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A house divided: Public housing tenants take fight to storied civil rights church

by Jordan Green

Starlyn Nelson whispered to Toni Curtis: “Listen.” LaTonya Stimpson, one of their fellow tenants at JT Hairston Memorial Apartments was engaged in conversation with a woman from Shiloh Baptist Church.

“The lady said, ‘Don’t say nothing aboutwhat is going on; God is going to get you,’”Nelson recalled later. “That made me veryuncomfortable. We said, ‘We don’t need to behere.’” Later, after Stimpson had led the tenants andsupporters out of the sanctuary, Nelson askedher what had been said prior.“I said, ‘We’re from Hairston homes, andwe’re asking for your prayers,’” Stimpsonrecounted. “She said, ‘Y’all don’t need to bringthat in here.’”

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LaTonya Stimpson, whose discrimination claim against Westminster Co. is being investigated by the Greensboro Human Relations Department, faces imminent eviction.

A handful of present and former tenants hadmarched into the church, accompanied by lessthan a dozen supporters, among them membersof the Latin Kings street organization andrevolutionary communist Tim Hopkins, as themen’s choir sang the opening hymn. An elderly African-American man in thehallway shook my hand and inquired aboutthe identity of the group. The expressions onthe parishioners’ faces conveyed a mixture ofbewilderment and outward friendliness. Nelsonsigned the guest book for the group. I did nothear it myself, but Nelson said later that thesame woman who would make the remarkabout the tenants not needing to bring theircause in the church said, ‘What the hell arethey doing here?’”Shortly after that, I wrote my name in theledger, identifying myself as a reporter. BrotherLondon Griffin, a young man wearing shortdreadlocks and glasses, beamed with pleasureas the guests filed into the sanctuary.All of us took seats together on the righttowards the front.One of the deacons led the congregation ina responsive reading. “Therefore confess yoursins to one another, and pray for one another,so that you may be healed,” he said. “Theprayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”The congregation responded: “And will notGod grant justice to his chosen ones who cryto him day and night? Will he delay long inhelping them? I tell you, he will quickly grantjustice to them. And yet, when the Son of Mancomes, will he find faith on earth?”As the deacon continued, a woman from thecongregation grasped my hand, and some othersalso stood in the aisle near the group fromHairston apartments in a display of fellowship.Then the men’s choir sang a rickety if heartfeltrendition of “We’re Gonna Make It.”After some difficulty with the sound system,Brother Griffin introduced the guests fromHairston Homes.“We’re so glad you’re here,” said the Rev.John B. Doe Jr., the church’s interim pastor.“Amen. Let everybody say, ‘Amen.’”Several of the parishioners circulated aroundthe group, grasping hands and greeting the visitors.“Y’all are welcome,” one woman told me.Mary Mims, chair of the board of directorsfor Hairston apartments shook my hand. Wehad met two days earlier in the leasing officeof Westminster Co. on Marsh Street near thecrook of Freeman Mill and Randleman roads,where the public housing community lies. Ihad acknowledged to her at that time that Ihave family relationship with Starlyn Nelson,through her 13-year-old son, Malcolm, whosefather is my fianc’e’s cousin. Mims asked meif Malcolm was standing beside me. I told herthat he was not, but that Starlyn was nearby.Mims moved down the line and greeted herwith kindness. We stood during the period of recognition forwhat seemed to be an uncomfortable amount oftime, and then some of the group from Hairstonapartments began to move out of the pews.Confused at first, I assumed they were movingout to circulate through the rest of the sanctuaryto continue the exchange of greetings. ThenStimpson told me: ‘We’re not welcome here.’”As I followed them out, a parishioner asked,“Did y’all want to make a speech?”Outside in the parking, Stimpson, Nelsonand Curtis debriefed. Stimpson introduced TimHopkins to another young woman standingin the huddle. Keosha Gee said she had beenevicted from Hairston apartments just beforeChristmas for violations related to blinds andoven drip pans. Among the current and formertenants, her lament conformed to a familiaroutline.“I have been depressed; I don’t drink,” Geesaid. “I’m in a two-bedroom apartment withmy friend and her kid. I have money, but Ican’t find a place.”The group dispersed, and some of thewomen left to go to their own churches, whereservices were already underway. Nelson singsin the choir at the Church of God of Prophecy,which meets at Hayes-Taylor MemorialYMCA.“My preacher was preaching, ‘Don’t giveup,’ and ‘The devil is going to put obstacles inyour way,’” Nelson told me later. “That’s whatI needed to hear.”

