Kansas City’s public housing officials want you to think everything’s great. Miss Lizzie Brown knows otherwise.

The Housing Authority 

Kansas City’s public housing officials want you to think everything’s great. Miss Lizzie Brown knows otherwise.

Even seated in her wheelchair, Lizzie Brown has a swagger. She’ll lean forward, cock her head and raise her eyebrows as though some kid just tried to shortchange her at 7-Eleven. The look crosses her face when she remembers how a man was gunned down in her apartment complex last fall.

On October 1, four men sat outside a three-story brick building in Chouteau Courts, a public housing complex on Independence Avenue. It was still midmorning, but the men drank cans of Budweiser as they played dice. A little before noon, an argument broke out. One man refused to make good on a wager. Another fired four shots from a semiautomatic pistol.

When police arrived three minutes later, they saw 33-year-old Clyde Holden sprawled on the sidewalk, his blood staining a patio strewn with beer cans, cigarette butts and one spent bullet. A crowd had already dispersed. Nobody wanted to talk.

Brown didn’t see it, but she’d been expecting it.

The 67-year-old with gold-rimmed glasses has used a wheelchair for 15 years, her legs weakened by arthritic knees. She spends much of her time in the two-bedroom apartment she shares with her husband, Walter, who also uses a wheelchair. So when gunshots became a daily occurrence in early 2006, they were usually at home to hear it.

On April 28, 2006, Brown was making coffee in the kitchen around 5:15 a.m. when she heard two men thunder down the stairs to the landing near her apartment. She listened as they argued in front of her door. One said he wanted the other’s money.

“The other boy said, ‘I’m going to show you something,’ and then pow,” Brown recalls. He fired the gun less than 10 feet from her kitchen counter. She called 911 but told the operator she didn’t want cops knocking on her door, making her a target. She also called Chouteau’s property manager and the executive and deputy directors of the Housing Authority of Kansas City. She called the HAKC’s public safety director, too. She knew all of their numbers by heart.

Over the past year, Brown has been on a mission to prove that the Housing Authority of Kansas City isn’t quite the national success story that its officials would like everyone to believe it is.

In the front room of Brown's apartment, cream-colored walls are covered with family photos in frames held together with Scotch tape. The coffee table is scattered with Housing Authority reports, newspaper clippings, a hardbound Women in the Bible and the latest issue of Time magazine. The other side of the room doubles as a kitchen, where faded paper stuck to the refrigerator reminds her "Don't tell God how big your storm is, instead tell your storm how big God is!"

Down a small hallway, there's a bathroom. Sometimes, Brown says, the toilet runs over and sends "poop water" gliding through the corridor. In the back is the bedroom, where she and Walter watch TV, read the newspaper and discuss whether they should set aside a little money to spend her 68th birthday on a casino boat.

Sometimes when they're trying to sleep, they can hear a baby playing on the floor upstairs. That doesn't bother Brown. She knows her unit is just one of 12 in this red-brick building.

Scattered around faded playground equipment and unkempt barbecue pits are 22 nearly identical buildings in the Chouteau Courts development. Each building has the same block shape, the same dim hallways with piss-yellow lights that swarm with flies, the same stairwells with paint chipping off the railings and rust staining the concrete steps.

Nearly 4,000 families are signed to a waiting list for public housing, yet more than a third of Chouteau's units are vacant. But Chouteau has the Housing Authority's highest number of residents receiving money from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families fund, making it home to many children. It also pulls the smallest amount of rent from tenants, taking in just $11,600 from more than 85 leases in April.

At noon on a sunny spring day, residents regard one another with suspicion when they pass on the sidewalks. They're all low-income, but different circumstances brought them here. Many are unable to work because they are elderly or mentally or physically disabled. Others are young parents with low-wage jobs or people who need time to regroup after some sort of emergency.

This corner of Kansas City, just northeast of downtown, is home to the four largest developments managed by the Housing Authority of Kansas City. More than 1,000 public housing residents live less than a mile from Brown's front door, at the Riverview Gardens, Theron B. Watkins and Guinotte Manor projects. Those sites look better than some privately held apartment complexes. But 20 years ago, they were falling apart.

In 1988, a city audit found that the Housing Authority's then director, Ben Montijo, had lied about his work hours, submitted improper travel expenses and claimed $35,000 in unearned pay. He reportedly bought $300,000 worth of computer equipment that was never used. Meanwhile, the agency was in a budget crisis, and the developments were crime-ridden slums.

