and my organization, which Ms. Scyrus, who is in the audience is a part of, had to raise the money a lot of times to try to get me there on the basis of being reimbursed later. What would happen, your reimbursement came from the Department of the Treasury; and a lot of times, you would only get a fraction of the budget you submitted, or the expenditures you submitted.) But basically, that commission came up with some very good ideas, had a total of about 3 public housing residents on it, a number of city mayors, U.S. Congresspeople, and business people on it. It was a very diverse commission, from all races. And they were looking at ways of solving public housing problems, and went all over the country to talk to people to get ideas and consolidate all those ideas in one workable program. And that came out to be HOPE VI, which was submitted to Congress in a final report a few years back. Out of the HOPE VI program, Houston got $36 million to take a distressed public housing project and turn it around--not to demolish it--the program was for taking these projects and turning them around, doing the necessary things. And it was supposed to have an infusion of money, supposed to involve the people in the projects themselves, as opposed to letting the current system work. And the current system is that under the 1937 Housing Act (and Will, you're going to have to help me keep time in this case) under the 1937 Housing Act, which came about because of some of the same problems we're having today. And that is international economic chaos, and stress. We're having that today just like it was in 1929/30 when we had the depression. But out of the '37 Housing Act which came after the Depression, it was this economic chaos and stress that caused this country and all the other Western powers to start implementing social programs. That's where Social Security came from, that's where public housing came from, that's where welfare came from--all the safety nets that are supposed to protect people came from that era [the New Deal Era]. But under that system, for the public housing's part, Congress passed a bill where the federal government would fund and subsidize people of low income. They'd also provide money for building public housing. That's how Allen Parkway Village got built--a 1,000-unit project just west of downtown. (And I'll tell you more about the location and other things later.) The program permits the local mayor, in our case, in the City of Houston, to appoint a board that will have control of the money that would come from the federal government, which in this case, in the case of the City of Houston, they get $58 million of your taxpayers' money--$58 million each year to provide for low-income people in this city. But that $58 million only supports roughly about 3,000/now 3,500 public housing units and about 7,000 Section 8 private housing units (which is not public housing, but it's private housing but it's federally subsidized; the public housing is owned by the public and subsidized by the public, too, so it's two systems, but under that system the mayor appoints a board. That 5-member board of commissioners, many times, they know nothing about poor people. They're international brokers, they've never been poor. Half of them, when they get the appointment, and probably even after they get the appointment, never put foot in public housing; yet, they make the financial policy-making decisions--how people should, what rules people should live under--without ever consulting with the poor people. So under that system, it's not/there's not very much input and knowledge. The lack of information has led to the deficit of the program--no matter how good the program--the lack of information and the lack of will has led to the program faltering. This commission that I was a part of wanted to take the people who were eliminated, the people who were there who could see how the program was working, who would be able/there to make some changes, and bring them into the process. Because without that knowledge and that information, the system's going to continue to fail. And the tax dollars are going to continue to be wasted. Now why are the tax dollars being wasted? {1} For one, the commissioners don't know what's going on, so that's one way it gets wasted. {2} The second reason it gets wasted, is that the mayors of these cities often times use this (in our case) $58 million (but other cities get millions of dollars, too) use that to pay off his political debt(s), reward people who helped him to get elected. And as a result, many of those people get contracts that eat up that $58 million, that spend that $58 million. But a board, appointed by the mayor, who then turns around and hires the mayor's friends--there's no accountability there. Because that board knows if they enforce a bond (and all these people, these contractors have to be bonded) if they enforce that bond against the mayor's friends, they are out of there. And they know that, so they don't do that. That's the end of their political career with this particular administration, if they want to be looked on favorably in this city from the political arena (and most of the time many a politician came up through the public housing as commissioners-- Eleanor Tinsley is one, there are several others who have been city council people and others who have utilized public housing). But/So we wanted to change that system; and from talking to people, even other mayors wanted it changed. And that's how the recommendations came out like they were in the HOPE VI program. But I told you a little about Allen Parkway Village, and where is it located, but why has it been in the media for many, many years, and the struggle has continued for many, many years, is a question that many people don't understand. For one, the talk about demolishing Allen Parkway Village came about in 1976. That was the last major assault on