We are nutrition and food policy researchers who have studied the effects of SNAP on the health and well-being of low-income Americans. Should this change go into effect, we believe millions of Americans, especially children, and local communities would suffer.
“My eating habits have improved where I can eat more healthy than before,” a Massachusetts woman who had recently been approved for SNAP told us. “It is like night and day – the difference between surviving and not surviving.”
SNAP benefits also ripple through the economy. They lead to money being spent at local stores, freeing up cash to pay rent and other bills. Every US$1 invested in SNAP generates $1.79 in economic activity, according to the USDA.
Trying again and again
The Trump administration has repeatedly attempted to slash SNAP and make it harder for people who qualify for benefits to get them.
The Trump administration also worked with Republicans in Congress to try to tighten eligibility requirements. Had this policy been implemented, all beneficiaries between the ages of 18 and 59 deemed “able-bodied” would have had to prove they were working at least 20 hours per week or were enrolled in school. According to government projections, some 1.2 million Americans would have eventually lost their benefits as a result.
Congress, which would have needed to approve the change for it to take effect, rejected it in December 2018. The White House then sought to change work requirements through a new rule that has not yet taken effect.
In July 2019, the Trump administration again sought to restrict access to food stamps without any input from Congress, this time by going through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families – a program that gives low-income families with children cash to cover childcare and other expenses.
Currently, most states automatically enroll families in SNAP once they obtain TANF benefits. The new rule would prevent states from doing this. Even though 85% of TANF families also get SNAP benefits, the vast majority of them still live in poverty.
The Trump administration’s proposed budgets have also called for changing how the government helps low-income families get food they have trouble affording. Its 2019 budget proposal called for replacing half of SNAP benefits with what it called “harvest boxes” of nonperishable items like cereals, beans and canned goods.
According to research we conducted with low-income Americans, 79% of SNAP participants opposed this proposal, with one of the primary reasons being not being able to choose their own foods.
“People who are struggling are already demoralized,” a New Mexico woman who uses SNAP benefits told us. “Being able to make our own food decisions is something that keeps us feeling like human beings.”
Advocates for food aid fear that recent proposals to change how SNAP works would reduce the share of Americans who get these benefits by making it harder to qualify and enroll in the program. Should this major transformation ever occur, children and families won’t have access to critical benefits that help them avoid going hungry.
Since the economy is doing well overall, the number of people on food assistance programs has fallen. The reason for the decline is that the number of people who are eligible for these benefits rises when the economy falters and falls when conditions improve. As a result, the government is spending less on food stamps without cutting the SNAP budget.
Case in point, 7 million people have already left SNAP due to better economic stability. In parallel, federal spending on SNAP budget has dropped from $78 billion in 2013 to $64 billion in 2019.
If the Trump administration wants to shrink SNAP, reduce costs and have fewer low-income Americans receive benefits, we believe that the best thing it can do is to keep working to improve the economy – particularly for low-income Americans, who have been reaping fewer benefits from the improving economy than others in recent years.
Obama Sends Letter to Prisoner He Freed Who Turned Her Life Around
President Obama let Danielle Metz out of prison. Then she enrolled in college and made the dean's list. Obama heard about Metz's success and sent a letter telling her how proud he is of her for turning her life around and graduating college.
“I am so proud of you, and am confident that your example will have a positive impact for others who are looking for a second chance, Tell your children I say hello, and know that I’m rooting for all of you.”
Danielle Metz's full story about her journey from jail to college is below.
From prison to dean’s list: How Danielle Metz got an education after incarceration
by CASEY PARKS
NEW ORLEANS – The sun glowed gold, and a second line parade was tuning its horns just a few streets away. But Danielle Metz had missed half her life already, and she couldn’t spare the afternoon, even one as unseasonably warm as this mid-February Sunday.
She climbed the stairs to the shotgun house her mom had bought in uptown New Orleans more than half a century ago. Metz slipped through the screen door, then shut it tight enough to keep out the sun. Inside, she dug through a box next to her bed and pulled out the clothbound journal that a woman had given her in 1996, when they were both incarcerated in the Federal Correctional Institute in Dublin, California. Metz hadn’t kept much from the 23 years she spent in prison, but the journal had been too special to leave behind. She opened it and read the dedication as a reminder of what she hoped to accomplish now that she was out.
“To Danielle — There’s so many things we can’t get in here, but knowledge and education can’t be kept out by walls.”
Growing up, Metz had believed that college was for white kids and for “Huxtables” — black people she named after the upper-middle-class family in “The Cosby Show.” She knew, as she looked at the laptop screen, how improbable people might think earning a degree would be for her now. She’d dropped out of high school her junior year. At 26, a judge had sentenced Metz to three life sentences plus another 20 years for her role in her husband’s cocaine distribution. She’d thought she’d never see New Orleans again, let alone visit a university.
Even after President Barack Obama granted her clemency in 2016, Metz believed she couldn’t go to college. Nationwide, less than 4 percent of formerly incarcerated people have a bachelor’s degree, according to a report released last year. The chances seemed especially low in Metz’s home state. Louisiana had long held twin records, the world’s highest incarceration rate, and the country’s lowest rate of black college graduates. Put together, this meant tens of thousands of residents lacked a viable pathway to middle-class security.
But lawmakers had come to believe that a change was imperative for the state’s future. In 2017, Louisiana became the first state in the nation to “ban the box” on public college and university applications, prohibiting school officials from asking whether an applicant has a criminal record. Metz knew that people across the country were working to help people like her go to college after prison. Though Illinois and New York failed to pass “ban the box” measures for university applications, several other states are trying to follow Louisiana’s lead. And federal lawmakers from both parties are pushing to allow incarcerated people to access Pell Grants, financial aid that they’ve been barred from using since Metz first went to prison.
Metz was grateful for the legal shifts, but political momentum alone would not carry her through school. As the parade began its march through Uptown, she scrolled through the university’s website and hovered over the tab marked “current students.” She had no idea how long it would take or how much it might cost, but Metz didn’t care. She was going to college.
Metz grew up the youngest of nine children in a city barreling toward chaos. As a kid, she considered herself lucky. Both of her parents worked — her father as a cement finisher, her mother in a bakery — and together they earned enough to buy a home three miles away from the St. Thomas Projects, a public housing development where many other black families lived. St. Thomas was so poor and violent when Metz was young that Sister Helen Prejean described the neighborhood in the opening of her book “Dead Man Walking” as “not death row exactly, but close."
Even as a little girl, Metz knew people who’d gone to jail, but her neighborhood was quiet, and her parents were dreamers. For years, her father urged her to become a nurse. Metz knew the job required a college degree, but she didn’t know anyone who’d earned one. In 1980, the year Metz enrolled at Walter L. Cohen High School, more than half the city’s black adults didn’t have even a high school diploma, let alone a university credential.
Instead, Metz longed to become a hairstylist. She’d practiced since she was a little girl on her mom, whose locks grew in so straight that people speculated she must have white ancestors. But even that goal felt unreachable after Metz became pregnant in 1985, her junior year of high school. She dropped out and assumed she wouldn’t have a career. She’d be a mother instead.
Six months after Metz gave birth to her son, Carl, his father was murdered.
Metz became a single mother just as the state’s economy was collapsing. Louisiana had long been dependent on oil — profits from the natural resource accounted for nearly half of the state’s budget then. But the price per barrel began falling in 1981, and by the mid-1980s, one in eight Louisiana workers was unemployed, the highest rate in the nation. New Orleans lost nearly 10,000 jobs, leaving few openings for a teenage mother with no credentials or documentable skills.
Metz didn’t take time to grieve. Most black people in New Orleans knew someone who’d been killed, she said. Instead, she started looking for someone to help raise her child.
Glenn Metz had money. He’d grown up poor in the Calliope housing projects, one of the most violent neighborhoods in New Orleans, but he owned two tow-truck companies by the time Metz met him. At age 30, he possessed the kind of quiet maturity that Metz, then 18, thought would make him a good substitute father for Carl. Glenn Metz wore such nice clothes and jewelry the night Metz met him that she suspected he at least dabbled in drug-dealing, but she told herself his business had nothing to do with her.
According to federal prosecutors, Glenn Metz formed a drug ring just before he met the girl who would become his wife. Between 1985 and 1992, Glenn Metz and his crew came to dominate St. Thomas and Calliope, prosecutors said, distributing more than 1,000 kilos of cocaine and killing 23 rivals. Glenn Metz sat atop an organization manned by more than half a dozen enforcers, two of whom, prosecutors said, drove through town in an armor-plated pickup with the word “homicide” spelled out on the hood in gold letters.
Metz spent most of those years at home. “The Cosby Show” debuted the year she should have graduated high school, and she watched it and its college-based spin-off “A Different World” every week, dreaming of the life she wished she had. She took a few beauty school classes and occasionally cut hair in someone’s home, but Glenn Metz didn’t like when she left the house, she said. They married in 1989, and Metz soon gave birth to their daughter, Gleneisha. Metz didn’t have a social security number or any way to make money on her own. When Glenn Metz told her to ride with her aunt to deliver a few packages to Houston, Metz said, she did it.
Crack cocaine was spreading through black neighborhoods across the country then, and lawmakers blamed the drug for an increase in inner-city violence. New Orleans was especially hard hit. In 1990, the city topped 300 murders for the first time. Nearly every edition of The Times-Picayune that year carried news of cocaine busts. Police arrested scores of black men, including Metz’s older brother, Perry Bernard, for possession. As the city’s murder rate rose to the nation’s highest, investigators worked to take down Glenn Metz. His was the biggest and most violent drug ring in the city, prosecutors said. They indicted him and eight others, including Metz, in the summer of 1992.
Metz, who’d been temporarily living in Las Vegas with her husband before the indictment, fled to Jackson, Mississippi. She rented an apartment near Jackson State University and planned to enroll after the investigation concluded. When police arrested her there in January 1993, Metz figured she’d just get probation. Most people she knew went to jail “seasonally.” Her older brother had drifted in and out before a 1989 arrest netted him 13 years in a state prison.
After crack cocaine became popular, Congress adopted the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, establishing for the first time mandatory minimum sentences triggered by specific quantities of cocaine. The penalties were worse for defendants charged with possession or distribution of crack cocaine, favored by African-Americans, than for those accused of possessing or distributing the powder cocaine primarily used by white people.