Montijo was soon fired, but he was the last in a long line of inept administrators. Six months after his firing, Julie Levin, the managing attorney for Legal Aid of Western Missouri, filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of tenants at Theron B. Watkins. From the outside, many of the units looked like clapboard shacks with broken windows. Nearly half were abandoned, and many were littered with drug paraphernalia and stripped of their appliances and window frames. In 1994, U.S. District Judge Dean Whipple turned the whole operation over to a receiver, Jeff Lines of TAG Associates in Boston, Massachusetts.

Under court order, the Housing Authority poured nearly $188 million into a mid-1990s revitalization. Entire developments, including Guinotte Manor, were demolished and rebuilt. Others, such as Theron B. Watkins and Riverview Gardens, got dramatic rehabs. By 2001, the HAKC's finances were in order and conditions had improved so much that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development designated the local agency a "high performer."

Chouteau was a different story. While other developments began to improve, Chouteau slid. Police department records between 1994 and 1998 log more than 120 assaults, 62 robberies and 12 rapes. Worse, Chouteau was last in line for the systemwide revitalization; by the time it was up for its rehab, the federal grants had been exhausted.

The complex had been built in 1958 on top of an old landfill, and the ground was slowly sinking as the waste decomposed. No matter was done to spruce it up, Lines tells the Pitch, Chouteau would still be an island of housing tacked onto an industrial strip lined with scrap yards and auto shops and crisscrossing thoroughfares.

"It's the only time in my life I've seen a McDonald's close down because they couldn't do enough business to stay open," Lines says of Chouteau's neighborhood.

Knowing that Chouteau would be obsolete within 10 years of its rehab, the Housing Authority secured a $4 million loan to prop up the development with a refurbishment. Workers replaced furnaces and cabinets, redesigned and consolidated some of the larger apartments and turned a maintenance shop into a community center.

In 2002, a new board of commissioners took over, though Lines still had to approve its decisions. The new commissioners had long backgrounds in social work and housing advocacy. Among them was Ellen King, a career social worker and former director of the Jackson County agency that appoints court advocates for abused and neglected children. Tapped to be chairman was Joe Egan, a longtime housing official for the Economic Development Corporation of Kansas City (he heads the division that doles out property-tax abatements to developments such as Quality Hill).

Meanwhile, the judge had appointed Legal Aid's Levin to keep an eye on the Housing Authority's improvement. By February 2006, she was convinced that, after 12 years and the longest-running receivership in the country, the Housing Authority would regain full local control.

Lizzie Brown wasn't so optimistic. Growing up in Kansas City, Kansas, Brown sped right past her childhood.

Raised in a single-family house in Gray Stone Heights, Brown was brought up by her mother and grandmother, who both suffered from seizures. Her sister, Ethel, had cancer that would end up taking her kidneys. Before she was a teenager, Brown became a strong voice in a household run by women and a caretaker for her sister's children.

Brown was no model child. By the time she was 14, she'd stopped going to church. She dropped out of Sumner High School and started drinking and sneaking across the state line.

"I wanted to be grown quick, and I made some bad choices," she admits. "We'd come over here, to this place over at 27th and Indiana, to go to concerts. I thought I was hot stuff going to Kansas City, Missouri."

When Brown was in her late teens, Ethel's cancer progressed and she became the on-call caretaker for her sister's seven children. She had jobs off and on, but with her mother's "spells" and her sister's kids, her main employment was keeping up with her family. Ethel died shortly after she moved to the Wayne Miner housing development in 1963. Suddenly, Brown was responsible for four girls and three boys — the oldest was 13, the youngest just 2.

Wayne Miner was appalling to Brown. She'd always lived in well-kept homes, not 10-story buildings cramped with 700 apartments. She hated the noise, the drug dealing, the lack of personal space. It wasn't safe to use the elevators, and in the stairwells she sometimes saw dead people with needles still stuck in their arms.

Having grown up with maternal figures who could be knocked out by a seizure one minute and be away grocery shopping the next, Brown had learned that sometimes you just do what needs to be done.

"All the women in our family are strong people. We're doers. That's the way we were raised," she says. "I wasn't raised with all that Mickey Mouse, poor-me crap. No, there's something you can do."

She joined the Wayne Miner Tenant Association and quickly became president. She worked with the Black Panthers, organizing field trips and programs for the children in the complex. She knocked on doors to get tenants to fork over their unpaid rent.

