Rats Indeed

Uncle Sam giveth and then taketh away: Carol Labelle says the feds abandoned her
Joshua Prezant

Carol Labelle could not rely on beauty, youth, education, friends in high places, a stable family, the good will of strangers, or even a steady job. At 51 years of age, she lacked those advantages. But she figured at least Uncle Sam would be there for her, as he had for eight years.

But she figured wrong. In November the feds, through Fort Lauderdale Housing Authority (FLHA) bureaucrats, cut off $386 in rental assistance that she had received monthly. The money came from the Section 8 program, which is bankrolled by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Now she lives with a daughter-in-law, who is estranged from her youngest son. And she sleeps in the corner of a cramped Pompano Beach apartment.

What dropped Labelle into the ranks of the poor-without-options? Her answer is also her lament: Family troubles, the insensitivity of FLHA bureaucrats, and a greedy landlord. For Labelle and roughly 100 others like her each year who are bounced from the FLHA's Section 8 program, the welfare miracle of the 1990s, is a sham. "The Section 8 people, they always side with the landlord," she claims. "I thought they were supposed to help you."

The issue puts in stark relief the opinions of the two leading presidential candidates on housing help for the poor. Al Gore believes the Section 8 program should receive an injection of almost $700 million during the next two years. His opponent, George W. Bush, in contrast, has paid little attention to the issue, making only a vague proposal to help people like Labelle purchase homes.

A scrappy, overweight woman with a quick smile that blooms over a sometimes grating voice, Labelle has been receiving Section 8 assistance since 1992, when she started a job at Dunkin' Donuts. The subsidy, and the job, helped her climb out of poverty back then. But in 1996, she says, she had to quit because of nerve damage that prevents her from standing for long periods. She then began receiving federal disability payments, which now total $504 per month, just enough to scrape by with the Section 8 assistance.

After two years without work, she crafted plans to escape welfare by enrolling in computer classes at Broward Community College, hoping to educate her way into a new life. (She is taking one class this semester but remains unemployed.) By last year Section 8 was paying her landlord $386 per month, Labelle $104. HUD rules oblige tenants to pay no more than 30 percent of their income for rent, however low those incomes may be.

Her old life came back to haunt her this past September when the youngest of her five grown children, Robert, arrived in Fort Lauderdale with his wife, Liz, and their three-year-old son, Robby Jr. The family needed help, Labelle says, and for Robby's sake she offered shelter.

Her decision violated HUD rules, which require more space than was available in her one-bedroom Fort Lauderdale apartment for a family of that size. When her son and daughter-in-law began to fight loudly, her landlord insisted she follow the rules and reported her to the Fort Lauderdale Section 8 office. Then, at month's end, he began eviction proceedings.

Ironically, as winter approached and Labelle grew more desperate, Congress approved a $347 million boost to Section 8 nationwide, $13.4 million for Florida.

This past November Fort Lauderdale officials suspended her rent payments. But they allowed her to remain in the program while searching for a qualified landlord to take her in. In November the FLHA gave her 60 days to find a new apartment and then in January granted a 60-day extension.

By Christmas Labelle found herself sharing a single, $150-per-week room with her daughter-in-law and grandson. Labelle's son, meanwhile, had left the family. Each woman contributed what she could to pay the rent, and Labelle tried to scrape together enough money to make a deposit on a new apartment.

The effort required every minute of time Section 8 officials allowed her -- the entire 120 days. But as April approached, she recalls feeling optimistic. On the last day of March, Labelle tucked $140 into her purse and traveled by bus to Floridale Rental Apartments on Northeast 18th Street, where she had deposited $530 for a one-bedroom apartment.

She felt she was back on track. Then a property manager told her she was short by about $70, a figure Labelle claims the woman tacked on without warning. Labelle lost her temper and asked for a refund of her deposit. "They wouldn't give me back the [money]," she says. "They saw a poor slob on Section 8, and they thought, What is she going to do about it?"

Neither Floridale Rental Apartments owner Ben Belkin nor building managers returned calls from New Times seeking comment. But Broward County Legal Aid Attorney Janet Riley says the scenario is possible. "Landlords can get good market rates for apartments that aren't that nice, and there are waiting lists of tenants if they evict somebody."

In a panic Labelle rushed across town to the Section 8 office and asked to see her FLHA counselor, Mildred Velez, who has worked in HUD offices in both New York and Fort Lauderdale. Labelle planned to beg for an extension. Velez declined to meet with her and sent out an assistant to say she was too late. "We gave her a lot of time," Velez explained to New Times, "as much time as we could. It wouldn't be fair to give her an extension. Beyond that I can't talk about it."

Labelle was booted off the list of about 1500 low-income beneficiaries of Fort Lauderdale's Section 8 money. Her tiny stake in the pot, a yearly $4632 of the $8.6 million managed by the FLHA for Section 8, was shifted permanently to somebody else. She likely won't be allowed back into the program soon, because about 350 people are lined up ahead of her and the waiting list is closed until 2002.

Philip Goombs, acting president and CEO of the Fort Lauderdale Housing Authority, claims Labelle was treated fairly. Generally, he argues, people "have to manage their own affairs too; they have to work things out with landlords."

Responds Labelle: "I thought the program was supposed to help you."

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