But Metz, 25 then, had never had so much as a traffic ticket. She believed her involvement in her husband’s narcotics sales was minimal enough that prosecutors would let her go with a warning. Police did not find any drugs with her, and she was never implicated in any violence.
Instead, federal authorities charged Metz and her co-defendants under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Lawmakers created RICO in the 1970s under President Richard Nixon as a tool to combat the Mafia, but prosecutors increasingly used it in the 1980s to fight drug rings. The charges under RICO carried automatic sentences of life in prison without parole.
The U.S. attorneys who prosecuted her case presented witnesses who were major narcotics suppliers or small-time drug dealers. They testified that Metz had driven packages to Houston for her husband and, on occasion, accepted cash payments and wired money to suppliers. The jury decided she was guilty.
Four months later, in mid-December, U.S. District Judge A.J. McNamara sentenced Metz to three life sentences plus another 20 years in federal prison.
Ankle bracelets are promoted as a humane alternative to jail. But private companies charge defendants hundreds of dollars a month to wear the surveillance devices. If people can’t pay, they may end up behind bars.
by Ava Kofman
On Oct. 12, 2018, Daehaun White walked free, or so he thought. A guard handed him shoelaces and the $19 that had been in his pocket at the time of his booking, along with a letter from his public defender. The lanky 19-year-old had been sitting for almost a month in St. Louis’ Medium Security Institution, a city jail known as the Workhouse, after being pulled over for driving some friends around in a stolen Chevy Cavalier. When the police charged him with tampering with a motor vehicle — driving a car without its owner’s consent — and held him overnight, he assumed he would be released by morning. He told the police that he hadn’t known that the Chevy, which a friend had lent him a few hours earlier, was stolen. He had no previous convictions. But the $1,500 he needed for the bond was far beyond what he or his family could afford. It wasn’t until his public defender, Erika Wurst, persuaded the judge to lower the amount to $500 cash, and a nonprofit fund, the Bail Project, paid it for him, that he was able to leave the notoriously grim jail. “Once they said I was getting released, I was so excited I stopped listening,” he told me recently. He would no longer have to drink water blackened with mold or share a cell with rats, mice and cockroaches. He did a round of victory pushups and gave away all of the snack cakes he had been saving from the cafeteria.
When he finally read Wurst’s letter, however, he realized there was a catch. Even though Wurst had argued against it, the judge, Nicole Colbert-Botchway, had ordered him to wear an ankle monitor that would track his location at every moment using GPS. For as long as he would wear it, he would be required to pay $10 a day to a private company, Eastern Missouri Alternative Sentencing Services, or EMASS. Just to get the monitor attached, he would have to report to EMASS and pay $300 up front — enough to cover the first 25 days, plus a $50 installation fee.
White didn’t know how to find that kind of money. Before his arrest, he was earning minimum wage as a temp, wrapping up boxes of shampoo. His father was largely absent, and his mother, Lakisha Thompson, had recently lost her job as the housekeeping manager at a Holiday Inn. Raising Daehaun and his four siblings, she had struggled to keep up with the bills. The family bounced between houses and apartments in northern St. Louis County, where, as a result of Jim Crow redlining, most of the area’s black population lives. In 2014, they were living on Canfield Drive in Ferguson when Michael Brown was shot and killed there by a police officer. During the ensuing turmoil, Thompson moved the family to Green Bay, Wisconsin. White felt out of place. He was looked down on for his sagging pants, called the N-word when riding his bike. After six months, he moved back to St. Louis County on his own to live with three of his siblings and stepsiblings in a gray house with vinyl siding.
When White got home on the night of his release, he was so overwhelmed to see his family again that he forgot about the letter. He spent the next few days hanging out with his siblings, his mother, who had returned to Missouri earlier that year, and his girlfriend, Demetria, who was seven months pregnant. He didn’t report to EMASS.
What he didn’t realize was that he had failed to meet a deadline. Typically, defendants assigned to monitors must pay EMASS in person and have the device installed within 24 hours of their release from jail. Otherwise, they have to return to court to explain why they’ve violated the judge’s orders. White, however, wasn’t called back for a hearing. Instead, a week after he left the Workhouse, Colbert-Botchway issued a warrant for his arrest.
Three days later, a large group of police officers knocked on Thompson’s door, looking for information about an unrelated case, a robbery. White and his brother had been making dinner with their mother, and the officers asked them for identification. White’s name matched the warrant issued by Colbert-Botchway. “They didn’t tell me what the warrant was for,” he said. “Just that it was for a violation of my release.” He was taken downtown and held for transfer back to the Workhouse. “I kept saying to myself, ’Why am I locked up?’” he recalled.
The next morning, Thompson called the courthouse to find the answer. She learned that her son had been jailed over his failure to acquire and pay for his GPS monitor. To get him out, she needed to pay EMASS on his behalf.
This seemed absurd to her. When Daehaun was 13, she had worn an ankle monitor after violating probation for a minor theft, but the state hadn’t required her to cover the cost of her own supervision. “This is a 19-year-old coming out of the Workhouse,” she told me recently. “There’s no way he has $300 saved.” Thompson felt that the court was forcing her to choose between getting White out of jail and supporting the rest of her family.
Over the past half-century, the number of people behind bars in the United States jumped by more than 500%, to 2.2 million. This extraordinary rise, often attributed to decades of “tough on crime” policies and harsh sentencing laws, has ensured that even as crime rates have dropped since the 1990s, the number of people locked up and the average length of their stay have increased. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the cost of keeping people in jails and prisons soared to $87 billion in 2015 from $19 billion in 1980, in current dollars.
In recent years, politicians on both sides of the aisle have joined criminal-justice reformers in recognizing mass incarceration as both a moral outrage and a fiscal sinkhole. As ankle bracelets have become compact and cost-effective, legislators have embraced them as an enlightened alternative. More than 125,000 people in the criminal-justice system were supervised with monitors in 2015, compared with just 53,000 people in 2005, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. Although no current national tally is available, data from several cities — Austin, Texas; Indianapolis; Chicago; and San Francisco — show that this number continues to rise. Last December, the First Step Act, which includes provisions for home detention, was signed into law by President Donald Trump with support from the private prison giants GEO Group and CoreCivic. These corporations dominate the so-called community-corrections market — services such as day-reporting and electronic monitoring — that represents one of the fastest-growing revenue sectors of their industry.
By far the most decisive factor promoting the expansion of monitors is the financial one. The United States government pays for monitors for some of those in the federal criminal-justice system and for tens of thousands of immigrants supervised by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But states and cities, which incur around 90% of the expenditures for jails and prisons, are increasingly passing the financial burden of the devices onto those who wear them. It costs St. Louis roughly $90 a day to detain a person awaiting trial in the Workhouse, where in 2017 the average stay was 291 days. When individuals pay EMASS $10 a day for their own supervision, it costs the city nothing. A 2014 study by NPR and the Brennan Center found that, with the exception of Hawaii, every state required people to pay at least part of the costs associated with GPS monitoring. Some probation offices and sheriffs run their own monitoring programs — renting the equipment from manufacturers, hiring staff and collecting fees directly from participants. Others have outsourced the supervision of defendants, parolees and probationers to private companies.
“There are a lot of judges who reflexively put people on monitors, without making much of a pretense of seriously weighing it at all,” said Chris Albin-Lackey, a senior legal adviser with Human Rights Watch who has researched private-supervision companies. “The limiting factor is the cost it might impose on the public, but when that expense is sourced out, even that minimal brake on judicial discretion goes out the window.”
Nowhere is the pressure to adopt monitors more pronounced than in places like St. Louis: cash-strapped municipalities with large populations of people awaiting trial. Nationwide on any given day, half a million people sit in crowded and expensive jails because, like Daehaun White, they cannot purchase their freedom.
As the movement to overhaul cash bail has challenged the constitutionality of jailing these defendants, judges and sheriffs have turned to monitors as an appealing substitute. In San Francisco, the number of people released from jail onto electronic monitors tripled after a 2018 ruling forced courts to release more defendants without bail. In Marion County, Indiana, where jail overcrowding is routine, roughly 5,000 defendants were put on monitors last year. “You would be hard-pressed to find bail-reform legislation in any state that does not include the possibility of electronic monitoring,” said Robin Steinberg, the chief executive of the Bail Project.
Yet like the system of wealth-based detention they are meant to help reform, ankle monitors often place poor people in special jeopardy. Across the country, defendants who have not been convicted of a crime are put on “offender funded” payment plans for monitors that sometimes cost more than their bail. And unlike bail, they don’t get the payment back, even if they’re found innocent. Although a federal survey shows that nearly 40% of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to cover an emergency, companies and courts routinely threaten to lock up defendants if they fall behind on payment. In Greenville, South Carolina, pretrial defendants can be sent back to jail when they fall three weeks behind on fees. (An officer for the Greenville County Detention Center defended this practice on the grounds that participants agree to the costs in advance.) In Mohave County, Arizona, pretrial defendants charged with sex offenses have faced rearrest if they fail to pay for their monitors, even if they prove that they can’t afford them. “We risk replacing an unjust cash-bail system,” Steinberg said, “with one just as unfair, inhumane and unnecessary.”
Many local judges, including in St. Louis, do not conduct hearings on a defendant’s ability to pay for private supervision before assigning them to it; those who do often overestimate poor people’s financial means. Without judicial oversight, defendants are vulnerable to private-supervision companies that set their own rates and charge interest when someone can’t pay up front. Some companies even give their employees bonuses for hitting collection targets.
It’s not only debt that can send defendants back to jail. People who may not otherwise be candidates for incarceration can be punished for breaking the lifestyle rules that come with the devices. A survey in California found that juveniles awaiting trial or on probation face especially difficult rules; in one county, juveniles on monitors were asked to follow more than 50 restrictions, including not participating “in any social activity.” For this reason, many advocates describe electronic monitoring as a “net-widener": Far from serving as an alternative to incarceration, it ends up sweeping more people into the system.