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Supporter Tim Hopkins holds a megaphone for Starlyn Nelson, a Hairston apartments tenant that has complained that management tried to charge her for bedbug eradication even though the pest came from an adjacent unit.

I called Mims because I wanted to hearher impression of the surprise visit from theHairston residents.“I thought you came to worship with us,”Mims told me. “I was perplexed when everybodystarted to leave.” The awkward encounter at Shiloh BaptistChurch on Sunday was only the latest developmentin a series of community meetings, publicprotests, courtroom skirmishes and shuttlediplomacymissions that have marked thestandoff between several residents of the publichousing community and Westminster Co. thathas been brewing since at least last October. Alleging unfair and disrespectful treatment,some of the residents have called on the nonprofitassociated with the church to fire theproperty management company. The nonprofitboard has staunchly backed the property managementcompany in the face of mountingcriticism, unfavorable press and an unsuccessfullegal maneuver by the city of Greensboroto try to suspend one of the evictions as itinvestigates multiple discrimination complaints.Westminster Co. has denied allegations of wrongdoing and specifically denied discriminating against tenants in violation of the city’s fair housing ordinance.

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Peter Smith, who is LaTonya Stimpson’s son, walks from his mother’s apartment to the Hairston apartments leasing office during a demonstration on Feb. 23.

I initially learned about the troubles at Hairston apartments through fairly ordinary means. A News & Record story in mid-January about a petition drive by some of the residents to have Westminster Co. fired made only a vague and fleeting impression. Around the same time a mutual friend told me that Tim Hopkins — a neighbor and activist with whom I’ve had some differences over the years — had been active in a tenants struggle at Hairston apartments. About two weeks later, an anonymous source asked me to look into the situation.

Knowing that Malcolm lived at Hairston apartments, I obtained his mother’s phone number from my fianc’e so I could ask her if there were any substance to the complaints. Little did I know that she was one of the principal tenant leaders in the struggle. The first time I ever spoke to Starlyn Nelson was in early February.

It’s somewhat embarrassing to me that after all the time my fianc’e and I have spent with Malcolm, we never knew anything about the infestation of bedbugs in his home or the difficulty his mother was having with her landlord. I think that since we didn’t know Starlyn well — and in my case, not at all — we didn’t think what went on in her home was any of our business.

Malcolm is small for his 13 years, exceedingly well mannered, intelligent and a masterful Wii player. He will bear the cross in the procession at my wedding in September. Malcolm’s father, Bevin, will be one of my groomsmen, as will my editor. Starlyn and her daughters will be there, too.

The tenants, almost exclusively if not all African American and mostly single mothers on public assistance, have built on other relationships outside of their community to advance their cause. Among the most significant of those is with Yvonne Johnson, the former mayor.

Again, Malcolm is at the center of it: Yvonne is his godmother.

Starlyn Nelson cleans houses for a living, and among her clients is the former mayor, along with retired Greensboro city Councilwoman Goldie Wells.

Pat Callair co-chaired Johnson’s reelection committee last fall. Like the former mayor, she is a trained mediator. Nelson called Callair in October, during the campaign’s final stretch, complaining about the way the residents were being treated. Callair discussed it with Johnson, who asked her campaign committee co-chair in turn “to find out what was going on in this community.”

Callair met with Mims from the nonprofit board of directors, with the vice president of Westminster Co. and staff members from the property management company to try to resolve the dispute. She told me she regrets that her effort failed. She added that she doesn’t fault the residents for making their struggle public after earlier, more quiet tactics foundered.

