On July 1, Wanda Saunders stared out the window of her apartment as uniformed men with German shepherds went door-to-door at Columbia Square Apartments. Saunders wasn’t sure what the men were up to, but since they didn’t come to her door she went back to watching TV.
When Saunders later found out the men and dogs were conducting random drug searches of the property, she saw it as just one more intrusion into the lives of Columbia Square residents by Yarco, the private, Kansas-City-based management company that took over the federally subsidized 128-unit complex at 1801 W. Worley St. two years ago.
“I don’t feel I even have any rights anymore,” Saunders said. “Nobody around here has rights.”
Gloria Harvey used to live at Columbia Square, but recently moved to housing owned and run by the Columbia Housing Authority. Harvey is much happier in her new home, which is
managed by a local government agency that is subject to greater oversight by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“I feel a lot better here,” Harvey said. “I have a lot more freedom to do what I want.”
Saunders and Harvey both receive rental assistance from HUD. Saunders lives in one of the 121 Columbia Square apartments that are part of HUD’s Section 8 program. Harvey is a resident of more traditional public housing — built, owned and managed by the government.
The perspectives of the two women reflect the very different management styles at Columbia Square and CHA housing, as well as the different standards of accountability at two taxpayer-subsidized housing complexes.
The canine-assisted drug searches at Columbia Square caused an outcry among residents and some community leaders who saw Yarco’s tactic as a fundamental violation of tenant rights. Doris Chiles, director of the Columbia Housing Authority, said that such a search would never happen at properties managed by her agency.
“We have the right to inspect the properties if we give proper notice,” Chiles said. “But I have just never thought of using dogs. It’s not something we would do.”
Both CHA and Columbia Square give tenants prior notice of any maintenance or management inspections — 48 hours at CHA units, 24 hours at Columbia Square. However, differences exist in how those policies are carried out, Columbia Square residents said.
At CHA, “they always give you notice,” said Allen Logan, a former CHA resident who now spends much of his time baby-sitting at Columbia Square. “Here they knock a few times and walk right in.”
Federal law does not prohibit random drug searches at traditional public housing complexes. However, tenants who disagree with management rulings have the right to have their cases reviewed under a federally mandated greivance process. Tenants who want to appeal a decision by management can request an informal hearing to discuss the problem.
Tenants can also ask for a formal hearing with a three-member panel consisting of a CHA board member, a member of the community and another public housing resident.
Ed Berg, an attorney with the nonprofit group Mid-Missouri Legal Services, said the greivance process at CHA is an important right for public housing residents, who often have a lot to lose in disputes with management.
“You are dealing with a very vulnerable population,” Berg said. “If they lose their houses, they may lose their kids and their jobs, too.”
A comparison of the grievance processes at CHA and Columbia Square show Columbia Square residents have much less recourse when they get crosswise with management. Dan Fletcher, a Yarco employee who manages Columbia Square, says there is a greivance procedure.
However, it’s basically another chance to appeal to the same management that made the original decision.
For example, tenant complaints about the drug searches have largely been ignored. Fletcher justified them by pointing out that they had turned up some drugs. However, Fletcher will not say how many tenants were found with drugs, how much and what kind of drugs were found, or whether he intends to have anyone evicted or prosecuted for a crime.
Roy Pierce, director of the HUD field office in St. Louis, acknowledges that subsidized housing owned and managed by a private company is subjected to much less oversight than public housing complexes run by local government agencies. Yarco is only required to operate Columbia Square in a safe and sanitary manner, he said. They are not bound by the same regulations that mandate greivance procedures such as those followed at CHA.
“We don’t go down to that level with our ownership and management groups,” Pierce said.
Although federal money supports the tenants at both types of housing, Columbia Square is not nearly as accountable as CHA is to HUD, the funding agency. Pierce said holding private management to the same standards as those required of CHA would be like a bank telling mortgage holders how to decorate their houses.
“If you are in a market-rate situation, there would be no greivance procedure besides what is in the lease,” Pierce said.
How Yarco and CHA handle unwanted visitors also differs. Both complexes maintain no-trespass lists. However, at CHA properties, those on the list are informed in writing. At Columbia Square, those on the list are verbally informed by a security guard.
But Columbia Square tenants complain that management does not inform them or their visitors who is on the list.
“Half the people they arrest (for trespassing) have no idea they were on that list until they are arrested,” Saunders said.
Columbia Square resident Shelia Ricker claims that many are added to the list for petty reasons.
“The security guard has told me that my son’s father cannot be here,” Ricker said. “All because his car was not tagged properly.”
Recently, community activists Mary Hussman, Brenda Proctor and Robin Acree of Grass Roots Organizing were added to the no-trespass list at Columbia Square for attempting to start a tenants’ association. Fletcher said the women were barred after management received several complaints of harassment from tenants. GRO was only recently allowed onto the property, but only as long as they were accompanied by a tenant.
Fletcher pointed out that Yarco has been a good steward of Columbia Square. The company is building a park for the tenants, as well as a social-service center that will provide residents with access to computers and an opportunity to earn a Graduate Equivalency Degree.
“The employees here are very involved with these activities and with the residents,” Fletcher said. “Very few, if any, management companies provide these types of services for their residents.”
However, Wanda Saunders, who lost her job two years ago and has not been able to find another, won’t be around to enjoy such perks. Saunders, 54, and her two children are being evicted next month for lease violations. According to the eviction notice she received from Yarco, Saunders is guilty of having a guest exceed the speed limit in the Columbia Square parking lot, of leaving garbage on her patio and of having one of her children walk through a construction zone. She doesn’t know where she and her family will live.
“I wish they had a grievance procedure like that here,” Saunders said. “If they did it would be worth a try to appeal my eviction.”