Dressed in a baggy yellow City of St. Louis Corrections shirt, White was walking to the van that would take him back to the Workhouse after his rearrest, when a guard called his name and handed him a bus ticket home. A few hours earlier, his mom had persuaded her sister to lend her the $300 that White owed EMASS. Wurst, his public defender, brought the receipt to court.
The next afternoon, White hitched a ride downtown to the EMASS office, where one of the company’s bond-compliance officers, Nick Buss, clipped a black box around his left ankle. Based in the majority white city of St. Charles, west of St. Louis, EMASS has several field offices throughout eastern Missouri. A former probation and parole officer, Michael Smith, founded the company in 1991 after Missouri became one of the first states to allow private companies to supervise some probationers. (Smith and other EMASS officials declined to comment for this story.)
The St. Louis area has made national headlines for its “offender funded” model of policing and punishment. Stricken by postindustrial decline and the 2008 financial crisis, its municipalities turned to their police departments and courts to make up for shortfalls in revenue. In 2015, the Ferguson Report by the United States Department of Justice put hard numbers to what black residents had long suspected: The police were targeting them with disproportionate arrests, traffic tickets and excessive fines.
EMASS may have saved the city some money, but it also created an extraordinary and arbitrary-seeming new expense for poor defendants. When cities cover the cost of monitoring, they often pay private contractors $2 to $3 a day for the same equipment and services for which EMASS charges defendants $10 a day. To come up with the money, EMASS clients told me, they had to find second jobs, take their children out of day care and cut into disability checks. Others hurried to plead guilty for no better reason than that being on probation was cheaper than paying for a monitor.
At the downtown office, White signed a contract stating that he would charge his monitor for an hour and a half each day and “report” to EMASS with $70 each week. He could shower, but was not to bathe or swim (the monitor is water-resistant, not waterproof). Interfering with the monitor’s functioning was a felony.
White assumed that GPS supervision would prove a minor annoyance. Instead, it was a constant burden. The box was bulky and the size of a fist, so he couldn’t hide it under his jeans. Whenever he left the house, people stared. There were snide comments ("nice bracelet") and cutting jokes. His brothers teased him about having a babysitter. “I’m nobody to watch,” he insisted.
The biggest problem was finding work. Confident and outgoing, White had never struggled to land jobs; after dropping out of high school in his junior year, he flipped burgers at McDonald’s and Steak ’n Shake. To pay for the monitor, he applied to be a custodian at Julia Davis Library, a cashier at Home Depot, a clerk at Menards. The conversation at Home Depot had gone especially well, White thought, until the interviewer casually asked what was on his leg.
To help improve his chances, he enrolled in Mission: St. Louis, a job-training center for people reentering society. One afternoon in January, he and a classmate role-played how to talk to potential employers about criminal charges. White didn’t know how much detail to go into. Should he tell interviewers that he was bringing his pregnant girlfriend some snacks when he was pulled over? He still isn’t sure, because a police officer came looking for him midway through the class. The battery on his monitor had died. The officer sent him home, and White missed the rest of the lesson.
With all of the restrictions and rules, keeping a job on a monitor can be as difficult as finding one. The hours for weekly check-ins at the downtown EMASS office — 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and 1 p.m. until 5 p.m. on Mondays — are inconvenient for those who work. In 2011, the National Institute of Justice surveyed 5,000 people on electronic monitors and found that 22% said they had been fired or asked to leave a job because of the device. Juawanna Caves, a young St. Louis native and mother of two, was placed on a monitor in December after being charged with unlawful use of a weapon. She said she stopped showing up to work as a housekeeper when her co-workers made her uncomfortable by asking questions and later lost a job at a nursing home because too many exceptions had to be made for her court dates and EMASS check-ins.
Perpetual surveillance also takes a mental toll. Nearly everyone I spoke to who wore a monitor described feeling trapped, as though they were serving a sentence before they had even gone to trial. White was never really sure about what he could or couldn’t do under supervision. In January, when his girlfriend had their daughter, Rylan, White left the hospital shortly after the birth, under the impression that he had a midnight curfew. Later that night, he let his monitor die so that he could sneak back before sunrise to see the baby again.
EMASS makes its money from defendants. But it gets its power over them from judges. It was in 2012 that the judges of the St. Louis court started to use the company’s services — which previously involved people on probation for misdemeanors — for defendants awaiting trial. Last year, the company supervised 239 defendants in the city of St. Louis on GPS monitors, according to numbers provided by EMASS to the court. The alliance with the courts gives the company not just a steady stream of business but a reliable means of recouping debts: Unlike, say, a credit-card company, which must file a civil suit to collect from overdue customers, EMASS can initiate criminal-court proceedings, threatening defendants with another stay in the Workhouse.
In early April, I visited Judge Rex Burlison in his chambers on the 10th floor of the St. Louis civil courts building. A few months earlier, Burlison, who has short gray hair and light blue eyes, had been elected by his peers as presiding judge, overseeing the city’s docket, budget and operations, including the contract with EMASS. It was one of the first warm days of the year, and from the office window I could see sunlight glimmering on the silver Gateway Arch.
I asked Burlison about the court’s philosophy for using pretrial GPS. He stressed that while each case was unique and subject to the judge’s discretion, monitoring was most commonly used for defendants who posed a flight risk, endangered public safety or had an alleged victim. Judges vary in how often they order defendants to wear monitors, and critics have attacked the inconsistency. Colbert-Botchway, the judge who put White on a monitor, regularly made pretrial GPS a condition of release, according to public defenders. (Colbert-Botchway declined to comment.) But another St. Louis city judge, David Roither, told me, “I really don’t use it very often because people here are too poor to pay for it.”
Whenever a defendant on a monitor violates a condition of release, whether related to payment or a curfew or something else, EMASS sends a letter to the court. Last year, Burlison said, the court received two to three letters a week from EMASS about violations. In response, the judge usually calls the defendant in for a hearing. As far as he knew, Burlison said, judges did not incarcerate people simply for failing to pay EMASS debts. “Why would you?” he asked me. When people were put back in jail, he said, there were always other factors at play, like the defendant’s missing a hearing, for instance. (Issuing a warrant for White’s arrest without a hearing, he acknowledged after looking at the docket, was not the court’s standard practice.)
The contract with EMASS allows the court to assign indigent defendants to the company to oversee “at no cost.” Yet neither Burlison nor any of the other current or former judges I spoke with recalled waiving fees when ordering someone to wear an ankle monitor. When I asked Burlison why he didn’t, he said that he was concerned that if he started to make exceptions on the basis of income, the company might stop providing ankle-monitoring services in St. Louis.
“People get arrested because of life choices,” Burlison said. “Whether they’re good for the charge or not, they’re still arrested and have to deal with it, and part of dealing with it is the finances.” To release defendants without monitors simply because they can’t afford the fee, he said, would be to disregard the safety of their victims or the community. “We can’t just release everybody because they’re poor,” he continued.
But many people in the Workhouse awaiting trial are poor. In January, civil rights groups filed suit against the city and the court, claiming that the St. Louis bail system violated the Constitution, in part by discriminating against those who can’t afford to post bail. That same month, the Missouri Supreme Court announced new rules that urged local courts to consider releasing defendants without monetary conditions and to waive fees for poor people placed on monitors. Shortly before the rules went into effect, on July 1, Burlison said that the city intends to shift the way ankle monitors are distributed and plans to establish a fund to help indigent defendants pay for their ankle bracelets. But he said he didn’t know how much money would be in the fund or whether it was temporary or permanent. The need for funding could grow quickly. The pending bail lawsuit has temporarily spurred the release of more defendants from custody, and as a result, public defenders say, the demand for monitors has increased.
Judges are anxious about what people released without posting bail might do once they get out. Several told me that monitors may ensure that the defendants return to court. Not unlike doctors who order a battery of tests for a mildly ill patient to avoid a potential malpractice suit, judges seem to view monitors as a precaution against their faces appearing on the front page of the newspaper. “Every judge’s fear is to let somebody out on recognizance and he commits murder, and then everyone asks, ’How in the hell was this person let out?’” said Robert Dierker, who served as a judge in St. Louis from 1986 to 2017 and now represents the city in the bail lawsuit. “But with GPS, you can say, ’Well, I have him on GPS, what else can I do?’”
Critics of monitors contend that their public-safety appeal is illusory: If defendants are intent on harming someone or skipping town, the bracelet, which can be easily removed with a pair of scissors, would not stop them. Studies showing that people tracked by GPS appear in court more reliably are scarce, and research about its effectiveness as a deterrent is inconclusive.
“The fundamental question is, What purpose is electronic monitoring serving?” said Blake Strode, the executive director of ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit civil rights law firm in St. Louis that is one of several firms representing the plaintiffs in the bail lawsuit. “If the only purpose it’s serving is to make judges feel better because they don’t want to be on the hook if something goes wrong, then that’s not a sensible approach. We should not simply be monitoring for monitoring’s sake.”
Electronic monitoring was first conceived in the early 1960s by Ralph and Robert Gable, identical twins studying at Harvard under the psychologists Timothy Leary and B.F. Skinner, respectively. Influenced in part by Skinner’s theories of positive reinforcement, the Gables rigged up some surplus missile-tracking equipment to monitor teenagers on probation; those who showed up at the right places at the right times were rewarded with movie tickets, limo rides and other prizes.
Although this round-the-clock monitoring was intended as a tool for rehabilitation, observers and participants alike soon recognized its potential to enhance surveillance. All but two of the 16 volunteers in their initial study dropped out, finding the two bulky radio transmitters oppressive. “They felt like it was a prosthetic conscience, and who would want Mother all the time along with you?” Robert Gable told me. Psychology Today labeled the invention a “belt from Big Brother.”
The reality of electronic monitoring today is that Big Brother is watching some groups more than others. No national statistics are available on the racial breakdown of Americans wearing ankle monitors, but all indications suggest that mass supervision, like mass incarceration, disproportionately affects black people. In Cook County, Illinois, for instance, black people make up 24% of the population, and 67% of those on monitors. The sociologist Simone Browne has connected contemporary surveillance technologies like GPS monitors to America’s long history of controlling where black people live, move and work. In her 2015 book, “Dark Matters,” she traces the ways in which “surveillance is nothing new to black folks,” from the branding of enslaved people and the shackling of convict laborers to Jim Crow segregation and the home visits of welfare agencies. These historical inequities, Browne notes, influence where and on whom new tools like ankle monitors are imposed.
