Roger Cohn
Roger Cohn

Fellowship Title:

The Kenilworth Estates

Roger Cohn
February 13, 1985

Fellowship Year

It was, Kimi Gray remembers, simply a matter of recognizing that things could not get any worse. Conditions at the Kenilworth Parkside public housing project in the District of Columbia had become abominable–dozens of apartments had been vacant for so long that desperate junkies just broke in and set up camp, dealing drugs openly on the street and terrorizing residents; overflowing trash dumpsters were emptied so infrequently that they became feeding grounds for rats so huge that mothers were afraid to let their youngsters play outside, and the heating system broke down so routinely that residents planned on spending the coldest winter days huddled around open oven doors.

Kimi Gray (in foreground) and two friends at Kenilworth.
Kimi Gray (in foreground) and two friends at Kenilworth.

So in 1979, Gray, an active tenant leader, approached district housing officials with a proposition. She had heard of successful programs in St. Louis and Boston where tenants were managing their own public housing developments. Why not give the residents of Kenilworth a chance to take control of their project?

“I told them, ‘Let’s face it, Things have hit rock bottom. They sure can’t get any worse. Why not let the residents try?'” Gray recalled recently.

The officials, though skeptical, conceded that they had nothing to lose. They agreed to sponsor a two-year training program, teaching tenants everything from how to collect rent to how to fix a boiler, and, in March, 1982, a nonprofit corporation, formed and operated by the tenants themselves, took over day-to-day management of the 464-unit, garden apartment in the Anacostia section of Washington.

The results of the first three years of tenant management at Kenilworth have been nothing short of phenomenal. The number of vacant units has been cut in more than half, and a massive renovation program, the first in the project’s 25-year history, has been launched. Residents, who had become accustomed to living with grounds covered with trash, now boast of their well-kept yards and compete each summer for the honor of having the most attractive flower beds. Rent collection has more than doubled, and 25 tenants, many of whom had never held a regular job, have found work on the project staff and in the grocery store, day-care center, snack bar and other small businesses that the tenant corporation has established at the development. Once a financial drain on the city housing authority, Kenilworth now is one of the few public housing developments in the country that no longer needs a federal operating subsidy.

“People talk about public housing residents as though we’re somehow different from everybody else,” said Gray, chairwoman of the Kenilworth Corp., as she sat behind her desk in the project’s management office. “The only difference is we’re poor, poor, poor. But we’re no different. Doesn’t everybody want to control their own destiny? Doesn’t everybody have dreams? Well, here at Kenilworth we’re about the business of making our dreams come true.”

Kenilworth’s achievements may be impressive, but they are not unique. In recent years, at least 20 public housing developments across the country have turned to resident management as an alternative to conventional methods that too often have failed miserably in the provision of decent housing for low-income families. In cities from Washington to St. Louis, from Boston to New Orleans, tenant management has achieved some remarkable successes, especially in troubled inner-city projects that local housing authorities had written off as hopeless cases. Some resident management experiments have ended in failure, as tenant leaders became consumed by internal bickering and feuding with housing officials. But in an impressive number of cases, tenant management has proven an effective tool in tackling the chronic, deep-rooted problems of federally-subsidized housing projects that had seemed beyond salvation.

Tenant management brings with it some built-in advantages. Residents know their project better than any 9-to-5 manager and can respond quickly when a boiler breaks or a roof leaks or a tenant turns an apartment into a “shooting gallery” where junkies can buy and use drugs. Perhaps most importantly, tenants who take charge of their own project have a real stake in its future and in its ultimate survival.

“I know what the problems are. I live here, so I know them firsthand,” said Gladys Roy, the manager of Kenilworth, who has lived in the development for 22 years and raised nine children there. “When their heat is off, my heat is off. When they don’t have hot water, I don’t have hot water. I go through the same things they do, so I know what the needs of the residents are.”

Tenant managers also say that living in a project makes staff members more vigilant about enforcing rules, whether that means cracking down on youngsters’ graffiti or levying extra charges against those who leave garbage in the halls.

“When the housing authority was here, they went home at 5 o’clock and went back to the suburbs,” said Jewell Merritt, a member of the tenant board at the A. Harry Moore Apartments in Jersey City. “Now with us living here, there are certain things we just do not accept. This is our home, you see.”

The concept of tenant management has found a sympathetic ear in what might at first seem a most unlikely place–the conservative political community and the Reagan Administration’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The Administration, while making public housing one of its prime budget-cutting targets, has been supportive of tenant management efforts, which it contends are a significant step toward self-sufficiency for residents and reduced federal subsidies. HUD officials speak glowingly of the tenant management record at Kenilworth, and last year rewarded the development for ending its dependence on operating subsidies by giving it a special $13.2 million grant for renovations. Kimi Gray and the Kenilworth tenant staff have become the darlings of Washington conservatives, and last year the Heritage Foundation, the influential conservative think tank, even catered one of its own seminars with barbecued ribs and collard greens from Kenilworth’s snack bar.