that area which is Freedman's Town. Allen Parkway Village was built in an all-black neighborhood; but they turned the project into a white project--after promising the community that it would be a black project--but it was turned into all-white. People like Kenny Rogers, the country and western singer stayed there. Even the mayor's sister, Mayor Lanier's sister stayed there; and he, in front of news media, was bragging or reminiscing about how a wonderful time it was when his sister stayed there. (We wouldn't be surprised if he didn't stay a while there, too, with his sister, but we have no proof that he stayed there.) But the mayor's sister actually lived in Allen Parkway Village. And blacks got in there, and Hispanics got in there as a result of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But in the building of Allen Parkway Village, it got national acclaim the way it was built, because it's one of the best built housing projects. And since I've traveled city after city and looked at their housing developments, I would say those are some of the best built buildings in the country. The walls, just for example, are 15 inches thick; there's dead space, about 2-3 inches of dead space between the exterior wall and the interior wall. Low maintenance, because it's made out of hard type plaster interior that you can actually wash down with water hoses. It's just that durable (as opposed to sheetrock, which if you get a leak, the whole ceiling caves in on you). But we're tearing them down, because in 1976, businessmen decided they wanted that area--Freedman's Town area--which was a freed, a community developed by freed slaves, where they developed their own schools and everything when the segregation/at the end of 1865. But those businesses decided they wanted that area, but they didn't want the whole area (it's about a 300-acre area of Freedman's Town, remaining). They wanted a front on Allen Parkway to develop--what--luxury housing. And they even calculated how many units they could build and be able to sell there by 1990-- I'm talking about 1976, now--how much of that luxury housing market they could capture in the downtown area. And as a result of that, city officials, politicians, and all started to move to demolish Allen Parkway Village--get it out of the way--because other consultants came back and told them that you can't sell luxury housing on the front of Allen Parkway (the street Allen Parkway) without, without `changing the characteristics of the area.' You might not understand that in developer's terms, but the `characteristic' of that area is low-income and black. And if you're talking about building $500,000 condominiums, who's gonna buy a $500,000 condominium plugged right in between a black community? They won't buy it, because in Houston--and they might buy it in other cities--but in Houston, there are too many other planned communities where you can select your environment; and, therefore, you can't compete. ([Now listen] I'm telling you what the consultants told them after you take that language--and we had urban planners to take these reports and `decipher' them for us, but you can't just read that and see that in there. They use terms that we don't understand, but urban planners have taken these and deciphered them and done summaries of them.) But because of those developers wanting to take over this public housing project and sell the front of it for luxury housing, they decided that all of Freedman's Town had to go to change the characteristics of the area. They already closed down the hospital (because we're working our way through that process). They've closed down the hospital, they want to demolish all of Allen Parkway Village, and we said `No. The buildings are too good. We've got too many people who need these units.' And so we fought and we kept them, stopped them until June. And what happened in June, we had to go to court to enforce the existing court order in some kind of way, with the help--and I'm told about this not, by me, not by members of the Resident Council, but other law firms that we went to for help--that our own lawyers sabotaged the motion to enforce the court order, sabotaged the case. Two law firms told me that, and as a result nobody else would touch it. But in that, a federal judge--the first time ever in the country, and we've checked with some national organizations--a federal judge ordered public housing tenants out of Allen Parkway Village, when there's the state law that's controlling here, that gives that order to a Justice of the Peace court, a community court, the people's court, so to speak. A federal judge ordered us out, gave us 48 hours to get out, which is--I mean--unreal. And actually some families had less than 2-1/2 hours to get out; and our office, the Resident Council office, had to move in that same period of time of 2-1/2 hours. And it devastated us, really. But out of that chaos, all of those years, there's some good: {1} We got the city away from the idea of demolishing all 1,000 units, and scattering the units all over the city, when there was no way to replace those, no money to replace those units, not a penny to replace those units. But they were going to demolish them, and they were going to replace them. When you don't have money, you can't replace them. But the public couldn't/didn't understand that. We got them up to saving 300 units, and the public bought that. And that's how they were able to do, to get rid of it. They offered the public something, and the public said "That sounds good". "We are going to keep...the units there, and then we're going to build some more units to make 500 on site." Well, in the meantime, they're demolishing 70 percent, or more, of the development; and we think that's just to get their feet in the door. Since they couldn't demolish them all, they're going to demolish 70 percent of them now and give you an "Indian treaty," and then come