Tenant Council President Fights The Power
Floyd Vines steps through the door to the lobby of the J. Van Story Branch Apartments on the unit block of W. 20th St. and greets a series of people there. This is his lobby now, and these are his people, since he was elected tenant council president on April 23.

"This is Mr. Phil," Vines says, sidling up to a large, smiling man. "Mr. Phil, I want you to meet Mr. Ericson, from City Paper . . ."

The woman in the glass booth with the building's sign-in sheet is "brave," says Vines, because she stood up at a meeting at Red Emma's to complain about the prospect that she will lose her job in a year or two when the Housing Authority of Baltimore City sells this building to a private management company, part of a radical privatization plan called the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD).

"She was brave enough to stand up and say what would happen," Vines says. The woman declines to give her name.

Vines' signature appears on an April 29 letter to the City Council and another to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan asking that the program be delayed and reconsidered in favor of something more democratic, like a resident co-op-a prospect that appears remote. He and some activists-the letter to Donovan has 95 signatures-say the tenants and workers have not had their views integrated into the RAD plan.

Now Floyd Vines is among the last hopes of those seeking a place at a negotiating table that does not exist. He represents tenant democracy in the public housing system. "They say I won by landslide. . . . that's like 75 votes out of 357 people," Vines says, as dissatisfied with the turnout as he is satisfied by his victory.

Whether Vines, who has lived at J. Van Story Branch for about two years, can have an impact remains to be seen. The odds are against it, and the building has clearly rebuffed previous efforts. There are holes here and there in the sheetrock. There is rust on the pipes in the stairwell. The bulletin board in the office has a federal minimum wage announcement dated 1997.

There has been as much as 2 inches of water in this very lobby in the past week because a pipe broke in a common bathroom on the floor, Vines and Mr. Phil say. The pipes leak and break throughout the building on a regular basis, according to Vines and other residents-indicating that the whole plumbing system is near the end of its life.

The elevators are about the same.

"We've had times in here when we didn't even have one," Vines says, surveying the three elevators. He asks the maintenance guy when that was last time that happened. The maintenance guy says they were all out at once back in February-for nearly two weeks.

When the elevators did not work, the residents who couldn't take the stairs were stuck on their floors. Vines says he checked on his neighbors on the sixth floor and offered to bring groceries. "They didn't want to be a burden," he says. "They were trying to give me money, I said, 'No, no, I understand you're on a fixed income.'"

Everyone here is on a fixed income. Social Security, Social Security disability payments. Maybe a small pension here and there. Very few-if any-could afford to rent a similar place at market prices.

"You would think that HUD would at least have a plan to put enough money aside to fix the elevators," Vines says.

Hence the housing authority's decision to sell this building, along with 21 others, to private bidders in a series of deals that began last summer ("Sale On," Mobtown Beat, April 9). The authority says it would cost $800 million to fix all the buildings it owns. As a matter of policy, the federal government has for decades declined to fund city housing authorities well enough to maintain their housing stock. The RAD program is meant to get some private money (raised substantially through a tax credit given to corporations) to offset the missing federal allotment.

"All the profits these corporation have been making is because they are not putting any money back into the infrastructure," Vines says. "The same thing is true everywhere, with the city's waterworks, the electric grid is going down. Roads and bridges."

Vines appreciates such things. A journeyman electrician, he says he has worked for Bethlehem Steel and he was in Local 333 of the International Longshoreman's Association. He says he had a friend at the steel mill, an older guy he remembers as "Mr. John," who was in his 40s maybe when Vines was in his early 20s-40 years ago. "And he was just tough," Vines says. "He'd make me feel like a punk, the way he could work."

Vines is clear he was no slouch in the work department, often working full time while attending college. He says he's lucky to have come up at a time when work, well, worked. "I had one professor and he said to us, 'Don't worry if anyone says you're fired. Go to the next job, the next place, and you'll find it's better there.'"

Mr. John was a "straight arrow," Vines says. And years after they worked together, maybe 5 years ago,Vines ran into him, sitting on a bench downtown. "I thought he was homeless," he recalls. He sat down and they recognized each other. Mr. John told Vines his wife had died after an illness. He'd remortgaged the house as part of that, so he lost that too. And then, just a little while before they met, Mr. John got a letter from the steel company rescinding a good part of his pension. "They were asking for money back," Vines says. "I said, 'You gotta be kidding me.' At that point I understood, if they can fuck a white guy like that, a straight arrow who gave everything he had to the company, then as a black guy I know I ain't got nothin' coming."

This is the feeling a lot of Americans have gotten over the past decade or two, but Vines says it with an inflection that sounds more like amusement than bitterness-the attitude one develops after solving a difficult puzzle or becoming a Buddhist monk.