Zelda DuBose and her family are about to lose their home. The single mother is being kicked out of a rent assistance program run by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, and she says it is all because of a series of bureaucratic glitches.
Without the subsidy, she says, she can't afford the $1,187 rent for her West Baltimore rowhouse, and she and her children could be forced out on the street.
City housing officials say they did everything they could to help DuBose. But she contends that the agency failed to work with her to requalify for the federally funded Section 8 housing program, and that when she requested a hearing, the agency made it difficult for her to get information about the hearing date, even denying her information over the telephone.
"My kids know that we might have to move," said DuBose, a substitute teacher and college student who lives in West Baltimore with her three children and their 17-year-old cousin. "And they don't want to do it."
Cheron Porter, a spokeswoman for the housing authority, said that DuBose, 35, had three chances to rectify her situation but that she "failed to avail herself of any of these opportunities."
DuBose's plight has been taken up by attorneys who say they know other families who have experienced similar problems. They say that the families complain of an uneven application of administrative policies at the city agency, as well as difficulties receiving timely information.
Francine K. Hahn, an attorney with the Homeless Persons Representation Project, has written letters to Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano and Mayor Sheila Dixon, appealing for their help. She said the city's goal should be to "house people," and that its treatment of DuBose is inconsistent with the mayor's plan to end homelessness. "We shouldn't be pushing families into homelessness," the attorney said.
DuBose's troubles began last fall when the agency asked her to recertify her participation in the rent assistance program. It is the agency's new policy to conduct recertification hearings every two years. DuBose, who has been in the program for about seven years, says she marked her calendar to attend the Dec. 5 hearing. That day, she woke up feeling ill and had to cancel. She says she telephoned the agency and was given a new hearing date of Dec. 17. She missed the meeting.
"It was pure human error," DuBose said.
Under threat of losing her subsidies, DuBose rescheduled. The housing authority sent her a letter informing her the complaint would be heard Jan. 31.
But because the letter was sent by certified mail, which requires a signature for delivery, DuBose, who works and attends school, did not receive the letter until two days after the hearing date.
Between Jan. 10, when she requested the hearing, and Feb. 2, when she received the letter after several failed delivery attempts, DuBose said she called the housing authority several times to inquire about her hearing. She said that each time she was told that she would be notified of the time and date of the hearing by mail.
When she learned that she had missed her last hearing, DuBose said, she was devastated.
"I tried to rectify the situation," she said.
Attorneys representing DuBose said her situation illustrates the hurdles many low-income families face when trying to deal with the housing authority. They say the agency doesn't always follow internal rules regarding recertification and is irresponsible in the way it carries out hearing notifications.
Hahn said the agency's policy of sending notices by certified mail is appropriate but that it should also send a copy of the notice by first-class mail, which does not require a signature for delivery. She said that many low-income residents live at a distance from a post office and lack transportation to travel great distances to retrieve certified mail.
"This seems like something that could be easily fixed," Hahn said.
But agency attorney Ella J. Hayes said in a recent letter to Hahn that to require the city to "personally put notices" in the hand of participants or to "investigate returned or noncollected mail" would be "unduly cumbersome and costly."
After reviewing the DuBose case, Hayes said agency officials found that they had "provided proper notice to Ms. DuBose."
For DuBose, the decision could mean a major step back. At her home this week, she said she was making plans to split up her family -- placing her children with relatives and friends. Still, she said, she hoped it wouldn't come to that.
"I was just getting my footing," she said.