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My eye-opening year spent in public housing 

The hard road home

Unless you're one of the few Charlotte-area residents who've never been to SouthPark Mall, you've probably driven past a nondescript six-story brown-brick building a few blocks down Fairview Road thousands of times without pausing to consider what goes on inside it. There's no fancy neon sign flashing out front to draw your attention or anything to meld with the area's corporate aura.

I paid no mind to it myself until one day in March 2013, when I practically crawled over the threshold of that newly renovated structure. I was a little ashamed to be moving in, though I knew I should be grateful for the opportunity at all. I couldn't believe this was where I was probably going to die.

That building, slightly hidden away from the ostentatiousness of the SouthPark area, is a public-housing facility, a place society provides for people who, for various reasons, can't afford to pay to house themselves, though it seems we're making that available in an increasingly grudging manner these days. And so when I fell on hard times, including facing serious health issues, and needed help that I was told I "qualified" for, I could only assume that attitude — that I was now a taker, not a maker — applied to me, too. That was why my feelings were such a jumbled mix as I unpacked my few belongings into an efficiency unit at the ParkTowne Terrace.

Welcome home, me.

I certainly didn't expect that within a few months, I'd end up being asked by the building's tenants to serve as vice president of their self-governing organization, which put me in the middle of just about everything that went on there — the day-to-day dramas of the social lives of about 160 low-income and/or disabled senior citizens, most of them black, and inside the regular meetings with the building's direct managers as well as those of the larger body, the Charlotte Housing Authority. What I learned about how things are run was eye-opening, to be polite, at every level.

First, the bad news — and there's a lot. As a community, we've done a terrible job keeping up with the demand for public housing. Right now, the Charlotte Housing Authority serves about 22,000 Charlotteans, more than 10,000 of them children and almost 2,000 seniors. I was beyond lucky getting into ParkTowne Terrace; it was built in 1978, and the reason I was able to move in last year was that it was being renovated, and I applied for housing at the very moment when the word went out to finish "filling up" the building by the end of the month to get the maximum rent. Otherwise, I'd have been in the same boat with about 8,900 families that were on the various waiting lists as of January. They usually have to wait 12 to 18 months for a unit to become available — if they're even allowed to put their names on a waiting list.

If we haven't kept up with demand for space, we're arguably doing even worse managing what we already have, by cutting budgets so close to the bone we're drawing blood. ParkTowne Terrace has no front-desk person to check to see whether people entering the building should be there — that is left up to a supposed committee made up of the residents of the building, who are not equipped for such a responsibility. And there is no security guard except for a few hours overnight. What's more, when they're present, the guards don't have the use of a TV monitor for the security cameras to see around the building; the monitor was removed during the renovation, and, in a cost-cutting move, the desk wasn't re-wired to accommodate it when the building re-opened.

Park Terrace is a senior facility, but the authority, which depends on federal and local dollars and private investors, saved some money and removed the system of "notice" lights. The lights hung over an individual unit's doorways and allowed residents to alert people if they were having problems inside. While I was a resident, a neighbor passed away but wasn't discovered for three weeks. Only until someone smelled the odor was his door broken down.

There are also many management issues. The resident organization's president made a proposal to Charlotte Housing Authority by which a company called Senior TV would take over supplying cable TV, at a cost to each tenant as low as $10 to $20 a month, as opposed to Time Warner's fees of upwards of $100. We would have had a dedicated channel for announcements about building news and events, too. It took more than nine months before the authority's CEO finally told us that he was embarrassed to have discovered that a contract existed giving Time Warner the exclusive rights to provide services to the building — for 10 years. Of course, no one could explain how the residents of the building benefited from that contract, or even how the authority benefitted — or why it took nine months to advise us.

Would you be surprised to know that a city/county-run facility made no provisions, at least for most of the time I lived there, for the residents to recycle their trash?

Yes, there are issues with some of the residents. Some probably could have worked but chose not to, though lying like that is not easy given the methods whereby your finances are checked.

But those abuses, those people who find a way to take advantage of other people's goodness, are the exception, not the rule, and the management problems are mostly the result of a lack of resources and people being pushed to their limits by unreasonable expectations.

More prevalent were the good people all around, from the residents themselves trying to help each other to the government workers doing their best to meet the needs of people struggling through tough times.

I never expected to end up walking through those doors. I certainly never expected to walk out alive. But I did a few months ago, in part because the good taxpayers of this country came through for me when I needed them most. So, thanks.

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