back and get the rest of them later. They're the ones in power, the community is busy, the residents understand, but it's hard to get that association with the residents to mix with other groups--and that's not just here, that's public housing across the country--mix with other groups and get other support from other groups. So by offering a so-called compromise, we're demolishing units (not right at the minute, but they've been demolishing them on the weekends, Saturdays, trying to get them down, while people are on the street), when with the $36 million, with the other money that the residents have fought to keep available for Allen Parkway Village, which totals about $50-some million dollars, to rehab Allen Parkway Village, we're going to tear down good units and then build new units. Now, our consultants say that we could renovate, modernize any units for $25,000. If we just want to make it livable, with meeting the code, clean, safe and sanitary, decent housing, that can be done for as little as $7,000. But if you want to modernize and put a new electrical system... `Modernization' means upgrading, because the electrical system you currently have was designed in 1938/39, when many people didn't even electricity. But the system is a fine system. It works well today--it's overloaded--but it works well. It had maintained/worked well until June, but it needed modernization. To tell you how badly Allen Parkway needed modernization, it still had the original roof they put on there in 1942. Now they had money to replace it, but they refused to replace it, because didn't want anybody living there. They had money to maintain it, and they'd get a subsidy for each unit each month, but they wouldn't do that, because they didn't want people to be able to live there. They started pushing people out, although they were receiving subsidies for each unit each month, but the units were vacant. And that's why we ended up filing a lawsuit, because they were getting money, to provide housing for low-income people, and low-income people were sleeping on the street. Where was the money going? We don't know. We haven't been able to find out yet. We got a court order against them to do an audit of the money; and about that time, some kind of way--we had legal services lawyers, which is a federally-funded program--some kind of way, our legal services turned/became heads of the Mayor Lanier campaign finance committee when he was running for election in '90. We didn't find this out right away, but we just know that they stop representing our interests and tried to get us to agree to a full demolition, and then they came with 150 units. We are up to 300 units today, but it probably go drop down. Last I heard, it was 235. It dropped down from 300 to 266, and now it's down to 235, so I don't know how many we're going to end up with (I told you about "Indian treaties"). But I wanted to also tell you what good came out of that, like I said, from 0 units to 300 units I think is a major accomplishment and well worth the fight. Of viable housing that we could have modernized and upgraded for $25,000, we are going to end up replacing--you all, you all are going to pay for it, if it gets replaced, because the city [will not put any money into public housing], it's going to have to come from your federal tax dollars- $80,000/unit for new construction to build one [unit] ([or $80 million to build 1,000 units], which you might say is too much, but no, it's not too much) to ensure that you get a unit that will last for the 25-year bonding period, because they have to be bonded for 25 years. You need to spend about $80,000 per unit in this area, in this market, because of labor costs and material costs in this area--$80,000 when we could have fixed up the existing units for $25,000/unit. If you multiply that times 1000, you're talking about the difference between $25 million to rehab and modernize Allen Parkway Village--fully modernize, and develop the community campus plan, that the residents developed from their neighborhood--[and $80 million] for new construction of those units, as there is a one-to-one replacement law (in effect when this went through). So/But all of this is because of the greed of local developers who want to take over that area. Now out of that: {1} the 300 units; also {2} the people in the neighborhood--and I'm talking about rank-and-file, I'm not talking about the leadership of the neighborhood, I'm talking about rank-and-file--recognize(d) that we need to come up with something that will benefit the people. Because, looking at the situation, since Freedman's Town was formed in 1865, Allen Parkway Village built in '42, all decisions made about the area have been made by outsiders-- aliens. Imagine a `man from Mars' being President of the United States, and making decisions for the United States--that's what it amounts to. And the decisions were the city mayors'/ developers', and they made decisions that would benefit them, not for the people's needs. Their interest was making money, and a developer is just like a shark who swims to be able to continue to breathe. A developer has to develop every year if he's going to make a living. If that's his sole source of making a living, if he doesn't develop anything, he doesn't really make a living. And rehab'ing is usually much cheaper than building new/new construction. And so developers have to develop; if he doesn't develop, he goes out of business. So they get the money, they get the power, and they use the political officials to move their agenda. But out of that, {2} the people decided they had to come up with something that would benefit the people. We were fortunate enough in getting this University of Houston (late) professor Nia Becnel, who was in architecture, to come to the neighborhood-- all of Freedman's Town, I'm not just talking about Allen Parkway Village--who began to pull ideas from the community and