Appeal for housing aid stretches into 10 years

Woman is stymied by agency's errors

January 31, 2002|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Cathleen Jones has done just about everything she can to get city housing assistance. She has applied three times, written the former housing commissioner twice and had a U.S. senator and the City Council president write letters on her behalf.

But after more than a decade of fighting, the single mother of three children - one with Down syndrome - is still waiting for help.

"I said, `I'll just wait my turn, and my turn never came,' " Jones, 37, a secretary with the Social Security Administration, said as she sat in her parents dimly lighted living room in West Baltimore.

Jones is one of thousands of people denied help because of sloppy management in the city's Section 8 rental assistance program, which the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has called "barely functional."

For years, about 15,000 people languished on a waiting list as roughly 2,300 rental assistance vouchers were available but not being put to use.

City officials are working to turn around the Section 8 program in the Housing Authority of Baltimore City or risk having it taken over by the federal government. Michael H. Kramer, who was brought in last year to fix the program, said he's trying to help other people in situations like Jones'.

"When these come in, we give the applicant the benefit of the doubt," Kramer said. "We're trying to make a professional program. Individual cases, when they are brought to our attention, we can deal with. Gradually we want to update all files."

Kramer recently sent postcards to people on the waiting list to find out whether they still wanted aid. About 8,000 have said they do.

About 9,000 city residents receive Section 8 housing assistance, which helps low-income families pay rent on apartments or houses. Under the program, an eligible family pays 30 percent of its income for rent and Section 8 makes up the difference in approved apartments.

Jones' case is different from those who have languished on the waiting list. She has been waiting for help for a decade because of three missed letters and clumsy management.

She says she first applied in 1989, when her oldest daughter was an infant. At the time, she was living with her parents in the 1900 block of W. Fayette St. and trying to get a college degree in business administration. She soon abandoned that dream and took a job paying $8,000 a year sorting cashed checks at a local bank.

Unknown to her, she was taken off the waiting list in January 1993 because a letter sent to her parents' home of 20 years was returned "address unknown," housing officials said.

No one can explain why the letter was returned to the department, though housing records show that officials at one point had the wrong ZIP code for the house.

Jones discovered that her name had been taken off the list two years later when Daniel P. Henson III, then the housing commissioner, wrote her after Jones said she had complained to U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.

With two children crammed into her parents' home and pregnant with a third, Jones was determined to get her own apartment. With earnings from her $29,000-a-year job as a secretary, she rented a two-bedroom house in the 500 block of S. Beechfield Ave. in Southwest Baltimore for about $560 a month.

But she soon fell deep into debt. Her youngest child was born with Down syndrome, which forced her to take leave without pay from her job to care for her. Day care costs, utilities, car payments, food and clothing ate up her paycheck.

Again she applied for Section 8 aid. In December 1996, she wrote Henson a letter and sent copies to City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III and other officials, housing records show.

"I am a single parent and they take taxes out of my check every [pay period] so I can help someone else ... and I can't get help from nowhere," she wrote. "I see myself becoming homeless trying to maintain my bills. I never thought this could happen to me. ... When you are down and out and don' t have nowhere to turn you think of some terrible things to do. But you know what? I'm not a quitter. I'm an achiever, and that's why I'm writing you."

She signed the letter with the address of her parents' house on Fayette Street because she knew she was about to be kicked out of the Beechfield Avenue house for being behind in rent.

Her letter caught the eye of Bell, who wrote to Henson and asked him to investigate. "Please advise me of your findings," Bell wrote on Dec. 11, 1996.

Henson sent Jones a letter within two weeks, using her parents' address, telling her that her application was on file and that she would have to wait. "Please be assured that every effort will be made to assist you," Henson wrote.

Two months later, in February 1997, officials sent her notices requesting that she come to the housing department. But they used the Beechfield Avenue address even though she told Henson in the letter she would likely be leaving the house.

After two letters came back to the housing department stamped "moved left no address," she was again taken off the waiting list. There is no record of further attempt to contact her, though Henson's office had her parents' address.

Now bankrupt, Jones had moved back into her parents' home, where, because of the cramped conditions, she shares a bed with her two youngest children.

She went back to the department in March of last year to seek help. She was put on the bottom of the waiting list because, according to housing department files, her application had been withdrawn both times before.

For the past year, she has scoured the city looking for an apartment to rent, but most within her price range are not in good condition.

After inquiries by The Sun, Kramer, the Section 8 housing chief, said Jones can be put at the top of the waiting list because her file clearly shows errors by the housing department. She is supposed to meet with housing officials today.

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