“The common thread is a serious miscom munication problem between staff and residents,” Callair said. “It feels like the staff get defensive and feel hostile. Then the residents respond with hostility. There have been serious breaches of respect. The residents generally feel locked up and belittled.”

Callair told me that she can appreciate that the property management company sees itself as acting from a sense of responsibility for upholding regulations imposed by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and from a desire to provide for the overall safety of the residents.

“I do worry that there is a fundamental way that people view people in public housing, that the residents are inadequate and incompetent,”

Callair said. “That’s the wrong place to start. These are women who don’t usually look for a fight. They usually look for enough resources to take care of their families. The fact that they feel like they need to fight is significant to me.”

The former mayor pledged in early February to meet with members of the Hairston apartments board of directors to raise the residents’ concerns. When I spoke to her recently she said she had not had time to meet with the board but still hopes to do so.

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Hairston apartment residents complain that many of the rules are overly restrictive and unevenly applied. Management insists its policies are appropriate and fair.

Along with the former mayor and Tim Hopkins, a galaxy of community organizers and local leaders have involved themselves in the dispute. The Beloved Community Center and Faith Community Church, headed by the Rev. Nelson Johnson, have allowed the residents to hold meetings in their building and paid the fee for a dance group from the apartment complex to participate in the annual Martin Luther King Jr. parade. Marikay Abuzuaiter, a Greensboro human relations commissioner, has sat in court while a judge considered whether to delay LaTonya Stimpson’s eviction and attended a protest outside of Westminster Co.’s headquarters on North Church Street.

Most significantly perhaps, the city of Greensboro filed for a temporary restraining order to suspend eviction proceedings against Stimpson. It is the first time the city has attempted to intervene in an eviction through the courts since its fair-housing ordinance was implemented in the early 1990s.

The city noted that Stimpson alleges that Westminster Co. pursued her eviction in retaliation for her claim that the property management company has discriminated against her. Execution of the eviction order would make investigating and enforcing Stimpson’s complaint more difficult by impeding contact between the human relations department and the tenant should she be put out on the street, the city argued. Additionally, the city contended, the “eviction may tend to have a chilling effect on other residents of JT Hairston Memorial Apartments from seeking the vindication of their rights under the Greensboro Fair Housing Ordinance.”

Guilford County District Court Judge Polly D. Sizemore did not agree with Assistant City Attorney Jamiah Waterman’s argument that the city’s status “as a substantially equivalent agency” to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development gives it extraordinary standing to pursue a temporary restraining order despite not having a related pending civil lawsuit against the property management company. On Feb. 25, Sizemore finalized an order upholding Stimpson’s eviction. Property Manager Ron Cagno said at the time that he expected the company to waste no time executing the order. On Sunday afternoon, Stimpson’s apartment remained intact, and she has indicated she has no plans to leave.

Judge Sizemore’s order did not address the merits of the complaint Stimpson filed with the human relations department against Westminster Co.

The city continues to investigate complaints filed by Stimpson and other employees, but city employees have been cautioned to avoid public comment on the matter outside of proceedings in open court.

“We’ve looked at the case of Ms. Stimpson and some other tenants and determined that there has been discrimination,” Waterman told Judge Sizemore. “We do have documents from the landlord that indicate there has been discrimination.”

The alleged discrimination against Stimpson is based on familial status. The tenant, who has four children, alleges that a Westminster employee told her that she shouldn’t register for community college because she has so many children that she would be better off getting a job.

Stephanie Ridge, site property manager for Hairston apartments countered in an affidavit that, “as to Stimpson’s allegation that I suggested that she needs to work instead of attending school, I have made no such statement or implication.”

In her own affidavit, Stimpson alleges that staff has limited her family’s use of the common areas.

Ridge responds in language that is more detailed: “The allegation that Stimpson’s children have been denied access to the computer room is false. Stimpson’s children’s friends have been denied access because only residents are entitled to use the computers…. There are scheduled computer room hours for all children at the apartments, and Stimpson’s children have not only been allowed to use the computer room during these hours, they regularly used the computer room during these hours.”