For some black families, including White’s, monitoring stretches across generations. Annette Taylor, the director of Ripple Effect, an advocacy group for prisoners and their families based in Champaign, Illinois, has seen her ex-husband, brother, son, nephew and sister’s husband wear ankle monitors over the years. She had to wear one herself, about a decade ago, she said, for driving with a suspended license. “You’re making people a prisoner of their home,” she told me. When her son was paroled and placed on house arrest, he couldn’t live with her, because he was forbidden to associate with people convicted of felonies, including his stepfather, who was also on house arrest.
Some people on monitors are further constrained by geographic restrictions — areas in the city or neighborhood that they can’t go without triggering an alarm. James Kilgore, a research scholar at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, has cautioned that these exclusionary zones could lead to “e-gentrification,” effectively keeping people out of more-prosperous neighborhoods. In 2016, after serving four years in prison for drug conspiracy, Bryan Otero wore a monitor as a condition of parole. He commuted from the Bronx to jobs at a restaurant and a department store in Manhattan, but he couldn’t visit his family or doctor because he was forbidden to enter a swath of Manhattan between 117th Street and 131st Street. “All my family and childhood friends live in that area,” he said. “I grew up there.”
Michelle Alexander, a legal scholar and columnist for The Times, has argued that monitoring engenders a new form of oppression under the guise of progress. In her 2010 book, “The New Jim Crow,” she wrote that the term “mass incarceration” should refer to the “system that locks people not only behind actual bars in actual prisons, but also behind virtual bars and virtual walls — walls that are invisible to the naked eye but function nearly as effectively as Jim Crow laws once did at locking people of color into a permanent second-class citizenship.”
As the cost of monitoring continues to fall, those who are required to submit to it may worry less about the expense and more about the intrusive surveillance. The devices, some of which are equipped with two-way microphones, can give corrections officials unprecedented access to the private lives not just of those monitored but also of their families and friends. GPS location data appeals to the police, who can use it to investigate crimes. Already the goal is both to track what individuals are doing and to anticipate what they might do next. BI Incorporated, an electronic-monitoring subsidiary of GEO Group, has the ability to assign risk scores to the behavioral patterns of those monitored, so that law enforcement can “address potential problems before they happen.” Judges leery of recidivism have begun to embrace risk-assessment tools. As a result, defendants who have yet to be convicted of an offense in court may be categorized by their future chances of reoffending.
The combination of GPS location data with other tracking technologies such as automatic license-plate readers represents an uncharted frontier for finer-grained surveillance. In some cities, police have concentrated these tools in neighborhoods of color. A CityLab investigation found that Baltimore police were more likely to deploy the Stingray — the controversial and secretive cellphone tracking technology — where African Americans lived. In the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death in 2015, the police spied on Black Lives Matter protesters with face recognition technology. Given this pattern, the term “electronic monitoring” may soon refer not just to a specific piece of equipment but to an all-encompassing strategy.
If the evolution of the criminal-justice system is any guide, it is very likely that the ankle bracelet will go out of fashion. Some GPS monitoring vendors have already started to offer smartphone applications that verify someone’s location through voice and face recognition. These apps, with names like Smart-LINK and Shadowtrack, promise to be cheaper and more convenient than a boxy bracelet. They’re also less visible, mitigating the stigma and normalizing surveillance. While reducing the number of people in physical prison, these seductive applications could, paradoxically, increase its reach. For the nearly 4.5 million Americans on probation or parole, it is not difficult to imagine a virtual prison system as ubiquitous — and invasive — as Instagram or Facebook.
On Jan. 24, exactly three months after White had his monitor installed, his public defender successfully argued in court for its removal. His phone service had been shut off because he had fallen behind on the bill, so his mother told him the good news over video chat.
When White showed up to EMASS a few days later to have the ankle bracelet removed, he said, one of the company’s employees told him that he couldn’t take off his monitor until he paid his debt. White offered him the $35 in his wallet — all the money he had. It wasn’t enough. The employee explained that he needed to pay at least half of the $700 he owed. Somewhere in the contract he had signed months earlier, White had agreed to pay his full balance “at the time of removal.” But as White saw it, the court that had ordered the monitor’s installation was now ordering its removal. Didn’t that count?
“That’s the only thing that’s killing me,” White told me a few weeks later, in early March. “Why are you all not taking it off?” We were in his brother’s room, which, unlike White’s down the hall, had space for a wobbly chair. White sat on the bed, his head resting against the frame, while his brother sat on the other end by the TV, mumbling commands into a headset for the fantasy video game Fortnite. By then, the prosecutor had offered White two to three years of probation in exchange for a plea. (White is waiting to hear if he has been accepted into the city’s diversion program for “youthful offenders,” which would allow him to avoid pleading and wipe the charges from his record in a year.)
White was wearing a loosefitting Nike track jacket and red sweats that bunched up over the top of his monitor. He had recently stopped charging it, and so far, the police hadn’t come knocking. “I don’t even have to have it on,” he said, looking down at his ankle. “But without a job, I can’t get it taken off.” In the last few weeks, he had sold his laptop, his phone and his TV. That cash went to rent, food and his daughter, and what was left barely made a dent in what he owed EMASS.
It was a Monday — a check-in day — but he hadn’t been reporting for the past couple of weeks. He didn’t see the point; he didn’t have the money to get the monitor removed and the office was an hour away by bus. I offered him a ride.
EMASS check-ins take place in a three-story brick building with a low-slung facade draped in ivy. The office doesn’t take cash payments, and a Western Union is conveniently located next door. The other men in the waiting room were also wearing monitors. When it was White’s turn to check-in, Buss, the bond-compliance officer, unclipped the band from his ankle and threw the device into a bin, White said. He wasn’t sure why EMASS had now softened its approach, but his debts nonetheless remained.
Buss calculated the money White owed going back to November: $755, plus 10% annual interest. Over the next nine months, EMASS expected him to make monthly payments that would add up to $850 — more than the court had required for his bond. White looked at the receipt and shook his head. “I get in trouble for living,” he said as he walked out of the office. “For being me.”
Republished with permission under license from ProPublica, an investigative news agency.
Earning a little more money may not automatically increase their standard of living if it boosts their income to the point where they lose access to some or all of those benefits. That’s because the value of those lost benefits may outweigh their income gains.
I have researched this dynamic, which experts often call the “cliff effect,” for years to learn why workers weren’t succeeding at retaining their jobs following job training programs. Chief among the one step forward, two steps back problems the cliff effect causes: Low-paid workers can become reluctant to earn more money due to a fear that they will get worse off instead of better.
“My supervisor wants to promote me,” a woman who gets housing assistance through the federal Section 8 housing voucher program, who I’ll call Josie, told me. “If my pay goes up, my rent will go up too. I don’t know if I’ll be able to afford my apartment,” Josie, a secretary at a Boston hospital, said.
These vouchers are available to Americans facing economic hardship, based on multiple criteria, including their income. Josie was worried that the bump up in pay that she’d get from the promotion would not make up for the loss of help she gets to pay her rent.
Given the possibility of a downside, many Americans in this situation decide it’s better to decline what on the surface looks like a good opportunity to escape poverty.
This uncertainty leads workers like Josie to forgo raises rather than take the risk of getting poorer while working harder. Having to stress out about potentially losing benefits that keep a roof over their heads and food on their table prolongs their own financial instability.
The pain isn’t just personal. Josie’s whole family misses out if she passes on an opportunity to earn more. The government loses a chance to stop using taxpayer dollars to cover benefits to someone who might not otherwise need them. The hospital can’t take full advantage of Josie’s proven talents.
Some low-paid workers do get farther behind when they should be getting ahead following a raise. But getting higher pay doesn’t always make anyone worse off. Whether it does or not depends on a lot of intersecting factors, like the local cost of living, the size of the raise, the size of the family and the benefits the worker receives.
The cliff effect is something social workers see their clients encounter all the time. And it’s maddeningly impossible to figure out for the people experiencing it and researchers like me alike.
But low-wage workers, such as those in food service, hospitality and retail have no way of knowing what to expect if they get SNAP benefits in combination with other government programs, such as housing vouchers and Medicaid.
At the heart of this problem is that the help millions Americans derive from the nation’s safety net comes from a fragmented system. Sorting out the repercussions of a higher income is nearly impossible because the safety net consists of a wide array of benefits programs administered by federal, state and local agencies. Each program and administrator has its own criteria, rules and restrictions.
Because that trepidation is sometimes unfounded, my colleagues at Project Hope Boston, a multi-service agency focused on moving the city’s families up and out of poverty, and I started to do something about it.
To help families assess risks tied to the cliff effect, we advised the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance, which oversees state-administered safety net programs, to create a digital tool. Social workers are already using a preliminary version of it to show low-wage workers what they can probably expect to happen to their benefits if they earn more money.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts plans to put this tool online for all to use by Summer of 2019.
After plugging information about variables like how many members are in the household, what benefits everyone receives, the costs of their regular expenses like rent, child care and medical bills, they become better able to make informed choices about their career opportunity based on their family’s personal financial situation.
But workers need more than just a tool, they need help getting over the cliff. We also help workforce development programs implement the state’s new Learn to Earn initiative, which gives low-income families the financial coaching they need to make educated decisions that could affect their bottom line.
But the reality is that even after some of the biggest minimum wage increases enacted at the state level lately, many families are not earning enough to pay for housing and other basic needs without help – for which they may no longer qualify. Several states, including Colorado and Florida, are seeking solutions.This complicated and frustrating challenge is just one symptom of an overarching problem. In addition to boosting wages, it will take major policy changes, like making child care more universally available and affordable, to offset the skyrocketing costs of living for American workers.
As the agency’s ability to audit the rich crumbles, its scrutiny of the poor has held steady in recent years. Meanwhile, a new study shows that audits of poor taxpayers make them far less likely to claim credits they might be entitled to.
By Paul Kiel
Every year, the IRS, starved of funds after years of budget cuts, loses hundreds more agents to retirement. And every year, the news gets better for the rich — especially those prone to go bold on their taxes. According to data released by the IRS last week, millionaires in 2018 were about 80% less likely to be audited than they were in 2011.