While tenant management structures vary from city to city, certain patterns have emerged. In virtually all cases, the process begins with a project-wide election of a tenant management board that consists exclusively of residents. The board then incorporates as a nonprofit group, selects a management and maintenance staff and undergoes an extensive training program that lasts from one to two years. When the training is completed, the board and the local housing authority sign a contract turning over management of the project to the corporation and establishing an operating budget that the board, like other public housing managers, must meet.

“This is a real business with us,” said Mildred Hailey, executive director of Boston’s Bromley-Heath development, which has operated under tenant management for 12 years, longer than any other public housing project. “This is not just an advisory thing where you just come in and say, ‘We want this kind of paint.’…We’re like a company, and our business is to make sure that this development is run properly.”

Tenant management first attracted the attention of housing experts in the mid-1970s when it was tried in St. Louis, a city that had become synonymous with the worst in public housing. The St. Louis Housing Authority, traumatized by a rent strike that had left it teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and by the demolition of its massive Pruitt-Igoe development, was in desperate straits. The beleaguered agency was ready to try just about anything, even turning to the tenants themselves. Between 1973 and 1976, tenant management was initiated at four of St. Louis’s most troubled projects. At two, Carr Square and Cochran Gardens, the results have bordered on the miraculous.

When the residents took control of Carr Square, they had to contend with a host of problems that the housing professionals had found insurmountable–more than 100 of the project’s 658 units were vacant, easy prey for vandals and vagrants; more than 50 tenants were seriously delinquent in rent, with some having not paid rent in years, and warring drug dealers roamed the project grounds so freely that residents no longer were surprised to hear the sounds of gunfire.

“What we always knew, from the very beginning, was that we had to manage this place better than the housing authority,” said Loretta Hall, the project’s resident manager.

The tenants of Carr Square did just that. They quickly put their unemployed youths to work on fixing up the vacant units, and within eight months, nearly all those units were occupied. They cracked down on delinquent tenants, setting a firm schedule for rents to be paid and moving to evict those who failed to meet it. And they successfully evicted two flagrant drug dealers and pressed the police department to increase surveillance in the area.

“It’s all about whether people know you mean business or not,” said Hall, 47, who has lived at Carr Square since it opened in 1942. “If people know you mean business, they become businesslike.”

The tenant management groups in St. Louis have launched their own entrepreneurial ventures, aimed at providing employment and social services for residents and revenue for the tenant corporations. With federal and city aid, Carr Square has built an impressive health center and community building that houses programs for everyone from pre-schoolers to senior citizens. In conjunction with Cochran Gardens tenant group, Carr Square formed a partnership with a private developer to build a mixed-income, 675-unit townhouse development on a vacant site that had long been an eyesore on the city’s North Side. Residents of Carr Square and Cochran Gardens have found jobs at the new development, which opened in 1981, and the tenant corporations of both projects regularly receive a share of the management fee. In addition, the Cochran Gardens tenant group was so successful in tackling its project’s maintenance problems that it formed its own janitorial company, which has employed more than a dozen residents and was hired to do general maintenance for a downtown St. Louis office building.

In the wake of the successes in St. Louis, public housing activists across the country began to look to tenant management as a viable approach to tackling the problems of urban projects. Currently, tenant management is in place in developments in at least nine major cities, and in two others, Cleveland and Chicago, it is under consideration. Not that tenant management has been without its failures. When the Ford Foundation and HUD jointly sponsored an experimental program in 1976, three of the seven participating projects failed to make a successful transfer to tenant management. And even in St. Louis, two projects that had been operated by tenant corporations have since reverted to the housing authority.

“The tenants have to really want to make it happen,” noted Gray. “The dream has to come from the bottom up. It can’t be parachuted in. You can’t have someone from the outside come in and say, ‘Now, we’re going to have tenant management.’ That just doesn’t work.”

Clearly, tenant management brings with it no guarantees of success. Not all projects are suited to this grassroots approach, and, judging from the record in various cities, certain conditions must exist before it can firmly take root. A well-organized tenant group must be in place, with a strong leadership that has proven its effectiveness in dealing with residents’ basic concerns, whether by forming tenant patrols in high-crime areas or by organizing residents to clean up hallways and grounds. The tenant group also must have the cooperation of the local housing authority, which must be willing to help provide the initial management training and ongoing support. Without such support, failure seems inevitable. In New Haven, Connecticut, which scrapped a short-lived experiment with resident management in 1979, one tenant leader said the housing authority had resisted the program and had treated it as “a case of turning the asylum over to the inmates.”

