Another View: Courageous women stepped up to transform housing authority
By Steven A. Fischer, Delaware County Daily Times Guest Columnist
January 28, 2015
The beginning of the new year brought a significant change to Chester, the end of the federal court’s direct oversight of the Housing Authority. This event should provide both a great moment of pride for the city and a time of appreciation for the people who played key roles in converting our housing authority from “the worst in the nation” to among the best.
The appreciation begins with four courageous Chester women — Yvonne Carrington, Barbara Gooby-Muhammad, Ella Thompson and the late Ernestine Tilghman — who in the late 1980s challenged the status quo and filed suit in federal court over what generously could be described as deplorable living conditions in public housing. Conditions were so bad that “de facto demolition” was taking place; even the poorest citizens would not apply to live in these apartments, so the units remained vacant. CHA’s negligence was in effect forcing poor people out.
The conditions that existed were the result of years of patronage, corruption and mismanagement. The actions of these four planted the seeds of change. After a bench trial known as “Velez vs. Cisneros,” Judge Norma L. Shapiro determined CHA, under the city of Chester, could not govern itself and ordered the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to take over. When HUD was unsuccessful in producing needed changes after several years, it took the highly unusual step of asking Judge Shapiro to assume oversight in 1994.
From the outset of this judicial receivership, Judge Shapiro was moved by the residents’ plight and was determined to maintain control until all improvements were complete. The first decade was spent razing and rehabilitating derelict buildings that had formed the basis of the suit, and erecting modern and much more attractive facilities. Simultaneously, she focused on hiring a competent and stable executive team and improving safety and service to residents.
It has been an honor to have served under Judge Shapiro for the past 10 years. Over that time, our property management and maintenance ratings have become consistently high. My meetings with the judge were not perfunctory. I have never worked for a boss who paid more attention to detail. She never lost her zeal for reaching the ultimate goal. At the end of this past year, she determined that the structure and people in place can satisfactorily carry the housing authority into the future.
Before anyone writes off the end of the receivership as just a bureaucratic action, consider what a well-run housing authority means to the city of Chester. With so many people living in poverty, having a stable source of homes accessible to low-income families is critical. When people are properly housed, there is less of a burden on everyone else. Beyond that, well maintained buildings drive up values for the city’s property owners. As we transition out of receivership, Judge Shapiro has challenged Chester to maintain what we have built under her guidance. In tribute to the courageous individuals who set off the transformational process, and to all the community partners along the way that helped us achieve our current status, the Chester Housing Authority intends to continue the practices that the citizens of Chester have come to expect, need and deserve.
Steven A. Fischer has been executive director of the Chester Housing Authority since April 2005.