US Rep. Lewis Disappoints Public Housing Residents
(APN) ATLANTA — Public housing resident leaders and advocates are disappointed with US Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) after a recent meeting in his Atlanta office, where they said he repeated Atlanta Housing Authority slogans and failed to question the agency’s planned mass displacement of thousands of Atlanta families.
The meeting held March 25, 2008, included US Rep. Lewis and his staff; Diane Wright, President of the Resident Advisory Board and Hollywood Courts; Shirley Hightower, President of Bowen Homes; Anita Beaty, Executive Director of the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless; Lindsay Jones, private attorney for the RAB Board and Hollywood Courts; Carl Hartrampf of the Task Force; Renee Glover, Executive Director of Atlanta Housing Authority; Barney Simms, Vice President for External Affairs for AHA; and Jeffrey Walker, President of Bankhead Court who was brought by AHA.
“He declares it an arbitration,” Jones recalled of US Rep. Lewis. “He leans to their [AHA’s] side and starts taking their arguments: Aren’t these high crime areas and don’t people want to get out of them? He sat on the other side of the room with them.”
“They [Lewis and AHA] came in together. John Lewis was falling asleep,” Wright told Atlanta Progressive News after the meeting, adding that his behavior appeared erratic, and that he kept waking up in outbursts.
“John Lewis was sitting there like he was tired to death. That man didn’t want to hear what Lindsay [Jones] had to say,” Wright said.
“His aide always talk for him,” Wright added. “It’s like that’s the Congressman and John Lewis just a shell.”
“John Lewis asked Shirley [Hightower] if she thinks the Mayor and Housing Authority are doing this [allowing the crime in Bowen Homes] purposely? Shirley said yeah. John Lewis shouted I can’t believe that,” Wright said, adding she believes AHA told him that to try to discredit the residents.
“Then he asked another question toward Shirley again, do you want your people to be in safe, affordable, sanitary housing?” Wright replied, adding that is an AHA slogan.
“The meeting was a serious disappointment,” Beaty said. “We had asked for the meeting in order to get relief from Congress at the federal level for displacement and lack of due process the Housing Authority has engaged in this last year and a half.”
The residents and leaders, including, for instance, City Councilwoman Felicia Moore, have already attempted arbitration with AHA.
“It is very difficult to negotiate with powerful forces who are interested in profit and land exchange and gentrification which is the declared value of the AHA,” Beaty said.
“The casualties of gentrification are low-income individuals and families, who have a multiplicity of issues which keep them from competing in the marketplace,” Beaty said.
“It seems so simple, to have looked at the documents and seen the blatant disregard for justice and fairness,” Beaty said.
“In the past, ten to fifteen years ago, I felt clear that we did have a friend in Congress. I think now he seems to be very concerned about his election. The folks around him are concerned about being as noncontroversial as possible,” Beaty said.
“He’s being steered into avoiding issues where he has to take a side,” Beaty said.
“When his district director announced the purpose of the meeting, I made it clear we wanted intervention, we had not asked for mediation,” Beaty said.
“He announced it was a meeting to preside over whatever we could do to come together. In walked Renee Glover and Barney Simms and it was clear they’d been there,” Beaty said.
“I was shocked of his seeming lack of knowledge about homelessness. He completely accepted their argument that all those residents are criminals. He also seemed to believe that homeless people are mostly Black men who have addiction issues or mental illness,” Beaty said.
Lewis’s Office alerted AHA and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper of their activities with the residents before they happened. APN knew about the meetings but did not report on them beforehand so that the AJC would not have time to bully him before Lewis decided what actions, if any, to take.
“Somebody in his office, probably the press secretary, has been alerting the press about his meetings with us almost to ensure it’s not going to result in anything,” Beaty said.
“They were almost trying to protect the meeting from appearing to be confrontation. It was just appalling, it made us all sick to our stomachs. I want him [Lewis] to do something to justify his [progressive] reputation and I want him to do it now. We so desperately need leadership in this City,” Beaty said.