But poor taxpayers continue to bear the brunt of the IRS’ remaining force. As we reported last year, Americans who receive the earned income tax credit, one of the country’s largest anti-poverty programs, are audited at a higher rate than all but the richest taxpayers. The new data shows that the trend has only grown stronger.
Audits of the rich continue to plunge while those of the poor hold steady, and the two audit rates are converging. Last year, the top 1% of taxpayers by income were audited at a rate of 1.56%. EITC recipients, who typically have annual income under $20,000, were audited at 1.41%.
Part of the reason is ease. Audits of EITC recipients are largely automated and far less complicated.
“While the wealthy now have an open invitation to cheat, low-income taxpayers are receiving heightened scrutiny because they can be audited far more easily. All it takes is a letter instead of a team of investigators and lawyers,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee.
“We have two tax systems in this country,” he said, “and nothing illustrates that better than the IRS ignoring wealthy tax cheats while penalizing low-income workers over small mistakes.”
In a statement, IRS spokesman Dean Patterson acknowledged that the sharp decline in audits of the wealthy is due to the agency having lost so many skilled auditors. And he didn’t dispute that pursuing the poor is just easier.
Because EITC audits are largely conducted through the mail by lower-level employees from a central location, they are “less burdensome for taxpayers than in-person audits as they mail in their documentation and don’t have to take time out of the workday,” Patterson said.
“Correspondence audits are also the most efficient use of IRS’ limited examination resources.”
In April, Wyden, citing ProPublica’s reporting, asked IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig to deliver a plan to address the agency’s disproportionate focus on auditing the poor. The deadline has passed, but Wyden’s office said the senator still expects a response. The IRS did not comment on the delay.
The agency audited 382,000 recipients of the EITC in 2018, accounting for 43% of all audits of individuals last year. When we mapped the estimated audit rates for every county in America, the counties with the highest audit rates were poor, rural, mostly African American and in the South, a reflection of the high number of EITC claims there.
Natassia Smick and her husband were among those unlucky 382,000 households. We wrote about them last year. They live outside Los Angeles and saw their entire refund frozen in February 2018. For a couple who earned about $33,000 in 2017, that $7,300 refund was big money ($2,000 of it stemmed from the EITC). When it didn’t come, Smick said she had to abandon plans for catching up with her credit card debt.
After Smick sent in all her supporting documents, it took until this May to get a final answer from the IRS. Fourteen months after it all started, the IRS said it agreed Smick and her husband were due about $7,000, she said. But the agency disagreed on the remaining $350, because it couldn’t verify her husband’s employment for part of the year. Smick said the IRS was wrong to hold back the $350, but she couldn’t afford to contest it and further delay the $7,000.
“I’m not going to fight anymore,” she said. “We have already waited too long, and we are not in a financial position to wait another three months to appeal.”
For poor taxpayers, the worst part of the EITC audits is usually the beginning. That’s because they almost always begin with the shock of the refund being held.
But the audits also hardly ever end well. According to data in the new study, most end without the taxpayer responding at all, and the poorer the audit target, the more likely that is to happen. Those with wage income under $10,000 per year, for instance, didn’t respond at all in 64% of the EITC audits. For those with income over $40,000 per year, that rate dipped to 35%.
The diminished response rate of the poorest taxpayers in part reflects that they are harder to reach: In 15% of those audits, the mail couldn’t be delivered. But earlier studies have also shown that many poor taxpayers don’t understand they are being audited or have trouble deciphering what the IRS is asking in its letters.
The EITC is aimed mainly at low-income workers with children. Last year, 26 million households received an average credit of about $2,500. Most EITC audits require taxpayers to dig up documents to show that a child meets the legal threshold of a “qualifying child,” a status that’s distinct from a dependent. The IRS has long blamed the law’s complexity as the main reason taxpayers may incorrectly claim the credit.
Smick was among the rare audit veterans who prevailed. Taxpayers rarely win against the IRS regardless of how likely they are to qualify for the credit, according to the new study, which was done by Day Manoli, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Texas at Austin, and researchers with the IRS and Treasury Department.
The authors sliced the population of EITC recipients into categories. At one end of the spectrum were tax returns with red flags that made it almost certain they would be audited. On the other end were returns very unlikely to be audited. But, looking over time, the outcomes of those audits weren’t all that different. When those returns with red flags were audited, the taxpayers prevailed 7% of the time. The taxpayers at the other end of the spectrum — the group seemingly most likely to qualify for the credit — only prevailed 10% of the time.
The audits have a long-term impact on the lives of those who go through them, the study found. In the years after they were audited, wage earners were 68% less likely to claim the credit compared with similar taxpayers who had not been audited. They were even 14% less likely to file taxes at all.
These taxpayers surrender “benefits from potentially legitimate EITC claims,” the study authors write, and, when they fail to file taxes at all, leave money on the table in the form of other credits and withholdings.
Because the IRS conducts so many EITC audits — between 380,000 and 600,000 per year over the past decade — at the very least, hundreds of thousands of taxpayers have likely avoided claiming the credit in response to having it denied through an audit. By discouraging people from claiming the credit, the audits clash with an avowed goal of the IRS: to encourage people to claim it. About a fifth of those eligible for the credit don’t claim it, and the IRS runs education campaigns to increase uptake.
EITC recipients are audited at such a high rate in part because Republicans in Congress have long pressured the IRS to reduce incorrect payments of the credit.
And while that $18 billion number, which Republicans touted as a “big problem” in the April hearing, is often cast as a kind of government waste, the study shows things are far more complicated.
In the years following an audit, the study found, children who were claimed on one taxpayer’s return often were claimed on a different taxpayer’s return. In other words, the kids might have just been claimed on the wrong return, and if that’s the case, the money should have been paid out, just to someone else.
The authors distinguish between the $18 billion in “gross overpayments” of the credit, which would include such misdirected payments, and what they call “net overpayments,” money that shouldn’t have been paid out at all. The “net” number, they say, could be one-third to one-half smaller than the “gross” one.
The IRS, in its statement, said the study had focused on a sample of only one type of taxpayer (single and head-of-household filers), and so the estimate of “net overpayments” should not be generalized to the entire EITC-claiming population.
Republished with permission under license from ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom.
The federal class-action claims thousands of people in Missouri were jailed because they couldn’t pay off fines. Four years after the suit was filed, the plaintiffs are still waiting, and wondering if the deck is stacked against them.
By Topher Sanders
In January 2014, Tonya DeBerry was driving through an unincorporated area of St. Louis County, Missouri, when a police officer pulled her over for having expired license plates.
After discovering that DeBerry, 51, had several outstanding traffic tickets from three jurisdictions, the officer handcuffed her and took her to jail.
To be released, she was told, she would have to pay hundreds of dollars in fines she owed the county, according to her account in a federal lawsuit. But after her family came up with the money, DeBerry wasn’t released from custody. Instead, she was handed over to the municipalities of Ferguson and Jennings, and in each city, she was told she would be released only after she paid a portion of the fines she owed them, according to the lawsuit.
It was as if she were being held for “ransom,” her lawyer would later say.
The Supreme Court ruled almost 50 years ago that a person can’t be jailed for not being able to pay a fine. But like so many people in Missouri, DeBerry had ended up cycling through a succession of jails for that very reason, caught up in what critics have called modern-day “debtors prisons,” used by towns to keep fines flowing into municipal coffers.
“It’s a cat-and-mouse game,” said her daughter, Allison Nelson, who has also spent time in jail for not being able to pay traffic fines.
If DeBerry and her family were exasperated by the heavy-handed collection efforts, they would learn how hard it would be to hold the authorities accountable, especially in Ferguson, even after the killing of Michael Brown later that year drew national attention to the city’s troubled criminal justice system.
The city slowly stopped jailing people for not being able to pay fines as the news media showed the victims were primarily black and the Justice Department made clear that what Ferguson had been doing was wrong. But four years after a federal class-action suit was filed against the city on behalf of thousands of people who claimed they were jailed for their inability to pay fines, the plaintiffs are still waiting for redress.
The city has sought to have the lawsuit dismissed, filing a succession of motions, arguing among other reasons that instead of suing the city, the plaintiffs should be suing the municipal division of the state court. All three of the motions have been denied by the judge, Audrey G. Fleissig, of the U.S. District Court in St. Louis, though one of the rulings was appealed and that took about a year to resolve.
One issue has proved to be particularly frustrating to the plaintiffs: whether the city of Ferguson is even insured for a class action.
In March 2016, the lawyer representing Ferguson sent an email to a representative of the city’s insurer, saying that the scope of the lawsuit had expanded, and that concern about the case “grew” after a similar suit was settled for what was believed to be a “substantial amount of money.”
The five-sentence email concluded with the lawyer, Peter Dunne, of the St. Louis firm Pitzer Snodgrass, saying that legal action may be necessary to resolve the question of whether the city was covered for a class action.
“We believe a DJ [declaratory judgment] suit to determine coverage may be necessary,” Dunne wrote.
Three months later, the insurance trust filed a declaratory judgment suit against Ferguson in St. Louis County Circuit Court, asking a judge to find that the city did not have insurance coverage for class actions.
Dunne’s role was not publicly known until September when St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger reported Ferguson’s allegation that Dunne had violated his duty to the city. The email documenting Dunne’s discussion of a lawsuit with the insurer was first obtained by ProPublica. Dunne, one of the firm’s principals, did not respond to requests for comment. The other principals did not respond to emails or to a call to the firm’s office.
Suggesting legal action involving his own client was a breach of legal ethics, some experts said, and the revelation has only deepened the sense among the plaintiffs and their supporters that the deck is stacked.
“No matter where the citizens of Ferguson go in the legal system, justice is really hard for them to obtain,” said Vincent Southerland, executive director of New York University School of Law’s Center on Race, Inequality and the Law. “It’s another example that we have a legal system that was not built to protect and vindicate the rights of the most vulnerable among us.”
The killing of Brown by a police officer in August 2014 and the unrest that followed thrust Ferguson into the middle of a growing national debate over race and law enforcement. But for black people in Ferguson and the surrounding North County region, racial discrimination had long defined their relationship with the local police and courts.