Ellen King was working for the Housing Authority as an assistant to the director back then.

"She was very outspoken, changed her hair color with every season," King says of Brown. "She was a very fascinating person, and at first, I was intimidated. But when I began understanding where she was coming from, I developed a strong appreciation for her."

Brown had private problems, though.

When the kids were grown, she moved to Heritage House, a 1920s hotel in downtown Kansas City that had been converted into public housing. (It was demolished in 1998.) There she kept her title as Tenant Association president, but her alcoholism threatened to send her to the streets.

She never drank when she went to other cities as a representative of activist groups or the Housing Authority, she says. "People in the projects might have known, but not out of town," she says.

Fred Gibbs knew. He was the manager at Heritage House. One month, Brown accidentally paid the phone bill twice and didn't have the money to cover rent. "He called me in and said, 'Here's what you're going to do. You're going to go upstairs, and if you're not in treatment by Friday, you will no longer be living here,'" Brown recalls.

She went to rehab at ReStart in 1988 or '89 — she can't quite remember. Brown says she hasn't relapsed since.

Her bad choices weren't confined to the bottle. She says she's been married five times. "No, wait," she says, and starts counting on her fingers, muttering men's names. One was named Carl; he was the first. One of them she married twice, but she wouldn't recommend that to any woman. She waves off her marriages, saying she was too independent to settle down. She doesn't want to dig into specifics. "It's something that I went through that I'm not proud of."

Eventually, the owners of a private housing complex recruited her to run a program that was like a neighborhood watch organization for tenants. They gave her a two-bedroom place for free. Then, in the mid-'90s, she got a job as a drug- and alcohol-abuse counselor for Project Neighborhood. It took her back to the projects to meet with public housing residents who were struggling with addiction.

But her health had started to slow her down. Her arthritis was bad. She suffers from asthma and has all the troubles that come with being overweight. She doesn't deny that her health problems are of her own making. She knows that the years of drinking are catching up with her and that all those years of organizing wore her down.

In 2000, Brown moved to Cropsey Place, a federally funded housing complex for the elderly and people with HIV and AIDS. That's where she met Walter. They became close friends, and when he got so weak that he couldn't walk, Brown took care of him. Walter became her fifth husband on May 19, 2005.

"I married him because we're friends," she says. "He didn't want to go to a nursing home, and I didn't want to keep living alone and die by myself."

The housing at Cropsey Place was fine, but they wanted to be in a place where they could hear kids playing. About the same time, Florine Jones asked Brown to think about another stay in public housing. Jones had lived in Theron B. Watkins back when Brown had been at Wayne Miner. Both were longtime housing advocates and had been friends for nearly 40 years.

"She told me about all the good services and how this place had really changed," Brown says. "She said, 'Ah, Lizzie, come on back. It's different now.'"

It wasn't. Brown remembers Chouteau Courts in the early 1960s. She was struck by the stately brick buildings and the bright-green lawns in the courtyards.

Forty years later, Brown says she has accepted that this is where the Lord wants her to be.

After moving back in June 2005, she quickly learned the rhythms of the place. Activity picked up as the sun went down. At night, she'd hear the dogs barking in the junkyard lot on the other side of Independence Avenue. That let her know someone was crossing the street, walking the cracked sidewalk, passing through Chouteau's wrought-iron fence.

Often, these visitors weren't residents or their friends. Even in daylight, strangers stopped residents, asking if they knew where a guy could "get some work." Many of Chouteau's residents are families, but Brown never heard children playing on the jungle gym behind her building.

Residents started calling one building "the Hole" because of its prostitution, crack dealing and rodent infestation.

When Brown moved in, she and Walter had enjoyed watching kids through their bedroom window play basketball. By February 2006, so many drug deals were happening in the court that maintenance workers took down the basketball rims. That winter, security cameras were put up — and vandalized. Extra lights were installed — and broken. Most tenants kept to themselves and stayed inside.

Brown, on the other hand, became a one-woman crime crusader.

She was elected president of the Tenant Association and she called or visited with housing officials almost every day. She volunteered to appeal personally to the drug dealers through the media, tell them on live TV to take their business elsewhere. She suggested that the Housing Authority bring in people from the community so that Chouteau's problems wouldn't remain a secret to the rest of the city. She asked Chouteau's managers to get out of their offices and get to know residents.

