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Time To Clean House

Boot drug dealers out of subsidized housing

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I've lived and worked in neighborhoods a lot rougher than the one I currently live in. If there's one thing I've learned, it's the value of making what goes down on your street your business. Over time, I've learned that the backslide of a neighborhood follows an almost scientifically predictable pattern.

It's not politically correct, but the truth rarely is. The fact is, unless something changes, there's almost nothing that does more damage to a street than a new Section 8 landlord salivating over a government-guaranteed rent check. He'll turn a blind eye to just about anything that might separate him from that money, particularly when renters and the government pay over-inflated rent for the property, which they often do.

Part of the problem here is that those who run the subsidized housing system in this country are so obsessed with making life easier for their tenants, they don't take into account the destruction that people who aren't economically or socially prepared to live in a struggling neighborhood can wreak upon it. If that neighborhood happens to lack one or two residents with enough free time to fight for their street, the battle is often over before the moving truck pulls up. I've seen it time and again, so many times that a moving truck pulling into a driveway still sends a chill up my spine.

The yellow house did that to me. It's a textbook case for why the Supreme Court ruling last week allowing housing authorities to kick out tenants who use or deal drugs or whose family members use or deal drugs could be a saving grace for so many neighborhoods.

It started when an older woman with a Section 8 voucher moved into the yellow house two doors down from mine last spring. That wasn't a big deal until other younger members of her family who weren't on the lease also began to move in. Whether these people worked or not, I don't know, but they had an extraordinary amount of free time, most of which they spent on the front porch. The situation rapidly deteriorated after a nephew or grandson of hers who was in his early 20s set up shop and began operating a thriving drug dealership. The traffic was incredible. At all hours of the day and night, they came to buy drugs; rough-looking people, prostitutes, gang members, old people, young people, you name of it. When they ran out of room in front of the house, they parked on the surrounding lawns, leaving mud and tire tracks where once there was grass. They littered the street with their trash, or threw it into the neighbor's yards. The landlord insisted to ticked off neighbors that no drug dealing was going on, but what would he know? He was never there.

But I was, and there is no way that this woman could have missed what was going on in her home. Children on bikes circled the street in front of the house, keeping a lookout for cops and glaring at those who walked or drove by. A basement of one of the nearby homes was broken into. The police began to show up on almost a daily basis. Noisy music blared. Fights broke out.

Within a few weeks, the police came to pick the dealer up -- not on drug charges, but on rape charges. The woman who had accused him had a story that didn't quite add up, so they let him go, but by then it was too late. Panic had set in at the house across the street where a young couple who had spent the better part of five years renovating their home had the misfortune of having to put it on the market in the middle of this circus.

The rape charges and the break-in pushed the woman over the edge. They dropped their asking price from the range most homes sell at on the street, about $95,000 to $110,000, into the $80,000s, hoping to sell it before the situation got so out of hand that the house was no longer marketable. I had just moved in, and I too was just sick. And so my roommate and I prayed. Please God, don't let another Section 8 landlord buy the house across the street.

Thanks to the efforts of some dedicated police officers, which lasted the better part of the summer, they eventually got rid of the guy. It wasn't easy. They had to camp out down the street and document the young dealer's comings and goings to prove he lived there. Then they presented their findings to housing authorities, who they in turn pressured to threaten the old woman with the termination of her Section 8 voucher. Though the rules are rarely enforced -- believe me, I know -- only those on the lease are supposed to live in a Section 8 home.

The neighborhood won that round, in large part because of a few people on my street who cared enough to get personally involved. But most of the time, it doesn't work that way. When housing prices drop and people dump property in a panic, landlords often snap it up at below market value. Their tenants then settle in and, often, "set up shop," and it spreads like a fungus, destroying and blighting everything in its path.

That's not to say that all those living in Section 8 properties are a drain on their neighborhoods. By my estimate, it's about two out of three. Of the two other Section 8 families who lived on my street at the time, one family kept to themselves, and made polite and quiet neighbors. The other family, who still live there, was generous enough recently to allow a fugitive with an arrest warrant to hide out from police in their home. He was eventually found and hauled off, but the house seems to attract rough characters who pass through and stay awhile.

Part of the problem here is that the Charlotte Housing Authority leaves way too much of the policing of its Section 8 properties up to greedy landlords, forcing police to work against the system to clean up the mess. It only stands to get worse. The housing authority recently got over a million dollars from federal housing authorities to augment the rent paid by tenants so that they could have more housing options in better neighborhoods. The authority need not spend this money unless it plans to police its properties to make folks stick to the rules.

"Oh, but these people will have nowhere to go if we kick them out of public housing or revoke their Section 8 voucher," some housing activists whine. Tough. There are more people on Section 8 waiting lists than there are with Section 8 vouchers in this town. No doubt they have nowhere to live, either. The authority must use the teeth the Supreme Court just gave them to clean up this mess and boot these people out. Believe me, they won't starve on the drug money they make, and if all else fails, they can sleep in the brand new Jeep Cherokees they drive.

Remember, the tenants aren't the victims here. The victims are the struggling, lower income families who hold down multiple jobs and struggle to pay their mortgages while their property values plummet and the neighborhood falls apart. I've lived next to these people too, and I've watched them struggle. It shouldn't be that way. *

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