Without reliable and secure ways to report poor living conditions, Section 8 tenants remain trapped in them

This blog is the first entry in a three part series chronicling the efforts and struggles of residents attempting to improve their living conditions in Section 8 housing at Houston’s Coppertree Village Apartments. Part one introduces the issue of a lack of options tenants have to directly report poor living conditions.

For the past five years, I have had the honor of working closely with tenants in Project-Based Section 8 Housing, gaining first hand insight into their experiences and lives. This invaluable opportunity has allowed me to actively engage with tenants in various communities, with one notable example being Coppertree Village in Houston.

My interactions with these individuals and families have not only entailed attentively listening to their experiences but also sharing in their struggles and challenges. This led me to the realization that superficial, incremental change is insufficient in genuinely addressing the compiling issues afflicting these communities. 

I have come to see that under the existing rules and regulations, property managers can evade accountability for the deplorable living conditions imposed upon tenants. If we truly seek genuine transformation for low-income households, it becomes imperative to swiftly implement substantial changes that prioritize the inclusion of community voices in every aspect of decision-making. 

Our present housing regulations and protocols do not adequately address the needs of tenants. In fact, there is no reliable and impartial method for tenants to deliver their grievances and receive a rapid response, which essentially condemns them to endure hazardous and unsanitary living conditions.

Considering these circumstances, it is clear that our federally subsidized housing system is flawed, and the reality is these systems still harbor remnants of Jim Crow in their substandard conditions and experiences that predominantly house Black and Brown residents. Those living in Project-Based Section 8 housing deserve to benefit from safe and sanitary federally subsidized units. However, in reality, they remain trapped in housing that not only causes physical illness but also can leave them vulnerable to mental health traumas, underperforming schools, crime, and limited economic opportunities.

To truly address these many issues, we must use social justice and civil rights as the critical lens through which we approach the challenges faced by residents of Coppertree and many places like it. We cannot afford to ignore the history of institutionalized discrimination and injustices that have resulted in the current state of neglected subsidized housing complexes like Coppertree.

Despite the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) being tasked with ensuring that poor communities have access to safe and reliable housing, current regulations do not consistently hold property owners and managers accountable for their actions. The inspection process is flawed in its design, leaving tenants without recourse when their living conditions are hazardous and management is unresponsive.

Based on my experience, individuals residing in subsidized housing have been effectively silenced, rendering them vulnerable to substandard living conditions. They find themselves in a precarious situation, fully aware that a single decision made by management could result in dire consequences. 

When I mention being silenced, I am referring to the lack of a reliable and safe platform for tenants to voice complaints and seek help regarding unfair treatment or poor living conditions in their homes. As tenants at Coppertree I’ve worked with began the process of seeking help, it became evident that they had little faith in the effectiveness of any potential resolutions. Conversations with a number of tenants consistently began with their lament that management did not care, followed by uncertainty about where else to turn for support. I guided them through the expected protocol as we researched and sought guidance.

Our research led us to Southwest Housing Compliance Corporation (SHCC), which serves as the Performance Based Contract Administrator (PBCA) for select Project-Based Section 8 properties in Texas and Arkansas on behalf of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). SHCC’s responsibilities include adjusting contract rents, processing renewals and terminations, addressing health and safety issues, handling Special Claims, and disbursing monthly voucher payments on Housing Assistance Payment contracts.

Tenants submitted complaints to Southwest Housing, but the process is one that tenants have found unfavorable. The procedure at Southwest Housing necessitates that initial communication goes to management about the complaint, essentially tipping off property officials that a tenant has reported them. With this hands-off approach, retaliatory actions are a stark reality. Given that tenants already fear management, making management aware of the complaint only exacerbates their fears. While management has occasionally taken action to address an issue after a report is made, the remedial measures are often temporary and serve only to check off a box.

Southwest Housing’s protocol involves following up with the tenant to ascertain whether the issue has been resolved. However, by this point, tenants often withdrew from the process out of fear. Without a protective system in place to safeguard tenants, their voices are effectively silenced. This is a critical issue because tenants need a space in which they can freely express themselves.

Another avenue tenants pursued for assistance was contacting HUD directly. This approach proved somewhat successful, particularly after Texas Housers became involved. Our organization aided tenants in arranging a meeting with the local HUD office, as the federal office in Washington initially would not meet with us. Tenants had attempted to contact HUD in the past, but reported not receiving satisfactory results.

Tenants also attended board meetings and city council meetings to voice their concerns and plead for assistance. These meetings were where financial decisions regarding funding at the apartments were made. 

We assisted tenants in writing letters to be included on the meeting agenda for discussion. It must be mentioned that Texas Housers had to inform tenants about these board meetings, as tenants were previously unaware of their existence and were not told that they could be present to express their opinions. This is why we must emphasize the need for tenants’ voices to be considered and valued before any decisions are made, and developers should not have the authority to speak on their behalf.

Essentially, the current lack of a reliable and safe space for tenants to voice concerns, combined with the fear of retaliation and a lack of awareness about available avenues for assistance, silences their voices. It is critical to establish a system that protects and empowers tenants, ensuring their voices are heard and respected in decision-making processes.

Next, Part two of this series will explore the legal process that tenants at Coppertree Village have explored.

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