Even as the rest of the country moved on from Ferguson, the people seeking a judgment against the city found themselves mired in the machinations of an insular legal system and an overburdened insurance carrier.
Ferguson, a city of about 21,000 people, was insured through a cooperative of 25 municipalities called the St. Louis Area Insurance Trust, commonly referred to as SLAIT.
Messenger said the rural courts ensnared whites, while in Ferguson and elsewhere in North County, it was blacks who were victimized. “But it’s the same concept,” he said. “It’s policing on the poor, it’s jurisdictions that don’t have a tax base anymore looking to the judicial system as a fundraising tool and judges allowing themselves to be tax collectors rather than purveyors of justice.”
The trust hired Dunne to provide Ferguson’s defense of the class-action lawsuit. But his firm, Pitzer Snodgrass, was also providing the trust with legal advice on insurance coverage issues, according to a court filing by Ferguson. That set up what Ferguson said in the filing was a conflict that the city had not been made aware of.
Even if city officials wanted to settle the case, the trust claims in court filings there isn’t coverage and it won’t pay out. The insurance trust’s lawsuit will determine whether there is coverage.
Michael Downey, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis and an expert on legal ethics, said that unless Dunne had Ferguson’s permission, Dunne should not have talked to the insurer about the possibility of a lawsuit over coverage.
“A breach of the duty of confidentiality basically to encourage a party to take action against your client is a pretty serious violation of the rules,” Downey said.
Even if Dunne thought he was conveying something that the insurer already knew, the exchange was still concerning, Downey said.
The trust, through its lawyer, declined to comment.
Michael Frisch, Georgetown University Law Center’s ethics counsel, said that, were the bar to pursue an investigation, any punishment would not be severe. A reprimand — at most, he said.
“It’s the kind of a thing that would not draw that much of a response from the bar,” Frisch said. “Lawyers tend not to get suspended for things like this.”
New York University law professor Stephen Gillers, who specializes in legal ethics, said that regardless of any punishment, Dunn’s actions are significant.
“It’s a big deal, because clients are entitled to loyalty,” he said. “If you can’t be equally loyal to both clients, then you have a conflict and you have to withdraw entirely or from one or the other client.”
For lawyers hired by insurance companies to represent policyholders, the question of who is the client was for many years unsettled ethical terrain, experts say.
Lawyers can feel a sense of obligation to the insurance companies that hire them — and that can provide a steady stream of business — said William Barker, co-author of “Professional Responsibilities of Insurance Defense Counsel.”
Barker, a Chicago lawyer with the firm Dentons, said that until the 1970s, lawyers hired by insurance companies to represent a policyholder typically thought of the company as their chief client. But a series of court decisions since then established that the lawyer owes undivided loyalty to the policyholder, and that is why the lawyer’s actions in the Ferguson case appear to be troubling, Barker said. “That’s something that the defense lawyer ought not to be doing,” he said. “The lawyer who is handling the defense ought not to be involved, certainly in advising the insurance company on coverage issues.”
Michael-John Voss, a lawyer for the ArchCity Defenders, the civil rights group that brought the lawsuit against Ferguson, expects to case to drag into 2020.
“The relief and the remedy has been a long time coming, and there’s no clear end in sight,” he said. “And it reemphasized to me the way that these larger structures are put in place to avoid accountability and to perpetuate a system of social control.”
ProPublica asked the insurance trust if it had instructed Dunne to act as he did, but the trust’s lawyer said the organization would not answer any of ProPublica’s questions because of the ongoing lawsuits.
The insurance cooperative was created in the 1980s to help small St. Louis-area municipalities share the cost of liability insurance and health care. The arrangement worked for the occasional slip-and-fall claim and other routine municipal litigation. But it has not held up well in the face of payouts to cops injured on duty and for actions by the police and the courts.
Most notably, the trust paid $1.5 million to Brown’s family in 2017 to settle a wrongful death claim against Ferguson. But that was hardly the only big hit in recent years. In 2016, a jury awarded $3 million to the family of Jason Moore, an unarmed 31-year-old man, who died after a Ferguson police officer delivered several shots from a Taser.
A state audit released in February showed the organization’s fund balance dropped to $3.8 million in 2018 from $12.2 million in 2016. Like many insurers, the trust also has its own coverage, known as reinsurance, and it turned to those carriers to help with the Moore verdict. But the companies have told the trust that they won’t cover the judgment in the Moore case because the companies allege the trust improperly notified them of the claim. The trust is suing the companies.
Dunne and his firm are no longer working on the Ferguson case. The firm was disqualified by the judge after it hired a lawyer from the ArchCity Defenders who represented one of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs in court.
De’carlon Seewood, who stepped down in March after three and a half years as Ferguson’s city manager, said resolving the lawsuit will help the community move beyond the abuses and the notoriety that came with them.
“It is important to kind of move forward and show that new face, that better face,” Seewood said this year, before he left Ferguson to become the city manager in Fairburn, Georgia, just outside Atlanta. Jeffrey Blume, Ferguson’s interim city manager, directed questions to the city’s attorney, who declined to answer.
Seewood said the city had hoped the insurance trust would take care of the settlement the way the insurer for the city of Jennings had. But Jennings was in a very different position. Its insurer was Travelers, the country’s sixth-largest property and casualty insurer. By contrast, the insurance trust is a small cooperative with dwindling funds.
“The insurance [trust] looked at the enormity of what’s being asked and they said that’s it’s outside their [coverage] of the city, and so the city finds itself fighting with its insurance company about [coverage],” Seewood said.
According to a memo written by the trust’s claims administrator, the plaintiffs originally asked for $27.5 million but during mediation in April 2016 reduced the demand to $9.5 million. That amount is what the plaintiffs believe, based on the policies, is the total coverage limit of Ferguson’s insurance.
Alexandra Lahav, a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law and an expert in civil litigation, said a case like this typically would be resolved in about two years and said the insurance dispute was slowing the process.
“This really shouldn’t be a very complicated class action,” Lahav said.
Lisa Soronen, executive director for the State and Local Legal Center, a Washington organization that supports states and local governments in legal disputes that rise to the U.S. Supreme Court, said the dispute between the trust and Ferguson didn’t leave the city with many sound options other than fighting the case mightily.
“As a practical matter, Ferguson’s a really small city that has no money,” she said. “If there’s no insurance coverage and there’s a huge judgment, I don’t know how it would pay.”
John Rappaport, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School who has studied the impact insurance can have on police practices and policies, said insurance trusts have a reputation for being less likely than commercial insurers to settle cases involving police officers.
“The risk pools or the trusts, they see themselves as extensions of the cities themselves,” he said. “Their reluctance to settle litigation against the police would seem [to be] a kind of loyalty to their members — their cities.”
Rappaport said commercial insurers often see the issues as purely a matter of dollars and cents.
“Whereas if the city either is in a risk pool or the city represents itself, they see it as more of like a moral issue, like we have to stand up for our officers,” he said.
Even after the Ferguson suit is resolved, litigation in Missouri over “debtors prison” practices won’t be. ArchCity Defenders has lawsuits pending in six other cities, with more in the pipeline stretching beyond North County.
DeBerry, the Ferguson woman who was a named plaintiff in the Ferguson class action, was also a plaintiff in the lawsuit against neighboring Jennings, which settled for $4.8 million less than a year and a half after the suit was filed.
But the suit in Ferguson has dragged on longer than DeBerry could wait.
She died in April 2018.
“And now she will never even get a piece of this justice because she’s no longer here,” said Nelson, her daughter. “That’s sad, that’s really sad. It’s actually pathetic because it should have never come to that. It hurts.”
Republished with permission under license from ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom.
If you claim the earned income tax credit, whose average recipient makes less than $20,000 a year, you’re more likely to face IRS scrutiny than someone making twenty times as much. How a benefit for the working poor was turned against them.
by Paul Kiel and Jesse Eisinger,
When Natassia Smick, 28, filed her family’s taxes in January, she already had plans for the refund she and her husband expected to receive. Mainly, she wanted to catch up on her credit card debt. And she was pregnant with their second child, so there were plenty of extra expenses ahead.
Since Smick, who is taking classes toward a bachelor’s degree, and her husband, a chef, together earned around $33,000 in 2017, about $2,000 of that refund would come from the earned income tax credit. It’s among the government’s largest anti-poverty programs, sending more than $60 billion every year to families like Smick’s: people who have jobs but are struggling to get by. Last year, 28 million households claimed the EITC.
Smick, who lives outside Los Angeles, thought she’d get her refund in a month or so, as she had the year before. But no refund came. Instead, she got a letter from the IRS saying it was “conducting a thorough review” of her return. She didn’t need to do anything, it said. Smick waited as patiently as she could. She called the IRS and was told to wait some more.
It wasn’t until four months later, in July, that she got her next letter. The IRS informed her that she was being audited. She had 30 days to provide “supporting documentation” for basically everything. As she understood it, she needed to prove that she and her husband had earned what they’d earned and that her child was her child.
By this point, Smick was home with her baby. She set about rounding up W-2s, paycheck stubs, bank statements and birth certificates. Proving that her 4-year-old had lived at the family’s address for most of the year, as the EITC requires, was the hardest thing, but she did her best with medical records, some papers from his day care, and whatever else she could think of.
She sent it all off and hoped for a quick resolution, but the next IRS letter quashed that hope. The IRS said it would review her response by Feb. 16, 2019 — six months away. Collectors were calling about the credit card bills. She didn’t know how she’d make it that long.
Smick couldn’t understand why this was happening. All she had done was answer the questions on TurboTax. Isn’t it rich people who get audited? “We have nothing,” she said, “and it’s just frustrating knowing that we have nothing.”
It seemed there was nothing she could do. And when she called the IRS to ask how it could possibly take so long to review her documents, she remembers being told that there was nothing they could do, either: The IRS was “extremely short staffed,” the person said.
Budget cuts have crippled the IRS over the past eight years. Enforcement staff has dropped by a third. But while the number of audits has fallen across the board, the impact has been different for the rich and poor. For wealthy taxpayers, the story has been rosy: Not only has the audit rate been cut in half, but audits now tend to be less thorough.
