This reporting project is a collaboration between WFDD, Carolina Data Desk at The UNC School of Media and Journalism and Wake Forest University's Journalism Program. It was made possible through funding from the Knight Foundation.
To understand the philosophy behind the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem, start at the top and rewind the clock to 2015.
That's when Chief Executive Officer Larry Woods testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Budget Committee. He was there to make his case for more flexibility in how his agency operates.
He shared his view that public housing, this system of housing the poor, is in desperate need of repair.
“Our current system is broken, plain and simple. Right now there is no exit strategy. We are simply warehousing people in our programs,” says Woods.
He wants tenants to come in, find their footing, and get out. Woods told the committee that the social safety net had “morphed into flypaper.” He says government policies are strangling his ability to steer people towards self-sufficiency — the social mission of the housing authority under Woods.
But a WFDD and Carolina Data Desk investigation found that, for many residents, that exit from public housing is coming at the height of instability. Since 2014, the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem filed the second highest number of evictions in Forsyth County. In 2018 alone, it brought evictions against nearly 40 percent of the households living in its public housing units.
In a recent interview with WFDD, Woods defended his agency's practices.
"This is not a charitable operation. It wasn't designed to be a charitable operation. It has expenses just like everyone else,” he said.
But evictions have become such a matter of routine at the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem — or HAWS — that they dominate eviction court calendars several days a month. This amounts to nearly 600 cases a year; that number is equal to about half the total units HAWS owns.
That's an astonishing number, according to Director of Litigation Eric Dunn with the National Housing Law Project. The nonprofit's work focuses on enforcing the rights of tenants in the poorest communities.
According to Dunn, a housing authority initiating that many cases against tenants would seem to “indicate that there's some kind of fundamental problem with the way they're managing the program."
Housing authorities are allowed to evict people. In fact, they have a lot of flexibility in how they go about their business. Winston Salem's housing authority drafts its mission statement, sets its budget, and the leader shapes the agency's philosophy. But Dunn says when a housing authority is more business-minded, it can be less sensitive towards the struggles facing low-income families.
"Teach A Man To Fish"
Thousands of the community's poorest residents make a home at HAWS' properties such as Cleveland Avenue Homes and Piedmont Park Apartments. There you'll see families, children, and the elderly. Some residents are able to work; others rely on disability payments. Each earns less than 80 percent of Forsyth County's median income.
Residents don't live here for free. They pay what the federal government thinks is fair: 30 percent of their gross income. At the very least, a tenant has to contribute $50 a month — a relative bargain and the most basic of responsibilities, if you ask Woods. He expects these renters to be “model tenants.”
Larry Woods' philosophy on public housing took root in New York. As a child growing in public housing, he witnessed people climbing out of the system through hard work and perseverance. This background shaped the mindset he later brought to HAWS, which he calls the "self-reliance model."
“Give a man a fish, he eats a day. Teach him how to fish, he feeds him and his family for life,” says Woods.
When Woods came to the housing authority, the agency was in crisis. The former chair of its board and executive director were under investigation in a property-flipping scheme.
But when Woods took the helm, he saw a different kind of crisis. He saw residents who planted themselves in the system generation after generation, not working towards self-sufficiency.
“Subsidized housing is just that; it's subsidized housing,” says Woods. “For some reason, it becomes almost as if this is a permanent fixture. I don't believe families in subsidized housing need to be a permanent fixture.”
And that's not what all tenants want either. But with the cost of rent on the rise, it can be hard to work your way out of the system. Ebony Black, who faced eviction in the spring from her Piedmont Park apartment, says she and her partner have tried.
“We work good jobs, you know, we've been to school,” says Black. “We're just not some people who just live in the 'hood and want to live here and take advantage of the government. We are educated people. We are a family. You know, we are trying to move from here, but it's just like we can't get up. It's like we got stuck somewhere. And it's just not working out.”
Some tenants do manage to scrounge together money owed. But the deck is stacked against them in court; the vast majority of the time, the magistrate grants the housing authority's request to evict. But officials at HAWS say only 151 households, that's about a quarter of those they tried to evict in 2018, were actually displaced. Woods considers those empty units an opportunity.
“If you don't want to fish, you don't have to fish. But let somebody else grab that pole and allow them to fish,” says Woods.
Some people say they don't want to see the proverbial fishing pole passed so frequently. Dan Rose with the advocacy group Housing Justice Now is one of them. While he and his group canvassed Cleveland Avenue apartments this spring, he urged residents to take action.
“We need everbody to fight. That way we can clog up the courts. Make it so they can't just keep pushing people out one right after the other," he tells a resident.
Voices “Null And Void”
It's not just late rent that lands people in eviction court.
WFDD found a surprising factor driving evictions: unpaid bills for gas and electricity.