JT Hairston Memorial Apartments was founded in 1967. Among its three incorporators were the Rev. Otis Hairston Sr., then the pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church, and Ezell Blair Sr., father of one of the NC A&T students who formed the quartet that launched the 1960 Woolworth’s sit-ins. Such is Shiloh Baptist Church’s legendary status in Greensboro’s civil rights movement that one local newspaper writer described it in 2000 as the “control center for the sit-ins.”

The articles of incorporation for Hairston apartments allude to a reputation the complex has since gained as a last stop before homelessness. Melva Florance, a Greensboro nonprofit director who grew up in the nearby St. James Homes public housing community, prefers the terms “respite” and “refuge.”

“The purpose for which the corporation is formed and the business and the objects to be carried on and promoted by it, are as follows,” the articles read. “To provide, on a nonprofit basis, housing for low and moderate income families displaced by urban renewal areas or as a result of government action where no adequate housing exists for such groups.”

I met recently with Mary Mims, chair of apartments’ nonprofit board of directors; Peter O’Connell and Ron Cagno, respectively executive vice president and regional property manager for Westminster Co.; and W. Love, the resident council president, who is also known as “Miss Love,” “Pastor Love” and “Mama Love.” We met in the computer room at the leasing office, where LaTonya Stimpson alleges her children have been denied equal access.

Mims underscored the board of directors’ and Shiloh Baptist Church’s support for Westminster Co.

“Westminster has been doing an outstanding job,” she said. “They were not just dropped on us. Several companies came before us and made presentations. Because of their demonstrated experience the board selected Westminster, and they have not let us down.”

I had first met Starlyn Nelson, Malcolm’s mother, a couple weeks earlier at the Hive, an activist-community center in nearby Glenwood.

When I arrived, a group counseling meeting was winding down. Florance, the executive director of LaStraw, was leading a discussion loosely focused on the topics of rape, self worth and sexual health with a small group of young, African-American women.

“African-American women are at high risk of HIV,” she told me in the presence of the other women. “This ties in with women getting evicted and having no other place to live.

One of the fundamental reasons why African- American women in low-income areas are at risk of HIV has to do with the stability of their home lives. That’s how I came to be involved with what’s going on at Hairston homes.”

Florance uses a behavioral intervention model developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called SISTA: Sisters Informing Sisters on Topics about AIDS.

Much of what she tries to do is to instill in low-income African-American women a sense of self worth, coach them on communication styles so they feel more confident with insisting on condom use with sex partners or saying no to sex altogether. A subsequent section deals with coping with rejection — often a consequence of exercising a preference to not have sex with someone with whom one is in a relationship. As a logical extension of that train of thought, Florance views eviction as an event that compromises women’s control over their own bodies and exponentially increases the risk factors for HIV.

The list of specific grievances against Westminster Co. by tenants — catalogued in reports by the Beloved Community Center and separately by the city’s human relations commission, referenced in speeches at rallies and in numerous conversations — are bewildering and exhausting. Some relate to regulations considered overbearing by tenants but defended as in the best interest of safety by staff. Some involve allegations of rules and service charges unevenly applied. (Unsurprisingly, management denies these, but cites confidentiality requirements in declining to address specific allegations.) Many grievances have to do with a sense that staff treats tenants with disrespect. Most all relate to a frustrated sense by tenants that they lack control over their environment, and that they are treated as children unable to take responsibility for themselves.

“The management said they received a complaint on me: They wanted me to tell my neighbors’ business,” Nelson told me on the first day we met. “She said, ‘You keep to yourself too much.’ That’s the way I am. But when I reported that my neighbor was shooting a gun, they told the neighbor I said it.”

Since the first time I heard this, I’ve asked Nelson about it at least two more times because it sounded so unbelievable. Her account has never changed or wavered.

During our meeting at the leasing office, Cagno said. “I’m confident in saying that management has never informed a tenant of the identity of another tenant that made a complaint against them.”

