ONE STRIKE AND YOUR OUT 


For many people, having relatives stay with you over the Christmas holiday is fairly routine. For Christine Franqui, it proved ruinous.

On April 4, Franqui's landlord asked the circuit court for permission to evict her, charging that she hadn't paid her $1,250 rent that month. Indeed, the landlord hadn't gotten the rent. But that wasn't Franqui's fault.

Franqui is one of more than 2,800 low-income Orlando residents who receive federally-funded Section 8 housing vouchers from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Locally, the money is distributed, and the recipients regulated, by the Orlando Housing Authority. In Franqui's case, OHA pitched in $925 a month to keep her and her four kids sheltered.

But on March 31, OHA stopped paying. Franqui had broken the rules and her benefits were being terminated. And when she didn't make her April rent, her landlord wanted her out.

Officially, OHA said in court papers it cut off her benefits because she had other people living with her – her sister and her sister's two children – which would have violated the terms of her Section 8 agreement. According to court documents, her landlord had tipped OHA off that her sister was living there. OHA believed him.

"Without even coming to my house, they terminated me," Franqui says.

She had one chance to appeal, an informal hearing with a Section 8 hearing officer at the OHA's office. At the meeting, on Jan. 28, Franqui laid out her case: The landlord was out to get her because she had refused his demands to pay him extra money every month, she said in court papers. Her sister lived in Daytona Beach, and was visiting her for two weeks over Christmas. The hearing officer gave her five days to prove it.

Franqui did that. She showed the OHA a copy of her sister's lease (as well as a signed affidavit from Franqui's boyfriend stating that her sister was living with him from September, 2003, to the time she moved to Daytona), but she didn't get it in on the OHA's timetable.

"It appears as though Ms. Franqui is in danger of losing her Section 8 over a technicality," one of her attorneys, Tiffany Moore, argued. So Franqui sued the OHA, and won. (The OHA says the landlord never showed up at trial to support her original claim.)

Now Franqui, who lives on Social Security and child support payments, is living with her boyfriend, looking for another apartment that will take her Section 8 voucher. (She moved out of her old place Aug. 31.) Franqui's problem isn't unique, says Jackie Dowd, a former state prosecutor who is now the managing attorney of the Community Legal Services. Down has represented 32 people so far this year who say OHA either wrongfully terminated their Section 8 benefits, or kicked them out of public housing. That's nearly double the similar cases she's brought against housing authorities in Orange County, Seminole County, Cocoa and Sanford combined. Dowd calls the reasons OHA uses to terminate Section 8 recipients "just arbitrary decisions."

Through September, the OHA has held 318 informal hearings and booted 26 recipients. Another seven recipients have lost their subsidies because they didn't show up for their hearings.

In another of Dowd's cases, Wanda Benjamin was denied benefits because she didn't show up to her recertification appointment. Benjamin didn't show up because she didn't get the letter telling her when the appointment was, because the OHA sent her mail to her residence even though months earlier Benjamin had asked that her mail be sent to a post office box. The OHA should have known that, Benjamin's attorneys argued in court, because OHA's letters were returned.

Though there was no settlement agreement in Benjamin's court file, Dowd says the OHA gave up and agreed to reinstate her. In another case, the OHA denied benefits to David Bonner, an elderly, wheelchair-bound man who had been a Section 8 recipient for 20 years, because he couldn't produce an original birth certificate.

"OHA agreed to reinstate him to Section 8 because we made a big fuss," Dowd says.

OHA director Vivian Bryant declined to talk in detail about specific cases, referring a reporter to the court files. But she did hint at a much more pressing problem for the housing authority.

"An accurate assessment is HUD … will only fund us at the level we were `at` Aug. 10, 2003," Bryant says.

In other words, HUD will only fund 2,514 vouchers for OHA. Problem is, OHA currently has about 2,800 people in its program, meaning 265 have to go. There is also a waiting list in the thousands, which some people have been on since 1999. In other words, the need is much greater than the Bush administration is willing to fund.

"It's not just us, it's all over the United States," Bryant says.

The OHA already asked its landlords to take a 10 percent cut, which Bryant says they've agreed to. But Bryant says that if nothing changes, by December, 265 Section 8 recipients will be kicked out. The OHA may have to decide who gets the ax by lottery.

Does the OHA kicking Section 8 tenants out have to do with the budget crunch? Bryant, of course, says no. And Dowd agrees with her.

"My impression is that some of these just arbitrary decisions started before the budget crunch got really serious," Dowd says. She believes OHA caseworkers are "sort of pushing the envelope because nobody was challenging them" until recently.

In fact, she thinks the problem may be larger than her law firm – which handles most of the area's indigent public-housing cases – knows. "My question is, does everybody know about us? Are people `whose Section 8 benefits have been terminated` motivated to fight it?"

Unless OHA's budget picture changes soon, more than 250 poor people may be out of luck, and out of a home.

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