Editor's note: Tenants' names have been withheld from this story because (1) the Housing Authority agreed to give the Independent visual access to records without identifying information, and (2) tenants generally refused to be named due to fear for their safety, ongoing police investigations, and concerns that they could be put at risk of eviction.
In 1955, St. Louis welcomed the future with the opening of the first set of apartments in the Pruitt-Igoe government housing project. An undertaking of immense scale — 30-some buildings containing around 2,500 apartments — Pruitt-Igoe was meant to bring poor people into a future outside broken-down tenements, which often didn't even offer running water.
At first, the new set-up was great. But then ... well, everything from population shifts to bad public policy to crime conspired against it. Within a few years, "the projects" were on their way to redefining disaster in American social programs.
Things have generally transformed for the better since that ill-executed urban renewal wave of the '50s and '60s. Government subsidies for private housing now dominate the landscape nationwide, and many remaining government-owned buildings are relatively small.
The Housing Authority of the City of Colorado Springs, for instance, offers traditional family housing largely in inconspicuous homes scattered across the city. Its nine modest apartment buildings, each with 25 to 99 apartments, are set aside for "senior" housing. Brimming with grey-haired grandparents, these buildings are a far cry from the Pruitt-Igoes of the past.
But they aren't all the sleepy, safe spots you might expect, either.
At Centennial Plaza Apartments, at 516 E. Kiowa St., police were called for criminal concerns more than 200 times between Jan. 1, 2011 and Oct. 20, 2012. Among the call descriptions are seven for "assault," four for "drugs - narcotics," six for "weapons," one for "sexual assault" and one for "explosion."
In fact, five of those nine senior buildings averaged at least 1.5 police calls for every unit over that same period of time (see "Senior moments," right). At Prospect Lake Apartments, 812 S. Meade Ave., a resident named Joe says his younger neighbors have threatened to kill him on more than one occasion, and spoken of gang connections.
In response, Joe arms himself daily. "If somebody walks in here with a machine gun," he says, "I have the firepower to make sure they don't walk out."
But it's hard to imagine Joe in such an action-hero role. As he says, "I'm too old for this." Indeed, he's dying.
Like most of the residents consulted for this story, Joe can't understand why the Housing Authority can't provide him some peace and quiet in his final years. "They keep moving in these thugs," he says bitterly.
Housing Authority executive director Gene Montoya explains that multiple issues contribute to the high police-call volumes at the senior buildings (see "Outsiders and infighters"). But the biggest problem the Authority has is purely governmental.
Federal enrollment rules are set by the main funder of the Authority's programs, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. And due to program requirements, seven of the nine Springs senior buildings must house seniors and people with disabilities, no matter their age.
"If you're disabled," Montoya explains, "you're considered the same as elderly. So you could be 30 years old, been injured in a motorcycle accident, and be eligible to move into the elderly building."
In 2011, a long waiting list for the elderly buildings was exhausted, and new people were invited to apply. While in past years, nearly all applicants were seniors, this time Montoya notes in an e-mail to the Independent, "Approximately 70% of the applicants were disabled and younger than the 62 years of age.
"What had always been a smaller, but persistent problem [with crime], expanded with the influx of the younger population."
Guns, drugs and kisses
Prospect Lake Apartments is wedged between Memorial Park and Evergreen Cemetery, a quiet stucco-and-brick complex with green balconies.
On a sunny Wednesday, the place is serene. A few curious residents stare over their balconies' rails. A couple guys move furniture into a waiting truck. An elderly man on a scooter drives outside for a smoke, then wheels back in, smiling.
I ask him if he feels safe here. He says he does, adding jokingly, "If it gets too rough, I get my walking stick out and straighten them out."
Joe says he too felt safe here, until about a year ago. He doesn't want to go into details, but says his problems are with a newer resident, who's younger and disabled. On any given day, Joe might find 20-something friends of this resident sleeping in the laundry room, or be awakened by loud music, drunk fighting, or someone kicking his door. And there are the threats.
"I can't even have my family here because I fear for their safety," he says. "You never know who's lurking around."
Joe says he feels powerless to change the situation. Like other residents consulted by the Independent, he fears that if he complains too often to the Authority, officials will find a way to evict him.
"They treat the good people like poop," he says, "and they let the bad people run off and do whatever they want."
Across town, at the Katharine Bates Apartments at 2660 W. Uintah St., Jack, a middle-aged man with disabling illnesses, says he too has seen an increase in crime. In just the last year, he says, he's witnessed serious drug use on the part of at least two residents, prostitution on the part of another, and violence from another. After complaining about a neighbor's threatening display of several guns, Jack noticed bullets placed on the roof of his car.