Congressman Lewis is being challenged in the Democratic Primary to be held in July 2008, by Rev. Markel Hutchins, who was a spokesman for the family of Kathryn Johnston, a 92 year-old woman who was killed by Atlanta Police last year. Hutchins criticizes Lewis for his previous endorsement of US Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) for President of the United States, arguing Lewis should have supported Obama.
Another possible contender has made their interests known to APN and is currently exploring fundraising for a challenge to Lewis. This person hopes to make an announcement by April 15, 2008.
RESIDENTS, ADVOCATES REACH OUT TO LEWIS
Resident leader Diane Wright was the first to reach out to Lewis in late February 2008.
“We have treid [sic] to reach out to the housing authority here but! to not avail they have shut an deaf ear to the residents the assocations [sic] to the fact of relocation plan, Congressman Lewis our rights have been volated [sic] and no one seen to but us, We know there is not enough housing in the merto [sic] Atlanta area to house these residents,” Wright wrote in an email [spelling errors left for accuracy] to Ruth Fletcher, an assistant to Congressman Lewis’s Office, on February 29, 2008.
“We had no in put in the plan what so ever and hud is not helping us either. We sent resoltion [sic] in to hud with our resident saying they had no say but! it seem like we are the only persons that hears us is us, We thought this was America you know the great USA,But! there seem to be a war on poor people in America… We are asking for help because we need to live and keep a roof over our children too. Mr. Congressman we are asking if you would to meet with the remaining resident presidents of the assocations [sic] so you will really understand our concerns.”
Wright never received a reply.
Then, State Rep. “Able” Mable Thomas suggested at a legislative hearing on March 07, 2008, that she and other lawmakers write a letter to Mr. Lewis urging his intervention.
“We are writing to you as a state legislative delegation over fair housing and due process concerns that were recently brought to our attention by constituents whom we share with you and reside in public housing in the City of Atlanta,” State Rep. Thomas and others wrote in a letter to Lewis dated March 10, 2008.
Attached to the letter were statistics showing a lack of affordable housing in Atlanta and a recent report by Deirdre Oakley, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Georgia State University, showing voucher-leasing opportunities tend to be clustered in majority Black and high poverty neighborhoods.
Then, Anita Beaty of the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless requested a meeting with US Rep. Lewis on March 12, 2008, working with Jared McKinley in his office.
Congressman Lewis’s Office agreed that he would visit a monthly coalition meeting convened by the Task Force, visit some of the remaining public housing communities, and would meet with residents and leaders.
Mr. Lewis did visit the Task Force meeting on Thursday, March 20, 2008, at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta, where witnesses say he listened to a presentation by attorney Lindsay Jones, made a brief speech where he told residents “You have a friend,” listened to testimony by two residents having problems with their vouchers, watched a video of resident testimony, and then quickly left to visit the communities.
“He did the dog and pony show. He said I’m down with the program. He spent five minutes in each community [Bowen Homes and Hollywood Courts],” Jones said.
When John Lewis arrived at Bowen Homes, Barney Simms from AHA showed up with police, Beaty said.
Hightower insisted Simms leave and eventually he did, Beaty said.
Lewis then visited Hollywood Courts where he gave a five minute speech to about 25 residents, Wright said. Lewis told the residents he wasn’t promising them anything, Wright said.
In all, Mr. Lewis never did take the time to learn the issues from the resident leaders and advocates before convening his mediation with AHA.
The AJC ran two news articles on the Lewis/AHA story, including one about a paragraph long, in addition to one opinions article. Mr. Lewis’s re-election campaign posted links to two of the articles on his website.
After the meeting, Lewis told the AJC he decided that he would support affordable housing tax credits in Congress, which does not in any way respond to the concerns of residents in danger of being displaced.
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Matthew Cardinale is the News Editor for Atlanta Progressive News and may be reached at email@example.com.
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