More than a dozen people crowded into the grand jury room at the Bee County Courthouse Friday afternoon to discuss the levels of crime and complaint calls that originate in so-called low-income housing within the city.
Bee County Sheriff Carlos Carrizales and Police Chief Joe Treviño had several of the top members of their staffs with them as they sat down with District Attorney Martha Warner, County Commissioner Carlos Salazar and Mayor Pro Tem John Fulghum to speak with Beeville Housing Authority Executive Director Viola Salazar and some of her management staff.
Ms. Salazar had prepared a four-item agenda for the meeting that included “housing needs in our community,” “low income housing and affordable housing,” “crime in our community” and “crime in public housing.”
“The difference is we deal with it,” Ms. Salazar said about crime and disturbances in BHA units when compared to Section 8 housing units in privately owned apartment complexes.
Ms. Salazar pointed out that about 15 apartment units in Beeville accept Section 8 tenants through a program in which low-income people receive rent assistance through a federal government program.
When Mrs. Warner mentioned that she had more apartment complexes on her list, Ms. Salazar responded, “Not all do business with us.”
Ms. Salazar said her office is unable to address many of the problems with Section 8 tenants because they are not always told when those tenants cause problems. Dealing with troublemakers in the Section 8 program is the responsibility of the complex managers and they do not always want the trouble.
Ms. Salazar said it is much easier for her to handle problem tenants who live in what she called “owned” housing. That, she said, means units owned by the housing authority.
She said that only about one percent of her tenants have been identified as being involved in drugs or gang activity. She said those people are evicted from their units as soon as she can get that done.
Ms. Salazar said Justice of the Peace Raul Casarez usually is the one who orders evictions and he does an excellent job for her.
“I’m here to try to defend and educate that public housing and even Section 8 are not bad,” Ms. Salazar said.
“I’m like you,” Mrs. Warner said. “There are a lot of really fine people living there (public housing) and they don’t deserve to live next door to a drug dealer.”
But Mrs. Warner said the Bee County Sheriff’s Office has information on 38 cases, felonies, that involve people living in low-income housing within the city.
When Mrs. Warner asked about what she perceived to be a high number of vacant units in BHA complexes, Ms. Salazar said a number of her units are being renovated.
“Some have been vacant four years,” Mrs. Warner said.
Ms. Salazar responded that the authority uses its existing staff to renovate units rather than hiring contractors in an effort to save money. She said the renovations are “going real slow.”
Ms. Salazar said apartment managers who accept Section 8 tenants fail to report problems to her for a number of reasons.
“I think what’s happening is that when they lose a family they have a vacant unit and they aren’t going to collect any rent.”
Ms. Salazar said some tenants recently received a three-day eviction notice but they did not move out right away.
BHA’s Section 8 Administrator Jo Anna Soliz said she encourages landlords to call when they have problems with tenants but they do not always comply.
Then those at the meeting addressed the difficulty that law enforcement officers have with identifying which private apartment complexes are Section 8 clients.
Chief Treviño said that tracking down whether or not someone responsible for a disturbance or crime call is a Section 8 tenant “is a job in itself.”
“I totally understand,” Mrs. Salazar said. She realized that departments do not always have time to make those checks.
Sheriff Carrizales said he was not aware that law enforcement personnel were not always contacted by BHA staff members to see if those responsible for complaints were Section 8 tenants.
Mrs. Warner then said Beeville seems to have become a magnet for low-income families from surrounding communities who want to find a better place to live. Often they have been causing trouble in their original communities and when they come to Beeville they bring that trouble with them.
“I want them to go back where they came from,” Mrs. Warner said.
Developer Gary Driggers, who was invited to the meeting by Ms. Salazar, said “affordable housing is a term that gets kicked around a lot. It’s a way of providing housing for people who need it.”
Driggers defended public housing, saying that people will not see the investment in market rate properties that they will see in public housing.
“It’s not just the way the place looks,” Mrs. Warner said. “It’s whether it’s crime free.”
Mrs. Salazar said the BHA would like to stop doing business with the apartment complexes which seem to cause the most trouble and she named several of them.
“But if we do that, it will displace 50 people,” she said.
“Don’t renew contracts with those people,” Mrs. Warner suggested. She suggested that the BHA could allow the contracts to expire because there is too much crime at those properties.
Certified Public Account Allen Cornell, who also was invited to attend by Ms. Salazar, told those at the meeting that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is trying to get away from “owned” properties like those managed by the BHA. He said the federal government is moving toward more Section 8 housing assistance.
Ms. Salazar said the BHA does criminal background checks on everyone who applies for housing assistance but they have gotten clean reports on some people whom they know have been to prison. Apparently the background checks are not always dependable. Detective Lt. Mike Willow said it was important that authorities pay attention to the types of offenses that are reported.
Cornell said one of the most serious problems with doing background checks on tenants is that often people living in public housing “are not on the lease.”
Mrs. Warner said that it is a state crime to fail to report that someone is living with a low-income housing tenant who is getting government rent assistance.
She wanted to be told who those tenants are. “We want to prosecute those women,” Mrs. Warner said.
Earlier in the meeting, Mrs. Warner had provided a list of apartment complexes in the city and a report on how much crime originated within them. The report showed that half of all bicycle thefts, 34 percent of all family violence calls, 46 percent of all crimes against persons, 60 percent of all robberies, 10 percent of all auto burglaries and 20 percent of all property burglaries are reported coming from 12 different properties within the city. Thirty-six percent of all crime in the city takes place within those 12 apartment complexes and 46 percent of all violent crimes happen in them.
“If my housing and my Section 8 people are causing problems, I want to work with you guys,” Mrs. Salazar said. “I want to deal with it. Help me and I’ll help you with what I need to do.”
Driggers then said that the city could have had two new complexes of affordable housing but local elected officials made it impossible for them to be developed here.
“It really scares me,” Mrs. Warner said about the problem of people moving from other communities to Beeville to take advantage of better quality low-income housing.
“Why would I want to stay in my little unit in Taft when I could move to these nice, new places in Beeville?” Ms. Warner commented.
“These people will still come here because there is a market here,” Driggers said.
“I don’t want them to come here,” Mrs. Warner responded.
With that Mrs. Warner had to leave for another appointment and the meeting broke up soon afterward.