"I really don't look down on the people in my building," says Jack, who acknowledges that he's a former drug user himself. "I just have a problem when they bring it to my doorstep."
Jack says he worked long and hard to turn his life around, and being near drugs and crime again brings up all his old issues. Consequently, he's looking for a new place to live. But he's worried about all the "old ladies" that he'll leave behind.
"There's people there that are close to 100 years old, and something bad is going to happen," he says. "... I don't want to see some innocent lady come out of her apartment and be murdered in the lobby."
At least one Bates senior indeed is scared. Wendy, 81, says she used to love to have her grandkids over, and to take them out for walks. Now, she says, "I wouldn't even think about going out the back of the building. It's just not safe anymore."
Barbara Turk and Terri Shaver, who each manage half of the Authority's senior buildings, don't deny there are problems. In fact, they have tales of their own. Shaver remembers a tenant who used to walk the halls with a knife.
Turk recalls a middle-aged disabled tenant who took a young lover. The younger man took to sweethearting the older ladies in the building for gifts. Eventually, he kissed one of them on the mouth. The elderly woman was terrified by the incident and called the police.
"This guy's in his 20s, and she's in her 60s or 70s," Turk says, still sounding exasperated.
Of course, not all residents with disabilities are troublemakers, Turk is quick to note: "You have some really good, young, disabled people that don't cause any problems."
And it's true that seniors have committed a few crimes of their own. Years ago, the Authority cooperated with police in a meth sting targeting an elderly woman's apartment; neighbors still recall that SWAT Team bust with alarm. There have been other cases in which a senior's younger relatives have stirred up trouble.
But Turk and Shaver say criminal cases involving seniors are rare.
"[There's] a few — a very, very few," Turk says. "Most of [the older tenants'] squabbles are between themselves. 'Oh, she looked at me wrong,' 'Oh, she's this,' 'Oh, she's that.' There's nothing of this magnitude."
Getting in, staying in
When it comes to senior housing's admission process, rules — not people — usually determine who will be accepted and who will be rejected.
Seven of nine senior buildings in Colorado Springs are open to anyone who's a senior or has a documented disability, is considered low-income by program standards, and doesn't set off alarms during background checks. Criminal records are examined, generally via a LexisNexis database, and prior landlords are called.
Nettie Ausborne, the Authority's verification manager, says reasons for disqualification include pedophilia, violent crime, any felony within the last five years (though a felonious applicant can be considered if enrolled in a treatment program), owing any landlord more than $3,500, owing any housing authority money, or having an eviction from a housing authority within the last five years.
If an applicant is disqualified for any reason, no matter how obvious, he is entitled to a public hearing by the Housing Authority explaining the rationale.
Otherwise, if an applicant meets the requirements, and is next on the waiting list, he must be accepted.
"We're in the business of housing people," Turk says. "If they qualify, they qualify."
Once a tenant gets in, it's incredibly difficult to get that tenant out. Take the case of a man we'll call Tom. Soon after moving to Centennial Plaza in late 2010, Tom began behaving explosively toward his guests and threatening other tenants. A few months later, Shaver discovered the middle-aged, disabled man had a recent domestic violence felony the Authority's background check had failed to note.
But it was too late to get rid of Tom easily; he was in the program.
In August 2011, Shaver went to check on her Centennial Plaza residents. Seniors were in the building cafeteria eating lunch, when a commotion outside turned their collective heads.
It was a friend of Tom's, beating a woman just outside the windows.
An official Authority report addressed to Tom would later describe the incident as follows: "[A] male guest of yours pulled a female out of a car window and struck her repeatedly assaulting her. A small child was present in one of the cars. Building management and building residents saw the incident. As building management called police, you ran out of the building and started yelling, 'go on, get the fuck out of here' repeatedly."
Shaver, who says she was shaken by the incident, says, "It was crazy; it was just like a mess."
With plenty of witnesses, it would seem evicting Tom for criminal conduct would be easy. Authority leases are clear that residents are responsible for their guests' behavior. It still took Shaver two months.
Giving the boot
The Housing Authority lacks the power of most landlords. It cannot choose to not renew a lease. Nor can it evict in the traditional sense.
According to the Colorado Bar Association, a standard Colorado landlord who wants to evict a tenant for lease violations can have a summons served, and take the matter before a judge. If the trial is decided in the landlord's favor, law enforcement can start to move the tenant's belongings within 48 hours. The whole process might take as little as a couple weeks.