Her approach wasn't always pleasant.

At a meeting early this year, Brown ripped into Chouteau manager Shari Taylor so relentlessly that Taylor choked back tears in the hallway afterward. Brown has so little respect for Director of Facilities Lawrence Pitts that when he greeted her brightly at a police meeting this spring, she pursed her lips and looked at the ceiling like a petulant teen.

Topping Brown's list of criticisms is the Housing Authority's expensive receivership.

The Housing Authority pays the Boston-based Jeff Lines and TAG Associates $275,000 annually to oversee the board (though Lines says he has never overruled any of the local commissioners' decisions). Brown says it's absurd to pay Lines a three-figure salary to oversee a housing authority halfway across the country.

"This man is eating up our budget with that kind of money," she says. "He ought to be ashamed of his self, pimping off us. I've never seen somebody make as much as he makes, and he doesn't even have an office here."

Whipple should be ashamed, too, she says. The federal judge (who declined to speak with the Pitch) is the one who will decide when the nation's longest-running housing receivership will end. Brown says it's a sin that Whipple is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars that could be spent improving conditions for tenants.

What she lacks in respect for the Housing Authority itself, she makes up for in pride for her home turf. She knows that plenty of people say they'd rather live anywhere but Chouteau.

"If they tell me that, I will tell them something," she says hotly. "Don't talk about where I live."

That's why she says what she feels.

"If I'm wrong, I don't care," she says. "Prove that I'm wrong."

Last summer proved Brown right. On May 11, 2006, Brown took the bus to the federal courthouse for a hearing about the receivership. She showed up early to give Whipple's clerk a handwritten statement. It was evident, she wrote, that the Housing Authority's staff "can't handle Chouteau."

She sat in the hearing with a few other tenants. For months, residents had complained about roaches and spiders and rodent holes. A federal inspection backed up their claims. Inspectors reviewed 23 units and found that more than half of the doors wouldn't lock. Close to a third of the inspected apartments had busted sinks, clogged toilets or broken refrigerators. Three were infested with insects.

After appealing to Whipple, Brown took her concerns to Commissioner Ellen King. "I listen because I've learned she's real. She keeps it real," King says. "She makes people mad, but we all have to be able to accept the truth where it lies."

King brought Levin and several other board members to Chouteau.

Levin, the Legal Aid attorney who had originally filed the class-action lawsuit, was appalled. On May 18, she wrote an angry letter to Lines. "How could this have passed HAKC's inspection?" she asked.

Ed Lowndes, the Housing Authority's director, quickly hired a new property manager, but conditions didn't change. In July, Brown took the commissioners on another tour. Levin sent an outraged letter to Lowndes, noting the stench of urine, the moldy windowsills and the filthy floors in Chouteau's community center. "We could not believe that children would be having dinner at that center in a few hours," she wrote.

Levin also called the crime situation "horrific."

She threatened that Chouteau's decline was making her rethink her recommendation to end the receivership. In response, the Housing Authority increased security at Chouteau. Managers started issuing photo ID cards and parking stickers to residents. They instituted a strict towing policy for unregistered vehicles and mandatory security meetings for tenants. Residents said crime spiked as soon as the manager's car left the lot in the evenings, so managers kept the office open until midnight.

Finally, administrators agreed that crime at Chouteau was "severe." But progress on the ground was slow. In August, Brown again wrote to Whipple, who wouldn't give her a meeting. "Would you want to live here yourself?" she asked. "Would you want your children to stay here?"

She ended the letter with a dramatic prediction: "Our lives are at stake."

King agreed with Brown. "I just remember thinking, I know something's going to happen," she says.

On October 1, it did. Damarco Harris claimed that he wasn't at Chouteau Courts the day someone killed Clyde Holden. In a statement to police and in a handwritten letter to Jackson County Circuit Judge Kathleen Forsythe, the 20-year-old said he hadn't been at the housing complex for months. But witnesses told a different story, and, in July, Harris will go to trial on second-degree murder charges.

According to court documents, Chouteau residents knew Harris as "Fuzz." In his letter to Forsythe, Harris admitted to selling drugs in the complex. Witnesses to the October 1 shooting claimed that Harris was one of the men gambling and drinking outside the building at 573 Tracy on the Sunday morning Holden was shot. A guy called Easy bought the beer.