He added, “The issue was handled. Any time there’s guns or drugs involved, that is a serious violation. We handled the situation according to the terms of our lease. We want the residents, if there’s actions on the site that are harmful, to report them. They are afraid of retaliation from other residents. It is of utmost importance to keep confidentiality.”

Miss Love speculated that the offending neighbor might have observed Nelson visiting the leasing office and concluded independently that she was filing a complaint, adding a remark that spoke to her own alienation from her fellow residents.

“Because they know that I come down here to the office to handle different things, it was already assumed that I was an informant for management. No one knows me out here.”

Starlyn Nelson told me that first day that Malcolm had gotten bit by bedbugs, causing his arm, neck face and back to swell up and get infected. The bedbugs appear to have come up through the baseboards from an adjoining apartment. Malcolm is now sleeping on a couch in the living room.

“The doctor was so concerned he wanted to send him the pediatric ward at Moses Cone hospital,” Nelson said. “He gave him a shot of antibiotics and said, ‘Keep his fever down for the next three days.’ They wanted to make sure his airways didn’t close…. That happened when he got stung by bees when he was younger.”

Nelson told me that management told her she would he held responsible for a $500 charge to exterminate the bedbugs, and that failure to pay would result in her eviction. Later, when I visited the complex, she pointed to a neighbor’s apartment and said management had treated for bedbugs without charge because it was determined that the insects came from another unit.

A statement residents were required to sign in August 2008 holds that Westminster Co.’s pest control contract “will treat for common pests such as cockroaches, ants, rats and mice,” with the caveat that “should your unit become infested with bedbugs, fleas or other pests not covered under our pest control contract, the unit will be treated by the pest control service at your expense.”

Cagno told me the policy is currently suspended, acknowledging that since each building includes a handful of units it’s impossible to determine which tenant is responsible for introducing bedbugs.

“At this time, no resident has been charged with eradication of this particular pest due to everything that is going on,” he said.

Human Relations Commissioner Marikay Abuzuaiter owns and manages rental properties with her husband. They’ve had some experiences with bedbugs.

“They’re horrible to try to get rid of, and it’s very expensive,” she told me. As a practice, her company absorbs the cost of eradicating bedbugs, but she emphasized that other landlords might handle it differently according to the terms of their leases.

O’Connell and Cagno were eager to address a number of charges publicly circulated by the tenants.

A supposed rule prohibiting residents from sitting out on the concrete pad in front of their apartments: No such thing, O’Connell said. Rather, there’s a prohibition against congregating in the breezeways so that residents don’t have to contend with large groups of unfamiliar and possibly threatening people.

A supposed curfew against adult guests that hinders fathers from staying overnight with

their children: The curfew only applies to children, O’Connell said. “We do have a parking policy: After midnight you have to have a residents sticker or a visitor’s pass.”

It is true that the residents are not allowed to have small plastic swimming pools outside in the hot summer months.

“The biggest issue was the safety issue,” O’Connell said. “Tot-aged children have drowned. Their children might be supervised, but what about someone else’s child who comes wandering over? We have a liability here.”

Residents have also complained about being forbidden from contracting out their own repairs and instead being charged what they consider exorbitant rates for Westminster’s in-house maintenance service. (Examples: $6 for chrome range drip pans and $18 for a toilet seat, not including labor.)

O’Connell said the policy is in place to ensure that maintenance is handled properly. He said that maintenance repairs are priced at cost, and are not an additional profit center for the company.

O’Connell said there was a problem with raw sewage backing up inside an apartment and seeping up from the ground about three years ago, but it was subsequently corrected during renovations.

A couple days before our interview, Raynell Cole, whose daughter was evicted right before Christmas, pointed out to me strands of toilet paper partially exposed in the dirt patch in front of LaTonya Stimpson’s apartment. I brought this up to management, noting that residents contend that raw sewage remains a problem.

Miss Love had another explanation: “That’s due to the children dropping garbage bags.”

O’Connell was also eager to counter a widely reported notion that management would not allow residents to have a dance group.

“Nobody has ever asked management about having a dance group,” he said.