It’s a different story for people who receive the EITC: The audit rate has fallen less steeply and the experience of being audited has become more punishing. Because of a 2015 law, EITC recipients are now more likely to have their refund held, something that can be calamitous for someone living month-to-month.
IRS computers choose people to audit, but if those taxpayers respond, a person must review the documents. With fewer employees to do that, delays have mounted in a process that was already arduous, according to several attorneys who represent taxpayers through the Low Income Taxpayer Clinic program. It regularly takes more than a year to get a taxpayer’s refund released, they said, even for those who are represented.
“If the service doesn’t have the personnel to evaluate evidence submitted in a timely manner, then they should not be initiating the exams in the first place,” said Mandi Matlock, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.
Generally, the more money you make, the more likely you are to be audited. EITC recipients, whose typical annual income is under $20,000, have long been the major exception. That’s because many people claim the credit in error, and, under consistent pressure from Republicans in Congress to curtail those overpayments, the IRS has kept the audit rate higher. Meanwhile, there hasn’t been similar pressure to address more costly problem areas, like tax evasion by business owners.
The budget cuts and staff losses have made this distortion starker. The richest taxpayers are still audited at higher rates than the poorest, but the gap is closing.
“What happens is you have people at the very top being prioritized and people at the very bottom being prioritized, and everyone else is sort of squeezed out,” said John Dalrymple, who retired last year as deputy commissioner of the IRS. In 2017, EITC recipients were audited at twice the rate of taxpayers with income between $200,000 and $500,000. Only households with income above $1 million were examined at significantly higher rates.
Put another way, as the IRS has dwindled in size and capability, audits of the poor have accounted for more of what it does. Last year, the IRS audited 381,000 recipients of the EITC. That was 36 percent of all audits the IRS conducted, up from 33 percent in 2011, when the budget cuts began.
“Those struggling to make ends meet are being unfairly audited while the fortunate few dodge taxes without consequence,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the ranking member on the Senate Finance Committee, told ProPublica. “The IRS needs more manpower to go after tax cheats of all sizes, and working Americans need a simpler way of obtaining a tax credit they’ve earned.”
The IRS declined to answer questions about its EITC audits.
The EITC has bipartisan roots. Conceived as a “work bonus” for low-income wage earners in the 1970’s and an alternative to welfare, the program has grown over the decades with the support of Republicans and Democrats. These days, the average credit is for about $2,500, but for larger families, the amount can exceed $6,000. The Census Bureau recently estimated that the EITC and the child tax credit together boost millions of children out of poverty every year, more than any other government program.
Unlike Social Security or food stamps, the EITC has no application process. Instead, taxpayers simply claim the credit on their tax returns. Millions of people get it wrong in both directions, according to IRS estimates. About a fifth of eligible taxpayers don’t seek the EITC. And almost a quarter of the $74 billion paid out this year was issued “improperly.”
That estimate of “improper payments,” about $17 billion, is the reason the EITC is such a focus for the IRS. Some tax experts — including the Taxpayer Advocate Service, an independent office within the IRS — argue the estimate is way too high. One reason is that it is based on the outcome of audits, and low-income taxpayers are much less likely to have competent representation to dispute the IRS’ conclusions.
Regardless of the precise error rate, the IRS acknowledges the primary cause of the problem is not fraud: It is the law itself. It is too complex, too easy for someone to think themselves eligible when they are not. The same child might be a “dependent,” for example, but not a “qualifying child” under the EITC, and the IRS’ instructions for claiming the credit run to 41 pages.
“My third-year law students, they sit down and study this material, and sometimes they still don’t get it,” said Michelle Lyon Drumbl, a professor at Washington and Lee School of Law.
Since the 1990s, Republicans in Congress have focused on these improper payments as a major problem and harshly criticized the IRS for failing to stop them. In 2015, the Republican Congress passed, and President Barack Obama signed, a bill that required the IRS to hold EITC refunds until Feb. 15 each year. The purpose was to give the IRS more time to match tax returns with the corresponding W-2s to avoid misstatements of income. But it also meant people who are audited are more likely to see their refund held — instead of receiving the credit and then undergoing audit. That’s a crucial difference for low-income taxpayers.
“You expect this money during tax season and you don’t get it… It tears you down,” said Paul McCaw, a forklift operator in Rock Island, Illinois. He had refunds held for several years in a row because the IRS doubted that his niece’s three young children lived with him. For years, the family struggled. Bills piled up and eviction was a constant threat. Finally, this year, with the help of a legal aid attorney at Prairie State Legal Services, Macaw, 50, was able to convince the IRS to release the refunds.
“I was just beside myself,” he said of finally getting his refunds, adding, “I caught everything all up, and I also paid a month in advance.”
Stopping faulty refunds from going out, rather than trying to recoup them through an audit is “always the better option” because it is more effective, said Jesse Solis, a spokesperson for House Ways and Means Committee chair Kevin Brady, R-Texas. Congress should continue to look for ways to reduce improper payments, he said.
Taxpayers of all kinds cheat. And IRS studies have found that EITC recipients aren’t close to the worst offenders. For certain kinds of business income, for instance, people pay only about 37 percent of the tax they owe because they simply don’t report the income. Hundreds of billions of dollars in government revenue is lost. But people who have their own businesses are audited at about the same rate as EITC recipients.
The IRS’ disproportionate focus on stopping EITC “improper payments” is misguided, said Nina Olson, the national taxpayer advocate. “What’s the difference between an erroneous EITC dollar being sent out and a dollar attributed to unreported self-employment income not collected?” she asked. Unreported business income is “where the real money is,” she said.
When EITC cheating does occur, the culprits are usually tax preparers, said Chi Chi Wu of the National Consumer Law Center. “They know the system, they game the system and ultimately the taxpayer ends up on the hook if there’s an audit,” she said. In undercover investigations by the NCLC and the Government Accountability Office, multiple preparers advised taxpayers to file bogus EITC claims.
About 60 percent of taxpayers use a preparer, but in most states, preparers are not required to be licensed, and the IRS’ ability to oversee them is limited. After the agency launched a program to certify preparers and subject them to regular compliance checks, a federal appeals court ruled in 2014 that the IRS doesn’t have that power. Congress could pass a bill to confer such authority on the agency, but it has not done so, despite some bipartisan support for the idea.
The IRS has a difficult task in auditing taxpayers who claim the EITC. Low-income families are often complicated; they’re more likely to be multi-generational than more affluent filers, for instance, or to add or subtract household members from year to year. A study by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center found that only about 48 percent of low-income households with children were married couples, while for other households it was 75 percent.
But advocates for taxpayers say the IRS makes the situation needlessly worse. Virtually all the EITC audits are conducted by correspondence, and the computer-generated letters are far from simple. A survey by the Taxpayer Advocate Service found that more than a quarter of EITC recipients who were audited didn’t even understand that they were under audit.
“When I first got audited, I couldn’t figure out what was going on,” said Denise Canady, 62, of West Memphis, Arkansas, who at the time was earning $8.50 an hour as a home health aide. The audit sent her on a scramble to get documents from her granddaughter’s doctor, pharmacy, hospital and school that would demonstrate that the toddler had lived at her address. “A lot of people don’t want to give you old records,” she said.
She eventually found her way to Legal Aid of Arkansas, where an attorney helped bolster her case, but, a year after her audit began, she is still awaiting the outcome.
“I pray and hope,” she said.
Republished with permission under license from ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom.
The system for inspecting federally subsidized properties is failing low-income families, seniors and people with disabilities and undermining the agency’s oversight.
by Molly Parker, The Southern Illinoisan
In the winter of 2017, a toddler was rushed to the emergency room after swallowing rodent poison inside her family’s unit at the federally subsidized Clay Arsenal Renaissance Apartments in Hartford, Connecticut. Her mother had placed sticky traps throughout the house after another one of her children was bitten on the arm by a mouse, according to a local housing advocate who worked with the family.
This August, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley sued the St. Louis Housing Authority and the private management company it hired to run the Clinton-Peabody Housing Complex, saying they both violated the state’s consumer protection laws by advertising that the development was habitable even though it was plagued by a pest infestation, black mold and water damage.
That same month, residents of Texas Coppertree Village Apartments in Houston filed suit against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, saying the federal government had failed to hold their landlord accountable for deplorable conditions and criminal activity at the federally subsidized complex, including rapes, aggravated assaults and robberies.
In all three cases, despite well-known, long-standing problems, the properties had passed their most-recent inspections mandated by HUD.
Apartment complexes subsidized by HUD collectively house more than 2 million low-income families around the country. Some are run by public housing authorities and others are owned by private for-profit or nonprofit landlords. By law, the owners of such complexes must pass inspections demonstrating they are decent, safe and sanitary in exchange for millions of dollars in federal money each year.
But as thousands of renters across the country have discovered, passing scores on HUD inspections often don’t match the reality of renters’ living conditions. The two-decade-old inspection system — the federal housing agency’s primary oversight tool — is failing low-income families, seniors and people with disabilities and undermining the agency’s oversight of billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded rental subsidies, an investigation by The Southern Illinoisan and ProPublica has found.
HUD has given passing inspection grades for years to dangerous buildings filled with rats and roaches, toxic mold and peeling lead-based paint, which can cause lifelong learning delays when ingested by young children. The same goes for buildings where people with disabilities have been stranded in high-rise apartments without working elevators, or where raw sewage backs up into bathtubs and utility drains. The agency has passed buildings where ceilings are caving in and the heat won’t kick on in frigid winter months as old boiler systems give out.
The failure of HUD’s inspection system has been on display in the southern Illinois towns of Cairo and East St. Louis, which have had their public housing taken over by HUD. In both towns, complexes received passing scores as decades-old buildings deteriorated.
HUD’s inspection system “is pretty much a failure,” and the agency’s staffing levels after years of budget cuts are “wholly inadequate” to assess properties, said Sara Pratt, a former senior HUD official who worked at the agency under Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Kate Walz, director of housing justice with the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, a social justice and legal advocacy organization based in Chicago, said, “We just shake our heads sometimes.”
“Some owners fail an inspection and they have a great building, and some owners pass it, and they have just a horrible building,” she added. “We’re running up against this all the time.”