Shortly before noon, witnesses heard Harris and Holden get into it over a $5 wager. Harris started yelling and allegedly pulled out a black handgun, then shook it at Holden. He ordered a 10-year-old kid who was hanging around the scene to go home. Before the kid reached his front door, shots rang out. Several witnesses reported seeing Holden's body crumple to the ground and Harris flee with gun in hand.

Later that night, e-mails began flying between Housing Authority officials. In several short messages exchanged with staff and board members, Lowndes stressed that Holden was not an HAKC resident.

Brown knew better. Holden had lived at Chouteau in the past; in fact, he and his mother had a unit in the building right next to Brown's. He seemed like a nice guy. But he ran with the wrong crowd.

Brown wasn't surprised by the homicide — she was fed up. She'd heard plenty of talk at meetings about increasing police presence at Chouteau, but she hadn't seen more cops at the complex.

Without an appointment, she made a trip to the Central Patrol Division, where Major Gary Majors agreed to meet with her. Majors told Brown that he was eager to get more involvement from tenants like her. Police had recently shut down a similar crime epidemic at nearby Charlie Parker Square, so he knew that the KCPD could get Chouteau under control — if everyone sat down together to come up with a plan.

At the next Housing Authority commissioners' meeting, Brown sat in the back, as she always does. Usually, when the commissioners finish going through the agenda, there's an unspoken assumption that the meeting isn't over until Miss Lizzie has said her piece. This time, it came in the form of a challenge: She asked the commissioners to sleep over at Chouteau for an entire weekend.

It was Friday, October 13, when half a dozen commissioners and administrators set up military cots in one of the vacant units. Just past 6 p.m. — prime time for criminal activity — they started wandering around the complex. They chatted with tenants sitting on their front stairs; they even approached the probable troublemakers who were lingering around the perimeters.

The next morning, more than 40 tenants packed the community center for a town-hall-style meeting. (Usually, hardly anyone shows up to tenant events.) The crowd ate pancakes. A handful of kids led the officials around by the hand and drew a plan for a new playground.

It wasn't all hand-holding, though. At times, the roundtable discussion descended into angry accusations as neighbors who generally kept resentments to themselves aired their grievances with one another.

The event generated new interest in weekly meetings with police. When a wall of squad cars lined the street outside Chouteau's office every Monday afternoon, more than 15 tenants would show up, willing to be seen talking to the cops. They'd give Majors and his officers tips on drug dealers and prostitutes.

Majors says he made Chouteau his pet project. And in the months that followed Holden's slaying, crime dropped dramatically. He singles out Brown as the spark for getting everyone together.

"I will give credit where credit is due," he says. "She's the catalyst that got all this stuff going."

These days, though, Brown doesn't talk to the cops. On February 7, somebody set fire to her apartment's front door.

She didn't notice when it happened. But when a caretaker from Bethlehem Home showed up around 8 a.m., she asked Brown an unusual question. "She said, 'Miss Lizzie, who's trying to set your place on fire?'"

Brown looked outside and saw a pile of ashes. Black soot licked the bottom of the steel door. She called the police and had the manager take a picture. According to the police report, ashes were scattered throughout the corridor. Majors says the small fire didn't appear to be a threat on Brown's life. Brown disagrees.

She keeps the ashes in a white plastic bag next to the door. It reminds her to think twice before calling the police, to be wary of taking a public stand against crime at Chouteau.

"These are entrepreneur people," she says of drug dealers. "Evidently, something I was doing was messing with their money. I get the message. I understand. I'm not going to bother with nothing else, nothing dealing with the police."

Spring was peaceful at Chouteau, but now that it's summer, crime is coming back. In May, Majors listened as tenants said drug dealing was getting out of control again. Manager Shari Taylor said dealers flouted her authority, doing business in broad daylight.

Brown doesn't go to those meetings anymore. She is hoping to keep her position as Tenant Association president when elections come up next month — the post pays an $80 monthly stipend, but that's not why Brown stays up until two or three in the morning talking to Florine Jones, her old friend, about housing issues.

Whatever happens with the crime problem, there's other stuff to work on. Such as moving people out of Chouteau altogether.

Lowndes acknowledges that the old landfill is settling under Chouteau and that the aging site is coming to the end of its life expectancy. But the Housing Authority of Kansas City has no real plans for Chouteau's future.

"We're living on a place that used to be a dump, and I don't see anybody working to get us out of here," Brown says.

After such a long, hard fight for people in public housing, she says she doesn't want to be buried alive.


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