"I just ran out of there and slammed the door!" she remembers with a shudder. "I didn't go back in that room for, like, three days."
She phoned her apartment's manager, Jodie Wright of Quality Housing, to complain about rodents.
Quality Housing should have had plenty of incentive to get rid of the rats: The government could stop paying Smith's subsidized rent if an inspector found evidence of rodents in her apartment. But for two and a half years, inspectors neglected to look at the property, and the owner continued to collect $400 a month from the office of the Kansas City, Missouri, Housing Authority.
When Smith first moved into the Courtyard Apartments at 27th and Troost in 1998, the 25-year-old single mother was struggling to provide food, diapers and clothes for her kids on the low wages she earned making doughnuts on the night shift at LaMar's. She depended on the federal Section 8 program, funded and regulated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, to provide shelter for her family.
HUD apartment standards call for such basics as reliable plumbing, heat in the winter, smoke detectors and safe electrical outlets. Rodents and cockroaches are not allowed. As the local program administrator, the housing authority is required to inspect Section 8 properties at least once a year.
But Smith's apartment went uninspected while rats multiplied inside her walls. Smith and her four children -- all younger than eight -- endured loud scampering sounds at night, and Smith sometimes smelled an odor she suspected was a dead and decomposing rat. Her belongings got chewed up.
"There were holes in every corner. My dressers were all torn up. The curtains had big holes. The kids' clothes were all ate up," Smith says.
The property manager responded to Smith's complaints by sending maintenance workers to fill the holes in the walls, Smith says. On another occasion, workers set out poisoned rat bait, but the problem persisted, driving Smith twice to pack up her kids and stay with her mother for a total of eight months. As a result, the housing authority paid $3,200 in rent for months when the apartment was occupied only by rats.
Finally, while living with her mom in April, Smith called city hall. She complained to the neighborhood preservation department, and her landlord hired a pest-control company. Smith says workers removed 26 large rats, one from the box spring of her 18-month-old son's bed. "They were huge," Smith remembers.
Jodie Wright says Smith complained to Quality Housing only once about the rats -- in April -- and says the rats were domestic rodents. "Maintenance went over there, and he kind of freaked out, and he was like, 'Yeah, there is a bunch of rats,'" Wright says. "I didn't go over for a while, 'cause I'm terrified of rats. Then I finally did go. Once I saw one crawl, I saw that those were pet rats. I was like, 'These aren't no sewer rats.'"
Smith says she had no pet rats, and she dismisses Wright's explanation. She decided not to return to her apartment. On April 22, she filled out an official housing authority form, writing "Rats in unit" as her reason for leaving.
"That's the first we'd heard of it," says Kevin Crockett, a housing authority spokesman. He blames a "human glitch" for the agency's failure to inspect Smith's apartment. But HUD spokeswoman Dale Gray says the housing authority's computer system was part of the problem.
Housing authority records show that in November 2000, inspectors arrived at Smith's unit, but no one was there to let them in. The same thing happened a month later. Both the landlord and tenant are notified of the time and date of inspections.
After two failed inspection attempts are recorded in the housing authority's computers, the tenant's housing authority caseworker should write to the landlord warning that rent payments will stop until the unit is inspected. No checks should be sent after that notice, Crockett says.
Gray says the housing authority's computer had been failing to "red flag" properties after two unsuccessful inspection attempts.
But a computer error doesn't explain why the housing authority gave up trying to inspect Smith's apartment and continued to pay the landlord. Inspectors should have been back for an annual visit in 2001, but a housing authority file on Smith's unit shows no record of any inspection attempts in 2001.
"She should have made more calls," Crockett says.
Section 8 Director Charmainne Johnson-Davis suggests that tenants who "aren't aggressive enough" could benefit from a local counseling program to apprise them of their "rights as a tenant in the state of Missouri."
The housing authority says it has improved dramatically after a period of court-ordered federal control from 1994 to 2001. Before, the agency was itself a slumlord, managing housing projects with "a 43 percent vacancy rate, enormous backlogs of uncompleted maintenance work, rampant criminal activity and hundreds of families living in dangerous, substandard conditions," according a 2002 progress report.
Today, HUD no longer considers the housing authority a "troubled agency." In 2000, HUD awarded the authority 81 out of 100 points in its annual assessment of Kansas City's Section 8 program, nearly double the failing score of 44 assigned at the height of the agency's problems.
Gray says that the authority is certified annually, which proves "that they are meeting all the criteria that they are supposed to meet."
And who certifies the housing authority of Kansas City? The housing authority of Kansas City does, Gray says, quickly adding that the self-awarded seal of approval is "verified by an independent auditor."
Who hires the independent auditor? The housing authority does, Gray says.
"If we have received anything from the community, a complaint, or we know of something that might be going on, then that will be considered when their annual certification is forwarded to us, and then it may draw our attention, and we may go and do our own inspection," Gray says.
While Smith and her children wait for the authority to help them find a new Section 8 apartment, Crockett ponders why they ended up without a place of their own. Crockett thinks Smith just "fell through the cracks."
"From the standpoint of the housing authority, those are substandard conditions, and that is absolutely an unacceptable environment for any family to be living in," Crockett says.