Nightmare opportunity

December 16, 1996|By Patricia Rybak

MOVING TO Opportunity is a federally funded program that relocates Section 8 housing tenants to middle-class neighborhoods. Its administrators have diligently assured the people in those neighborhoods that the MTO tenants are carefully screened and thoroughly counseled in how to be responsible tenants and good neighbors. As an MTO landlord recently found out, however, even the best intentions can have nightmarish results.

Mrs. Johnson (not her real name), recently called WBAL-TV's consumer-advocacy group, 11 On Your Side. She charged that the tenant who had moved into her northwest Baltimore row home, touted by MTO administrators a year ago as ''one of our best,'' has done nearly $9,000 worth of damage to Mrs. Johnson's house.

Yet the landlord has been told that she has no right to evict the tenant. Worse, she is responsible for the damages, not the tenant who allegedly caused the fallen ceilings, ruined hardwood floors, pushed-out windows, broken water heater and plumbing and electrical damage. Mrs. Johnson must fix the damage or she will not receive her rental payment.

About a year ago, when Mrs. Johnson first heard about the MTO program, she was excited by an opportunity to help someone less fortunate. Moreover, the arthritis in her knees was making it increasingly painful for her to climb the stairs in her two-story row home. She decided to move into an apartment and rent out her house to an MTO tenant.

She met with officials of the Community Assistance Network and the Baltimore Housing Authority, and with the tenant-to-be. She was assured that the family would be thoroughly screened and counseled. Mrs. Johnson signed the lease and was welcomed into the program as a ''partner.'' She soon discovered that the partnership was one-sided.

The thick packet of documentation Mrs. Johnson sent us told of her efforts to get assistance from counselors, advocates, assistants, administrators, directors, supervisors, inspectors and program coordinators, each with a different view of the problem and a different version of the rules. Mrs. Johnson was confused, frustrated and getting angrier.

When I talked to officials at the Community Assistance Network and Housing and Urban Development on Mrs. Johnson's behalf, I ran into the phenomenon known as ''blaming the victim.''

Property inspection

It was suggested that Mrs. Johnson's property had problems before the tenant moved in, though it had to undergo a thorough inspection before it was accepted into the MTO program. One director said that Mrs. Johnson could take the tenant to court and collect damages. I reminded him that the tenant is not employed and therefore unable to satisfy any judgment against her.

Although the MTO program may work well in many cases, in this instance, it has failed shamefully. I see three reasons:

Inadequate tenant counseling and screening. Not only did this tenant wreck the house, she refused to pay the water bill or to purchase heating fuel, and the outside of the house was as poorly maintained as the inside, which caused the neighbors to complain.

The lack of specific information in the MTO contract relating to the landlord's recourse over damages to property where the tenant is neither cooperative nor responsible.

The lack of options available to the landlord relative to the tenant's ''one-year protection from eviction'' if the tenant proves to be destructive and irresponsible.

The MTO tenant is still living in Mrs. Johnson's house and the two women have had ''some words'' about the damages and Mrs. Johnson's desire to effect an eviction. Meanwhile, the basement windows in the home have been broken out, and there are a ''lot of people'' living in the house. Mrs. Johnson is ''afraid'' of the tenant, and especially afraid of the people living in her house. It is truly a nightmare, she says.

Patricia Rybak is director of 11 on Your Side.

Pub Date: 12/16/96

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