In 2018, half of the cases HAWS brought against tenants included debts for utilities. Often, these bills can be really high — hundreds of dollars. And some people, about 100, owed more utility than past due rent.
Why does this matter? For people on fixed incomes, an unexpectedly high utility bill can put them over the edge.
The bills can be confusing for people like Phleam Tart. He's a sharply dressed guy with a tidy apartment in Piedmont Park who prides himself on taking care of his business, no matter what.
But money's tight. He's disabled and on a fixed income. He calls that the “ugly part about this situation.”
And lately, his utility bills have become unpredictable.
“You see what that bill is?" says Tart, as he flips through a printout he requested from the property's management office. "Now how in the world am I supposed to pay that much money?”
The housing authority sets a limit on what it says Tart should use. If he uses more than it allows, it comes out of his pocket. HAWS issues these bills to tenants like Tart; they don't come directly from providers like Piedmont Natural Gas. But with HAWS' maintenance staff reading the meters and a bill that can be difficult to decipher, he's becoming frustrated and suspicious.
“This is supposed to be for my bill,” says Tart. “Now, I don't see my name on here nowhere. But at the same time, this is supposed to be my bill. This is our biggest problem over here. We can't talk to nobody from Piedmont Natural Gas because we don't have nothing in our name. So our voices is null and void.”
Tenants can feel unheard, breeding fear and distrust of the system. Tart feels eviction is almost wielded as a weapon.
“We don't have a defense for it,” says Tart. “Because soon as you go against the grain, any type of way, they will use that eviction power.”
The housing authority has software that automatically triggers an eviction notice if rent is unpaid — whether that's $500 or $50. But it makes special cases for hardships. Larry Woods says that's on the tenant to alert the office.
“We're not being mean. We're not being vicious,” says Woods. “Again, I think it's giving people a false narrative to say it's OK not to pay and there's no consequences. There are consequences. If there's a hardship, we will take a look at it. You have a right to come in and say, ‘This is my hardship,' and provide documentation.”
Tenants say they don't always feel the door is open. And they have reason to feel that way.
WFDD acquired a document distributed to residents of Piedmont Park last fall that says as much. It announces a new policy: no more tolerance for late rent payments.
And there's this line: “The management office will know [sic] longer set appointment's [sic] to duscuss [sic] unpaid rents.”
We showed this notice to Woods. He read it, and after a minute of silence, he chose his words carefully.
“This is...this is troubling for me because we do set up appointments, and we do allow families to go into payment agreements," he says.
Woods hadn't seen this memo until we showed it to him. We asked him if property managers should have this kind of discretion.
“Again, I think it was poorly written because tenants can go in and meet with their manager,” Woods says. "Managers are accessible. They can go in and talk to them and have discussions with them.”
The Housing Authority of Winston-Salem's official policy, approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, specifically says residents must have an opportunity to discuss possible evictions.
On its face, this memorandum is in direct conflict with that.
National housing expert Eric Dunn says, “That's just antithetical to the mission of providing housing to the people who are literally the poorest people in the country.”
Since we spoke with Woods, officials from HAWS say they're circulating a new memo, clarifying that tenants can talk with property management about rent concerns and hardship exemptions. And HAWS says it's making sure that property staff understands this.
The Cost Of Business
Evictions come with many costs, from the personal to the financial, whether you're a plaintiff or a defendant. And it costs the housing authority a significant amount of money to go through this process.
So much so, that it begs the question: is it worth it?
Here are the dollars and cents:
At least $330,000: that's what the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem says it was owed from tenants it tried to evict in 2018, according to a review by WFDD and Wake Forest University Journalism students of these case files. And that money is hard to collect.
What does it cost to go to court to try? That totals $80,000.
And don't forget the cost of turning over the units. That's also also a hefty bill. For 2018 alone, at least $300,000.
Add it all up: a ton of money. HAWS could be out more than $700,000.
As for the people who go through the eviction process, it's the personal cost that follows them the most.
“When they put that mark on you? That's like a tattoo,” says Tart. “You can't get rid of it; you're marked. So wherever you go to try to get a place to stay, they have that on your record. And you are hindered as an individual."
So for 2018, there are at least 364 unique defendants, whether they ultimately exited from the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem or not, who now wear that mark.
They're also marked for purposes of creditors and in the national public housing database. That keeps them from entering the system again until they settle what they owe.
Year after year, money does come trickling back into HAWS. It comes as tenants try to square away their credit. Woods says he welcomes them back into the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem, so long as that old debt is settled. And Larry Woods says only then you can reapply.
“Each site has a waiting list, and you can go to a site and put your name on a waiting list," says Woods.
The thing is, they go to the back of the line. And right now, there are nearly 12,000 people waiting ahead of them.
Eddie Garcia: firstname.lastname@example.org