By comparison, Montoya explains, federal law requires a housing authority to give a tenant that violates a lease for any reason other than unpaid rent a full 30-day notice of eviction, followed by a grievance hearing. Then state law kicks in, and tenants are given another three days to correct the problem.
If the issue isn't resolved, the Authority calls its lawyers, who cost about $250 an hour, and takes the matter to court. Assuming it prevails, the Authority may still have to pay $120 plus mileage to the El Paso County Sheriff's Office to remove the tenant. And even then, a tenant can appeal directly to HUD or to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission.
The Authority managed to evict 39 tenants in 2011 and 51 tenants in 2012. Not all went quietly: Since 2010, the Authority has seen seven civil rights complaints decided in its favor, and paid a settlement in an eighth case (though it did not admit fault).
"Sometimes, with our elderly, they envision that if I've told you that he's a problem, and Mrs. Smith has told you that he's a problem, then you should get him out of the building," Montoya says. "Well, if he is a problem, we do get him out of the building, but it's that process that we have to follow."
Janice Rodriquez, HUD's division director for the Office of Public Housing, notes there are some exceptions. In cases considered to affect the "health and safety" of residents, cases where there is "violent or drug-related activity" or "any criminality that resulted in a felony," Rodriquez says, Colorado authorities can expedite evictions, taking them straight to the courts.
But Pam Simon, the Authority's asset management supervisor, says that process is more difficult than it sounds. Judges usually won't accept an expedited eviction for criminal behavior unless there is a conviction. And early on, when the problems start, there usually isn't one.
In fact, Simon says, it's always difficult to evict for criminal behavior, even using the longer process, because the Authority must show that a "preponderance of evidence" proves its case — usually through a combination of police reports and witness testimony. That can be tough to come by, especially since most residents won't testify against a neighbor they fear. Thus, staff often have to wait to pursue a criminal eviction until they've witnessed an incident in person.
Often, Housing Authority staff say, it's a better bet to pursue an eviction on other grounds.
"The easiest and the quickest way for us to evict is nonpayment," Simon says, "because it's a 14-day eviction instead of a 30-day eviction. In fact, in some of the programs, it's just a three-day eviction."
A lasting solution
Decades ago, Montoya notes, housing authority directors could throw someone out on the street overnight for no reason. And they did.
"In Pueblo," he says, "the executive director [in the 1960s] ... would show up in the morning and tell you [that] you needed to move out that day, and if you didn't move out, the maintenance men would come that evening and put your stuff out. So there were no processes."
Laws these days do protect innocent tenants. But the law of unintended consequences has always been strong in government housing, which deals with that most-complicated unit: the family home.
After Pruitt-Igoe met the wrecking ball in the '70s, for instance, experts laid some of the blame on a welfare rule that banned able-bodied men from living in a home where a woman received government aid. At the time it was conceived, the rule was likely viewed as fiscally responsible, ensuring only the most needy were on the government dole. But most now agree the rule had the effect of tearing dads from homes, decimating families, and leaving the social structure to rot.
To this day, rules and regulations — often created with the intent of protecting tenants — make it difficult to create reasonable change at housing authorities.
For instance, Montoya says he wishes he could designate more buildings as senior-only. He can request that HUD make that change. But Rodriquez explains that the ultimate decision of how to classify a building is left to federal data-crunchers who look at demographics and community needs. It's unlikely, she says, that HUD would agree to turn all Springs buildings to senior-only, due to the high need for housing for the disabled.
Nor is segregating all the buildings — either for seniors or people with disabilities — an easy option. Though both are technically allowed these days, Rodriquez says the complicated Fair Housing Act must be considered before housing is divided due to discrimination concerns.
(It may seem like the Authority could have avoided this headache by setting up senior-only housing to begin with. But the newest of the Authority's apartments was built in the 1980s, and HUD only recently allowed authorities to create separate housing for seniors and the disabled.)
Despite the challenges, Montoya says he's working toward a solution.
"What we are doing now, is exploring the possibility of setting aside 50-75 vouchers [for private buildings] exclusively for the disabled," Montoya states in an e-mail to the Indy. "By so doing, we continue to provide housing opportunities directed toward the disabled, offsetting any losses by, then, declaring the senior buildings for seniors. I think we have a better opportunity to gain acceptance and support from all involved if we can offer an alternative."
Until then, the best people like Joe can hope for is that a well-deserved eviction notice will soon be posted on a offending neighbor's door. But he says he's growing impatient. When he wakes at night to the sound of a heavy shoe smashing into his metal door over and over again, he fantasizes about conducting his own kind of eviction.
"I'm tempted just to open the door," he says, "... and blow 'em clear across to Evergreen Cemetery."