9764074454?profile=RESIZE_710xAngela McDonald lives in Dixie Manor, part of which was built during World War II for Blacks working at the Boca Raton Army Airfield. Today it is public housing run by the Boca Raton Housing Authority. McDonald, on the authority’s board, advocates for residents who fear they would be left out if new apartments are built.
Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

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By Mary Hladky

Residents of the Dixie Manor public housing complex typically haven’t paid much attention to Boca Raton Housing Authority meetings.
But those monthly Zoom sessions have drawn intense interest lately as word started circulating that the housing authority is planning changes that they fear could push them out of their apartments.
They are studying the ramifications if the housing authority removes Dixie Manor from the federal public housing program and uses other methods to provide low-income housing. They are asking questions — lots of questions. They have spoken out at City Council meetings to make sure city leaders are aware of what may be in the offing.
“My concern is about the displacement of people who live in Dixie Manor,” former resident John Martin told the council on Aug. 24. “My hope is if you are not aware of it, you become aware of it. … My hope is we create a dialogue with the city and housing authority to look at what we can do to preserve that community.”
The angst is spurred by the housing authority’s decision to explore alternatives that would provide financing to upgrade dilapidated Dixie Manor and add more low-income housing.
Housing authorities across the country are doing the same as they struggle to find ways to improve their housing stock and make more subsidized housing available.
“There is no question the need for affordable housing, low-income housing is dire,” said John Scannell, executive director of the Boca Raton Housing Authority.
Congress has underfunded the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which finances housing authorities, for decades. No money is available to build new housing and the department is short as much as $70 billion for repairs.
As HUD flounders, public housing complexes have fallen into further disrepair. The waiting lists to obtain housing vouchers that subsidize rents at privately owned apartments are long, with people waiting a decade or longer in some areas to get one.
President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better domestic policy package originally included $322 billion to bolster low-income housing programs, but the amount has been trimmed substantially during congressional negotiations. Even the full amount would have been inadequate to meet the need.
In an effort to salvage the situation, HUD proposed “repositioning” public housing in 2018, although components of the program were available years earlier. The decision on whether or not to reposition is left to housing authorities.
The HUD options are complicated, but the idea is to remove apartments from the public housing program with the intent of giving housing authorities access to debt and equity that had not been available to them to finance their capital needs.
The chief concern for some Dixie Manor residents is that if the complex is rebuilt, they would not be allowed to move into the new complex. Angela McDonald, a Dixie Manor resident for 31/2 years who joined the housing authority board one year ago because of her concerns, said residents were explicitly told that.
“My biggest concern is to allow those who want to stay to stay,” McDonald said.
Others are less adamant about being able to return, but want assurances they will continue to have subsidized housing. Their fears, in part, stem from skyrocketing rental rates throughout South Florida. If the housing authority does not provide housing they can afford, will they end up homeless?
They also worry that if they are given a Section 8 voucher to move out of public housing and into a subsidized, privately owned apartment, few landlords will accept the voucher because they can make more money bypassing the program.
A pervasive complaint is that the housing authority is not being transparent about what it is doing and did not involve residents in the process early on.
Their frustrations grew when Scannell could not assure them that they would be allowed to return to a rebuilt Dixie Manor.
Scannell is frustrated, too, as he sees rumors running ahead of fact.
There is a simple reason why he cannot give firm answers, he said in September. “We are nowhere near a plan.”
Once the housing authority board members analyze their options for repositioning Dixie Manor and determine what financing is available, they will develop that plan.
Scannell pledged that he and the board would keep residents informed.
“They are going to be protected. That is the bottom line,” he said.
“You cannot take people [in public housing] and put them in the street. It is not permitted [by HUD]. They will have assistance. No matter what the plan is, they will have safe and affordable housing.”
But such assurances ring hollow to Martin.
“I am 100% sure something is going to happen that will wipe out a community,” Martin said at a Sept. 20 meeting. “I am not happy at all.”
The housing authority made a concession in October.
In a letter to Dixie Manor residents, Board Chairman Gary Richardson wrote that current residents would be allowed to return.
During a WLRN news program the next day, Richardson reiterated that. “Residents will be able to stay,” he said.
At first, Richardson said in an interview with The Coastal Star, board members were not sure that would be possible. But after doing research, they concluded that it is.
“We didn’t want to make promises before we were sure,” he said.
That hasn’t assuaged McDonald’s concerns.
“I don’t trust them until I see it,” she said. “They have not been totally honest with us.”
According to various media reports across the country, repositioning has worked well in some cases and tenants have been happy with the results. But in others, tenants have faced rent increases, improper evictions or poorly done renovations.
Tenant concerns are justified, said Deborah Thorpe, deputy director of the National Housing Law Project, which advocates for tenants and litigates housing rights cases.
“The concern of tenants are absolutely warranted,” she said. “There is a lot of risk for public housing tenants in repositioning.”
That risk includes losing rights they have as public housing tenants, depending on which plan a housing authority decides to implement.
Those rights include due process rights that protect them from eviction or termination from the program and the right to organize.
“It is critical that tenants living in public housing that may be experiencing repositioning organize if at all possible and really start to make demands. You really want to make sure key tenant protections are carried over,” Thorpe said.
Tenants also need to make sure that whatever the housing authority does, their housing remains affordable and does not become market-rate apartments a few years in the future, she said.
For help in safeguarding their rights, tenants have turned to legal aid organizations. At least one Dixie Manor resident has done so.
Tequisha Myles, Fair Housing Project supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, said a tenant has asked for assistance, but could not comment further on what the tenant is seeking.
“We are investigating,” she said. “We will be involved in the matter.”
No one disputes that Dixie Manor is in disrepair and needs to be replaced.
The 95-unit complex at 1350 N. Dixie Highway sits at the edge of Pearl City, a historic neighborhood formed in 1915. Some of the buildings, which house 350 people, are more than 60 years old. Their deficiencies include no heat and window air-conditioning units.
“The apartments are basically falling apart,” McDonald said.
The housing authority also has issued 626 housing vouchers and has 600 people on a wait list who can expect to be on that list for years.
Dixie Manor residents and those with vouchers pay 30% of their adjusted annual income for rent.
Scannell and the board hope that they will be able to rebuild and at least double the number of apartments by repositioning.
They so far have hired an attorney who has represented housing authorities across the country. In October, they signed a contract with Atlantic Pacific Communities, a developer which has extensive experience working with housing authorities in Florida and four other states.
They soon will contract with a company to do a feasibility study to determine the best repositioning and financing options. After they settle on a plan, they must obtain financing.
Both Richardson and Scannell estimate it could be two years before construction begins.
Richardson now is making himself more available to Dixie Manor residents. His visits to the complex fell off at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but he has held meetings recently with tenants to answer questions and ease tensions, he hopes.
“Some of the things that have been said are false and we want to make sure tenants get accurate information,” he said. “We are not hiding behind anything. We will do good for the community and the residents.”

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