these were meetings, meetings, meetings, meetings, meetings! And they came up with the picture(s) you'd seen outside, of the Allen Parkway Community Campus (and I put one sheet, with the black on it, the dark picture, did you-all get one of those? Somebody hold one of those up for me please, did you get one of those?). They came up with that idea, that's the Community Campus Concept; and in that concept, it will bring low-income people into the 21st century. It will get, it's welfare reform, because it actually works on self-sufficiency. It takes an individual from where he is, and will help him to develop the skills where he can make enough money to support and provide for his own housing. And in this community, in this economy here, that's going to have to be around $23/24,000 a year, now, for a family of two, a parent and the child. If we can train people to get the necessary marketable skills, that's how you become self- sufficient. You've got to have marketable skills. (Watchmaking, in this day and age, will not get you a job, because they don't have moving parts anymore, they're all electronic.) So it's got to be a marketable skill, so that the person can make sufficient money to afford his own housing. Housing. Because housing is the most expensive basic necessity out of food, clothing, and shelter (of course, medical is just as important, in this day and age, if you are going to function and live), and our program will do all that. It contains welfare reform, health-care reform, and public housing reform. If you can afford housing (food and clothing), it's better; and how we planned to help with health- care reform is by having a health clinic helped/manned by medical students right there on the site. The program was so good that we were able to get the federal government, Secretary of H.U.D. [Housing and Urban Development] Henry Cisneros, to endorse the program in 1994, in March of '94. Sec. Cisneros agreed to fund the proram. This city has fought the residents of Allen Parkway Village so hard, that they were able to stall us and get the budget cut from a million to/down to $300,000, and they're still trying to stifle the program. Meanwhile, Sec. Cisneros earlier (this [past] year if my facts are not off) early in '96--last year, at least--in early '96, held a nationwide press conference, talking about the new program that he envisioned for public housing. And when we, we got, started getting calls from Washington, D.C., and across the country, saying `he has stolen your program.' But as a result of that, H.U.D. is trying to implement this in 4 other cities: Cleveland, Washington, D.C., Denver, and Philadelphia. This city is still trying to stamp the program out, attacking the residents (and Will you're going to have to start pointing to your watch...I'm not a dependable timekeeper here). This city and Mayor Lanier are trying to stomp this out and keep this from happening. They are also trying to prevent us from being able to utilize the funds, the $300,000 that has been committed. The latest thing that they did, was that the housing authority took public housing money, that was supposed to be providing shelter, and hired a law firm to investigate the Resident Council. Now, what's bad about that: the housing authority 1996 budget--I hadn't seen the '97 budget--but the '96 budget had over a million dollars for a legal department within the housing authority (which has two attorneys, clerks, paralegals, whatnot); but instead, this housing authority hires an outside law firm, which they hired back, originally I think they hired the same law firm in 1988, and they had to give about a $250,000 retainer just to get the law firm to represent them, money upfront, before the law firm would represent them. I don't know how much they paid this time, or if they paid anything, but they hired this law firm to investigate the Resident Council. The problem is, is that we leased our facility to a church, the community building to a church; and they are trying to say that the Resident Council overcharged the church for the community building. And the church is a private entity, we are a private entity, we are free to negotiate a contract just like the League of Women Voters, the N.A.A.C.P., Urban League, or Houston Chamber of Commerce. But they keep threatening, the officers saying `you're going to be evicted' and you get this big certified letter from some law firm, these are the kind of things that they constantly do to harm us. Another thing they've done recently is that there's a new law for "minimum rents," and I'm not going into details, but Congresspeople were worried that these new minimum restrictions were going to put too much of a hardship on poor people; so Congress, they got, they compromised to add another portion of the law that would make the housing authority hire social workers (to help them find money) from other social agencies and churches, and refer them there, they would use them as a referral service, and send them there to get the rent that they needed, then come back and give them to the housing authority. Where they drove us out in June--they split us up--in my development, we found out that this manager has been going to some of these social service agencies and telling them `not to send the money.' And the families, thinking that their rent is paid, next thing they know, the sheriff is at their door, serving them an eviction notice, and they've got to go to court for nonpayment of rent. And in Texas there is no defense for nonpayment of rent--no defense. So you don't have a chance. You can only appeal to the good faith of a judge. That's what they're doing to some of Allen Parkway Village people, and a number of us are in eviction courts right now, and a number of us are going to end up in the eviction court, because they keep trying to harass us. -- NEXT PAGE (page 2 of 2)
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