Becoming part of management can create pressures for the tenant staff. They are the landlord now, no longer simply fellow residents. And so, they must live with late-night knocks on the door from neighbors complaining about a busted water pipe or a jammed lock. And they must contend with harangues from matrons who want to know how their children could possibly be accused of smearing graffiti on the hallway walls.

“When something goes wrong,” said Gray, “it’s no longer a matter of saying, ‘We’re going downtown and march on the housing authority.’ You are the housing authority.”

The resident staff’s presence in the project often proves to be its greatest management asset. They know when someone has a legitimate reason for being late with the rent and when it is merely a concocted excuse. They know when an elderly person needs the aid of a social worker or must be moved from a building that has become a hangout for teenagers. And they know when a person is leaving for a job every morning and not reporting it on the income statement on which their rent payment is based.

“Having street sense is probably the most important thing in managing a public housing development,” said Richard Baron, a St. Louis consultant who has trained tenant management groups. “You can take someone who has a Ph.D. from Harvard, but if they don’t have street sense, they’re not going to be able to do the job.”

Sense Of Pride

Perhaps the most intangible benefit of tenant management is the sense of pride it instills in resident staff members, some of whom had given up all hope of ever finding a job. That pride was demonstrated on a recent tour of Bromley-Heath in Boston, where a visitor was whisked through the development by enthusiastic employees who wanted to make sure that nothing was missed–the rehabilitation work done on vacant units, the health center, the teen center, the day-care center, even the development’s own radio station which serves as a community bulletin board and a training facility for aspiring disc jockeys. All this, it was emphasized, had been accomplished with the tenants in charge.

“Our goal always has been to take away the stigma of public housing residents,” said Hailey, Bromley-Heath’s executive director. “We’re proud because everything that’s been done here has been done by the tenants themselves. That goes against, I think, what the stereotype of public housing tenants is nationwide.”

Pride also was evident as Lillie Howard, manager of Montgomery Gardens in Jersey City, inspected her development recently. In one fifth-floor hallway, she noticed several cigarette butts on the linoleum floor, which was scuffed and tracked with dirt. Howard was clearly annoyed. It was the residents’ job to keep their halls clean, she explained, with tenants alternating the months when they were responsible for mopping and sweeping. Those who failed to participate had charges added to their rent bill, she noted, since the project’s maintenance staff would have to do the work.

Outside the building, Howard walked across a paved courtyard that less than a decade ago had been nothing more than a littered patch of bare dirt. Now, the neatly black-topped surface was dotted with wooden plant boxes sprouting shrubs and small trees, and youngsters played on sleek, new playground equipment.

“This is Montgomery Gardens,” Howard said. “And these days, we stress the word gardens.”

The successes in tenant management are frequently cited by the Reagan Administration as it seeks to promote an experimental program of home ownership for public housing residents. Under such a program, individual tenants would be able to purchase their units at a sale price based on their income, and, in the case of multi-family projects, a tenant organization would manage the development as a cooperative or condominium. Once the tenant group assumed management of the project, all federal operating subsidies would cease.

The home ownership concept, which was endorsed in the 1984 Republican Party platform and has been strongly supported by conservatives, has been greeted with skepticism by many public housing advocates. They regard it as nothing more than an effort by an unsympathetic administration to reduce the federal commitment to public housing. Many tenants are so poor that they would be unable to keep up with utility costs, much less pay off a mortgage or condominium fee, these advocates say. And ultimately, they maintain, many units, either because of foreclosures or resales to speculators, would no longer be providing housing for low-income people.

Despite the criticism, HUD currently is considering applications from more than two dozen housing authorities interested in experimenting with home ownership. And HUD officials say they hope some units can be transferred to the tenants by the end of the year.

“The home ownership program has come about to a large extent through tenant management,” said Harold D. Williams, HUD’s program coordinator. “The next logical step after taking over the management of a project is the ownership of it.”

Kimi Gray and the Kenilworth tenant organization agree. They plan to apply to the home ownership program, with the intent of turning their development into a cooperative. In addition, the tenant corporation has entered into a joint-venture agreement with a private contractor and will share in the profits from the ongoing renovation work. The Kenilworth group plans a similar arrangement with a contractor for the proposed construction of 20 townhouses that would be sold to residents at low-interest mortgages.

Gray, a woman not accustomed to settling for the status quo, is bullish on Kenilworth. She expects to use the revenue from these ventures to expand job training and day-care programs at the development. And she hopes someday to build a recreation center on the site, complete with tennis courts and swimming pool, so that Kenilworth’s youth will have an alternative to the street corners.

“You know, when they built this place they called it Kenilworth Courts,” said Gray, with just a hint of a smile, “But when we get done we’re going to rename it. We’re going to call it Kenilworth Estates.”

©1985 Roger Cohn

Roger Cohn, reporter on leave from the Philadelphia Inquirer, concludes his investigation of public housing in America.