Residents Ask Ferndale City Council for Help with Housing Commission Complaints (video)
(Crystal A. Proxmire, April 14, 2015)
Jennifer Bailey wants her voice heard. “We live in a horrible, deplorable position…I hear about all the business coming to the city but what about the low income? What about the people who put you guys in this position. We also come as people.”
Bailey and other residents and voucher holders of the Ferndale Housing Commission came to the podium one by one on Monday night to share complaints about the housing program and ask the City Council to get involved in fixing the problems they live with on a day to day basis.
Residents have been organizing and being vocal about the need for change since December when the Director of Ferndale Housing, Deborah Wilson, was arrested for going into residents’ apartments when they were not home and swiping their prescription medication for over the counter pills. In spite of the physical suffering caused to the residents, the feeling of violation, and having been using her position to commit felonies while on the job, Wilson was able to resign and was given a $130,000 severance. She pled no contest to two counts of felony home invasion and one count of drug possession, was given probation, and is currently waiting for a hearing in May for allegedly having violated her probation.
Residents had hoped that with Wilson gone, longstanding problems in the organization would be addressed. Yet what they got was little more than lip service. Those who had been working under Wilson were moved up in their positions. The commission continued on with a budget process that forbade public oversight and only required a momentary review by the commission before approval. The commission kept the same accountant, auditor, and attorney. They said that because of the payout to Wilson, there would be no money to do an Executive Director search.
Problems like bedbugs, roaches, rats and outdated facilities continue. In the winter heat was an issue, and now that the weather is turning warm residents’ question why they cannot have air conditioning and why, they say, maintenance cut the cords to air conditioning in common areas of the buildings.
The common areas had been closed, including the Autumn House library. A letter to residents warned them of unauthorized gathering. According to the letter “Residents who are found to be hosting unauthorized events will receive a lease violation and possibly a termination notice from the Public Housing Program.
Written policies prohibited them from complaining. The handbook given to residents upon arrival state, in bold, “Failure to resolve resident complaints or disputes through the approved procedure is a violation of the Public Housing Lease Agreement. Complaining to other authorities may delay settlement of complaints is disruptive. Residents unwilling to obey our rules or to resolve complaints through the proper channels are urged to find housing elsewhere.”
The rules also state that “residents are obligated to be respectful to Ferndale Housing Commission staff and to refrain from confrontational conduct or behavior that otherwise impairs the administration and/or peaceful environment of the residential community.”
This respect has not been returned.
Bob Day of Legal Aid got involved even before Wilson’s criminal activities were made public. In June he and members of Detroit Eviction Defense picketed in front of the Housing Commission office which is on the first floor of Withington West against Wilson revoking a voucher from someone who was living in a newer home in a neighborhood of new homes, based on an inspector who found a boarded up home nearby. Wilson told the oc115 that the policy was HUD mandated, but later that was proven untrue. The Housing Commission eventually settled two cases over this policy, though Day claims they have refused to honor their settlement.
Day, who has been doing legal work involving housing commissions all around the state for 20 years, was shocked at how his client was treated and the staff’s refusal to even talk to the attorney about the situation. “The policy was racist, but even worse…was this idea that tenants, people with vouchers, their attorneys, couldn’t come and talk to the housing commissions about issues of concern. We as a group went to the board meeting and the board went into a closed session. They went in a room and locked the door and wouldn’t allow us to speak.”
The Commission, which is a five-member board appointed by the mayor but overseen by HUD, is a public body. They meet once a month but for years did not allow public comment. After Wilson’s arrest and the absence of public comment was known, concerns raised by the City and the media pressured the commission to begin having public comment. This change has led to increasing amounts of residents at meetings speaking up. However, the concerns have been ignored, and at the March 18 meeting Housing Commission Chair Don Wiggins announced they would be “scaling back” public comment, as it was “disruptive” to their work.
At that same meeting they approved a five year plan that they said had been created with resident input, but not a single resident of the 50 or so present, had even been told of the process, which was written up by Deborah Wilson before her arrest. When asked if they would consider going back and doing the plan in a way that included the residents and was not Wilson’s plan, Wiggins said that the plan was fine and that it could be changed later if they needed to. The plan spells out spending priorities from the Capital Fund Program, with several items being questioned by residents including replacement of administration vehicles and computers while problems like heat, air conditioning, hot water, and security are not addressed.
When asked via email for a list of changes made since Wilson’s departure to address resident concerns, Acting Director Emily Vickey responded “In terms of positive changes I have opened all of the community room areas in each high rise building and so far things are going well with that.”
A resident meeting was held at Autumn House, but was only permitted with staff present. Residents at Withington West say they tried to organize a meeting but were told that Vickey did not have time and that they could not meet without staff present.
“This place has been run like a prison and I’m not exaggerating,” Day told Council on Monday. “And I don’t think people understand how extreme this has been, and the contempt that’s been shown to the tenants and the voucher holders, people that live there. Not allowing them to speak, not allowing them to be heard, not allowing meetings, not allowing discussions. And it comes down on the whole city of Ferndale.”
An Autumn House resident named Cynthia talked about moving into a an apartment infested with bed bugs that have been a problem since at least 2010. She said this needs to be fixed, not just for herself but because she doesn’t want it to happen to other people. “I’m for the people. I’m for Ferndale. I like living in Ferndale. I’ve been here since 2010 and I don’t want to leave but changes need to be made.”
“I am part of Ferndale,” Rhonda Rhodes said. “They don’t hear you. They don’t return your calls.”
Claude Washington also understands the need for community. In addition to complaining about the community room closures and lack of air conditioning, Washington wants to be able to talk to his neighbors. “New residents are told, do not talk to the residents that’s already there,” he said.
Council members listed to the residents’ concerns. “The residents raised troubling issues that deserve to be taken seriously, and I applaud them for coming forward. Although the city doesn’t oversee the operations of the Housing Commission, we have a duty through our board appointments to protect their rights and make sure the Commission is acting in their best interests. It’s obvious that change is needed, beyond just the removal of the former director, and I expect you’ll see council use its authority to make sure these Ferndale residents have a real voice on their behalf.”
There is currently one vacancy on the Housing Commission, and subsequent terms expire at one year intervals, with each commissioner serving a five year term. While much of the oversight lies with HUD, the Mayor is the one who appoints people to serve on the board. The City is seeking applicants to fill the empty seat.
Another spot of hope for residents is the fact that HUD learned of resident complaints and sent a team in to inspect the commission, doing a full review of their finances, policies and facilities. The HUD review took place in March and the findings are expected to be made public in May. The findings will act as a starting point for changes in the housing program.
“I was nervous about it [the review],” Wiggins said at the March meeting, “I thought it would be antagonistic but it was not. It was helpful. I’ve been on the board 19 years and I have never seen anyone from HUD come here to do a review.” He said there was “a laundry list” of concerns that HUD shared with him during the process, but he declined to say what those are until the report is released.
The next Housing Commission meeting is Wednesday, April 15 at 4pm at Withington West Apartments, 415 Withington in Ferndale.
For previous stories on the Ferndale Housing Commission see:
Residents Ask Ferndale City Council for Help with Housing Commission Complaints (video)