LaIndia Murphy, who is 29, told me that she decided to start a dance group to give the children in the community something to do to keep them out of trouble. She recruited six or seven girls; boys were more difficult to interest. Her two daughters, 9 and 12, were the youngest members of the group.

She started holding practices in her apartment and then in her backyard. That’s when the complaints from her neighbors started.

The color scheme — pink bandannas for girls, green for boys — appears to have caused some confusion and alarm.

“Why would I make the boys wear pink?” she asked. “That would take away all their manhood.”

Hairston apartments has a three-strikes policy. Murphy chalked up her first violation when two off-duty police officers broke up a party she was throwing for members of the dance group.

“During the second altercation, I had pizza and movie night,” Murphy said. “Two of my boys was standing outside my apartment. The officers put them in handcuffs, held them for 45 minutes and lectured them about being in a gang. They didn’t run their names. The boys were sitting on bikes, I guess. One of them was Tonya’s nephew. That was my second violation. They’re saying I can’t associate with the kids.”

Miss Love pulled out an 8-by-11 photographic print showing a throng of young people in front of an apartment that she said was taken by a resident at 10 p.m. at night. As to any allegations about gang activity associated with the dance group, Love and the management insist that residents complained and police responded with no direction or input by Westminster Co.

Miss Love has recently offered to help Murphy reorganize the dance group, stipulating that it should be more structured and involve more adult chaperones. Murphy told me that she’s not interested because she considers the offer to be a ploy to deflect the criticism leveled at management and because the run-ins with the police have spooked the children.

“I would have wanted to be in support, but they pushed me out,” Miss Love told me. “They didn’t even give me a chance before they put me on the other side.”

Miss Love told me she became president of the residents council because she volunteered and no one else wanted the job. At least three officer positions remain vacant. Many residents don’t attend monthly meetings either because of disinterest or a feeling that the council lacks legitimacy.

The tensions between the residents on either side of the dispute came to the fore during a protest staged by the dissatisfied tenants in front of Westminster Co.’s leasing office in the apartment complex about two weeks ago. Some of the tenants and their supporters fanned’ out along the sidewalk in front of the office bearing hand-drawn signs and a banner imploring, “Stop the evictions.”

During the demonstration, a young woman with a pixie haircut who is a resident walked through the yard on her way into the office.

“Do you support Hairston homes?” Stimpson demanded of her.

The woman snarled in reply: “Y’all gonna get someone who is gonna f**k your shit up.”

Officer BC Strader arrived on the scene a while later, pulled Stimpson and the other woman together, and took down a report.

Later, Miss Love walked past the group and went inside the office. Near the end of the demonstration, she came back out, and appeared to be overtaken by the spirit. Shoeless and wearing hose, she extended her arms, turned in a circle and stomped the sidewalk.

“Thank you, God,” she cried. “Hallelujah.

Thank you, Jesus.”

Stimpson taunted her: “Take up a collection plate.”

The threats allegedly go both ways. Miss Love told me that she attended a meeting of the residents hosted by the Beloved Community Center, and that “there was a gentleman who communicated a physical bodily threat to me.”

Joseph Frierson, staff coordinator for the Beloved Community Center, said he was familiar with the incident.

“Miss Love may be referring to a gentleman who — when he said in the meeting that we need to keep all of the information inside in a sense of building solidarity with each other — if this information leaked out, ‘We know who said it.’ We said, ‘Brother, this is not a good spirit to carry.’ I guess the dear sister felt at that time that she was not welcome. Several other residents said, ‘No, we want her here.’ “If we do this in the right spirit and continue to lead with love and reconciliation and truth, this is easily turned,” Frierson argued. “The family of Hairston homes is hurting right now. We see ourselves as being in a position to aid in this process and making sure all the voices in Hairston homes are heard — even those that are perceived as being in opposition. It is our duty as good servant leaders in this city. You don’t have good democracy when you say, ‘Someone doesn’t need to be in the room.’ You don’t have good democracy when someone says, ‘I’m not going to participate.’”

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