Oct 26, 2005 at 12:00 am

When the Detroit Housing Commission was taken over by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in July, the feds promised to clean up the mismanagement and shoddy living conditions that have plagued the city’s public housing for decades. Fair enough. But now Detroit City Council members are complaining they’re being kept in the dark about matters important to their constituents.

For example, the council was shocked to discover earlier this month that the commission had sent letters telling some senior citizens they could be relocated or evicted from their subsidized apartments if they didn’t respond to an accompanying survey within 10 days. The notice, dated Oct. 7, was a follow-up to an August query about family sizes.

Councilmembers Sheila Cockrel, Sharon McPhail and JoAnn Watson — the only members present when the issue was raised — all expressed concern. The consensus was that eviction seemed way too extreme a penalty for not responding to a survey.

They’d wanted to question Lindsey Reams, the HUD-appointed commission director, about the threat, but Reams declined their invite to come in and chat. Instead, commission deputy director Patricia Baines Lake wrote council that HUD’s intention wasn’t to evict residents, but rather to relocate “overhoused” seniors. No further information was forthcoming.

Contacted by News Hits, HUD spokeswoman Donna White explained that 152 letters were sent to seniors whose households had apparently shrunk. Those seniors, White says, could be relocated to smaller apartments to free up space for larger families. Thirty-two residents didn’t respond; they were the ones who got the threatening follow-up letters. White says the notices were “just a matter of protocol.”

Sheila Cockrel says such heavy-handedness is part of bigger problem. “There is no public awareness and no public accountability,” she says, complaining that the council has been stymied in its efforts to find out what the commission’s been doing since HUD took over.

White says that’s HUD’s MO.

“When we first go into the housing authority with a recovery effort, we like to get as much information and as many things resolved with the housing commission before we begin to interact with City Council or city government,” White says. “But those meetings will happen. We’ve only been in there three months.”

In the meantime, council members are left taking calls from elderly residents who fear they’re going to lose their housing.

“Because HUD is now in here does not mean there should not be public accountability for the changes HUD is making,” Cockrel says. “City government is designed to protect the health, safety, and defend the welfare of people of the city.”

It’s easier to do that, she says, when you know what’s going on.

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