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    Public housing work law to start

    Able-bodied, unemployed residents must perform eight hours of community service each month, but there are many exemptions to the law.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 30, 2001

    TAMPA -- For the 16 years Carla Johnson has lived in public housing, making good on her lease wasn't much harder than following the law and ensuring those under her roof did the same.

    But the bright yellow flier delivered Wednesday morning to her doorstep at North Boulevard Homes brought news that Johnson's lease is about to get a bit tougher.

    Able-bodied, unemployed public housing residents must begin doing eight hours of community service work each month or face eviction.

    The new requirement is part of a 1998 federal law that takes effect in Tampa, St. Petersburg and many other places Sunday. In both cities this week, housing staff members fanned out through public housing complexes to distribute notices about the change.

    More than 100 worried residents have phoned the Tampa Housing Authority for an explanation. But Johnson, standing in her aqua colored doorway, said she doesn't know what all the hullabaloo was about.

    "It's nothing wrong with it," said Johnson, 38, who said she has been unemployed for several months and would be happy to pitch in at a nearby school or church. "An idle mind is the devil's playhouse."

    The law is part of the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act, a Republican-led overhaul of public housing regulations. Some consider the requirement a radical shift in public housing policies established in 1937 under President Roosevelt.

    "It's a completely different direction in public housing," said Jerome Ryans, executive director of the Tampa Housing Authority. "It's long overdue."

    But in New York City, home to the country's largest number of public housing residents, the law has spawned an outcry among tenants. Critics say it unjustly targets public housing residents while recipients of Section 8 housing vouchers or homeowner tax deductions face no such demands.

    "The rule is punitive," said Adriene Holder, lawyer for the Legal Aid Society in New York. "These are people who are paying their rent, and they obviously are law-abiding individuals. It's just going to result in a bunch of people getting evicted."

    It is unclear how many of the 1.3-million families residing in public housing nationwide will be affected by the law. Tampa has about 8,000 tenants in public housing, St. Petersburg about 500.

    But exemptions to the work requirement cast a wide net. People younger than 18 or older than 62 do not qualify. Anyone working at least 30 hours a week or enrolled in school or a work training program is exempt. So are the disabled, the bind and legal caretakers of the elderly.

    The St. Petersburg Housing Authority estimates that 10 percent of residents will be affected. They distributed fliers Thursday in James Park, Clearview Park and Jordan Park, said Mike Marshall, director of Planning and Development.

    "They have so many so exemptions, I don't even know who's going to be left to do community service," said Housing Authority Executive Director Darrell Irions.

    In Tampa, where hundreds if not thousands likely will be affected, THA staff fear they will be overwhelmed trying to enforce the law. They may solicit help from other agencies, Ryans said.

    Those not exempt must find the unpaid work themselves. They cannot work for the Housing Authority. After 11 months, before their lease is renewed, they must show proof of monthly service through signatures of sponsors or supervisors.

    Armentha Price has rented a rundown apartment on Scott Street in Central Park Village for five years. Price, 48, said she's so mad at THA officials for not fixing the holes in her kitchen walls or painting the flaking drywall that she would never comply with the mandate.

    "I'm not doing anything for them because I'm not satisfied," said Price, standing in her living room Wednesday clutching a flier. She is unemployed but said she thinks she would qualify for an exemption because of a disability.

    But Stephanie Brown, director of Resident Initiatives at THA, said the work requirement seems to be drawing more confusion than ire among tenants. Though staff have twice distributed fliers to all 3,400 apartments, not everyone understands what's at stake, Brown said.

    "It's probably going to take a good 60 to 90 days for it to hit home," she said.

    - Kathryn Wexler can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or

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