The consequences of these failures are made more severe by the paucity of affordable housing in communities across the country. Nearly one in five of the nation’s 43 million renters spend more than half of their income on housing, according to an April report by The Pew Charitable Trusts. With few alternatives available to families who live in deep poverty, many choose to stay where they are and endure their conditions rather than complain and risk eviction and homelessness.
That’s why it’s critical that HUD ensures the safety and stability of government-funded housing units set aside for low-income families, housing advocates say. It’s a difficult charge given that the vast majority of these apartments are decades old, and many of them have gone without routine maintenance for years.
Representatives of the Clay Arsenal Renaissance Apartments have said that they tried to fix problems there and that the property’s passing scores meant it met HUD’s standards. After a yearslong effort led by tenants, HUD ended its contract with the owner in May. The St. Louis Housing Authority did not respond to a call seeking comment, but in news reports it said that efforts have been made to improve conditions at Clinton-Peabody, including by addressing the mice problem. And after tenants of the Texas Coppertree Village Apartments filed suit against HUD, inspectors gave the building a failing score and HUD has issued two default notices to its owner. HUD’s response to the tenants’ lawsuit was due on Tuesday, but the department has sought an extension.
The Southern emailed a synopsis of its findings to a HUD spokesman several weeks ago. The agency declined to comment in detail. HUD spokesman Jereon Brown said in an email that “the perfect system hasn’t been, and probably will not be designed. That given, the agency continues to learn and we realize the challenges of a 20-year old system.”
HUD declined to make Secretary Ben Carson available for an interview, but in late October, Carson shared a two-page statement on Twitter that said he “directed a wholesale reexamination” of how the department conducts inspections. Carson wrote that the agency is exploring “immediate improvements and those refinements over the long-term.”
The letter did not elaborate on those changes or when additional details would be made public.
“We’re simply signaling that change is coming,” Brown said. “The details will be released when we’re convinced we have a system that will better serve the residents.”
HUD’s inspection system was born out of political fallout from the agency’s previous oversight failures.
“HUD has been plagued for years by scandal and mismanagement,” then-HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo told lawmakers during a Senate hearing in 1997, announcing a reform plan, of which standardized inspections was a central feature. In the 1980s, he said, HUD was the “poster child for fraud, waste and abuse.”
“At the time, if you knew HUD at all, you knew it through its failures,” Cuomo said, citing as examples Cabrini-Green in Chicago and Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, large public housing complexes that have since been leveled.
Facing calls for his department’s elimination, Cuomo called for the creation of a Real Estate Assessment Center within HUD, which would largely rely on contractors to assess the financial and physical conditions of landlords managing HUD-subsidized properties.
All properties are supposed to be inspected at least once every three years, and poorer performing ones more often. HUD also has the ability to perform an inspection at other times in response to complaints by tenants or others. Scores are issued on a 100-point scale, with a 60 needed to pass. After the inspection, landlords receive a list of all life-threatening health and safety violations, and they have three days to fix those problems. If a privately owned property fails with a score below 30 or has two consecutive scores below 60, it is referred for enforcement action, which can include termination of a contract.
HUD survived the 1990s, but not before Congress cut a quarter of its annual budget and ordered a massive downsizing. The agency’s workforce has been reduced by more than half since the mid-1980s, from roughly 17,000 to about 8,000.
HUD has fielded complaints for years about flaws with its inspection system, particularly with respect to its complicated scoring algorithm that struggles to tell the difference between unsafe properties and decent ones, said Mike Gantt, senior vice president of The Inspection Group, a consulting company that helps properties prepare for their inspections.
“Many people have believed these scores to be largely meaningless for nearly 20 years, and this includes many HUD officials who will say so privately,” Gantt said. “This is not a newly discovered problem. Any claim to the contrary amounts to a cover up or ignorance of historical fact.”
Through a spokesman, Cuomo, now the governor of New York, defended the creation of the inspection system in the 1990s, saying that before it, there was no uniform system for inspecting federally subsidized housing across the nation. But spokesman Tyrone Stevens added that, with the passing of two decades and a dropoff in federal funding and oversight, Cuomo believes the system needs to be reevaluated.
The system’s flaws were brought into sharp relief a few years ago, when deplorable conditions in apartment buildings owned by the nonprofit Global Ministries Foundation prompted news reports and a 2016 Senate hearing that called into question HUD’s oversight.
Over a number of years, the nonprofit and a subsidiary had purchased 60 properties for low-income residents in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, New York, North Carolina and Tennessee. The nonprofit, run by an evangelical minister in Memphis, Tennessee, named Richard Hamlet, entered into contracts with HUD to house thousands of tenants in about 40 of the properties.
By 2014, Global Ministries was receiving about $40 million in federal funds annually to offset reduced rents through HUD’s project-based Section 8 program.
Internally, HUD officials were raising serious questions about the conditions at the properties, said John Gemmill, who retired from the department in 2016 as director of the agency’s Memphis office. But externally, little happened, and tenants suffered.
When Cynthia Crawford moved into Warren Apartments in Memphis in 2013, she was desperate for a place to live. For nearly four years prior, she had been homeless, bouncing between friends’ couches and shelters. Her children were in foster care, and to get them back, she had to have a home. But the conditions they endured were horrendous. “These were not just any house mice. I’m talking about rats so big we thought they were possums. A lot of ceilings were falling in on families. Stoves and fridges didn’t work. We had issues with floors falling out from under people,” Crawford said. “It was just an absolutely hopeless feeling.”
For years, the inspection scores assigned to the Memphis properties were inflated as they fell into disrepair, well before Global Ministries purchased them, said Brad Watkins, director of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, a civil rights organization that works with tenants. The scores began to drop only after Watkins and others raised concerns with HUD, he said.
Then, in the spring of 2015, Crawford and other residents began organizing and Memphis’ local paper, The Commercial Appeal, revealed that people were living in unsafe units at Warren Apartments, one of the Global Ministries properties. At roughly the same time, Hamlet paid himself a salary of $500,000. After the story ran, HUD inspectors returned, this time issuing a failing score for Warren and Tulane apartments, which were inspected jointly. Months later, HUD moved to end a contract with Global Ministries for these two properties.
This prompted reporters and advocates in other states to start asking questions. In the spring of 2016, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., visited a troubled 400-unit apartment complex in his home state that was owned by Global Ministries. During the visit to Eureka Garden Apartments in Jacksonville, Rubio told a representative of the owner that the conditions he had witnessed were “terrifying and inexcusable,” according to news reports. Days later on the Senate floor, Rubio turned his attention to HUD. He criticized the agency for not giving the property a failing inspection score.
“I, for the life of me, don’t know how they passed any inspections because, I’m telling you, I visited and I’m not a building inspector, but you don’t have to be one to visit this building and know there is no inspection that the building should ever pass,” Rubio said.
That August, under pressure from HUD and the public over poor housing conditions, Hamlet announced plans to put all of Global Ministries’ HUD-subsidized properties up for sale.
Brown, the HUD spokesman, said that Global Ministries “hurt a lot of folks in Memphis” and that the department forced Hamlet to sell his HUD-subsidized properties. But in an interview, Hamlet said that the department had been familiar with deteriorating conditions in the properties that Global Ministries bought, as they had long been a part of HUD’s rental subsidy program under prior owners. The department also had to review his financing plans, approve the purchases and enter into contracts with the nonprofit.
In the interview, Hamlet blamed tenants for lacking basic housekeeping skills, faulted the management companies he hired to run day-to-day operations and said he was targeted by HUD officials because he’s a pastor. He defended his salary, saying a consultant told the nonprofit’s board that he was “underpaid.” “It’s clear we became the pinata of all the frustrations of the whole Section 8 program on some of these older properties,” Hamlet said.
The problems with Global Ministries prompted a broad re-examination of oversight at HUD and promises of reform.
In the last two years alone, Brown said, HUD has increased training and oversight of contractors who conduct inspections on the agency’s behalf. In 2016, HUD ordered inspectors to mark down properties for shoddy repairs such as using plywood to cover holes in drywall or tape to fix a rotting refrigerator gasket. And in 2016 and 2017, the agency decertified more than 50 contract inspectors after determining they had not properly followed protocols.
These changes had a dramatic effect on inspection scores nationally. From 2015 to 2017, the failure rate nationwide roughly tripled — from 4 percent to 13 percent for public housing complexes, and more than doubled from 2 percent to 5 percent for privately owned projects subsidized under HUD’s project-based multifamily programs. About 260 private properties with housing assistance failed, roughly one of out of every 19, as did about 430 public housing complexes, roughly one in eight properties inspected in 2017.
At the same time, the number of inspections of privately owned multifamily properties has decreased dramatically over the same period, from 8,400 in 2015 to 4,900 last year. HUD declined to answer a question about the reason for the drop.
But even after the changes HUD made to improve inspection protocols, unsafe properties continue to pass in some places. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Hartford.
In early 2017, a school family resource coordinator reached out to the Christian Activities Council, a neighborhood advocacy organization in Hartford, after a child at her school said she’d been bitten by a mouse. A community organizer with the nonprofit arranged a meeting with the child’s mother to find out more. But at the appointed time, the mother wasn’t home. Her other child had swallowed rat poison and was in the emergency room at a local hospital.
Shortly after this incident, Cori Mackey, the nonprofit’s executive director, and other advocates began knocking on doors in Hartford’s North End, a distressed neighborhood that sits a half-mile from the capital city’s downtown.
The Clay Arsenal Renaissance Apartments consist of 26 buildings, each containing six to 12 units. Most tenants did not realize that they shared a landlord, Mackey said. But after speaking about their shared concerns, the tenants decided they wanted to take on the landlord, Ah Min Holding LLC, and its managing member, Emmanuel Ku, and ultimately, HUD. A core group of six residents led the charge.
In April 2017, the Christian Activities Council reached out to HUD’s regional office in Boston to express concerns about unsafe conditions despite the property’s passing inspection scores. The following month, a construction analyst from HUD’s Boston office visited the property and found outdated kitchens, dead mice, nonfunctioning baseboard heaters and rickety outdoor decks, according to a report obtained by The Southern in a records request.
The next month, HUD issued Ah Min Holding a notice of default, giving the owner seven days to fix the most serious health and safety violations. But nothing really changed, the residents said.
Between late June and early July 2017, a HUD inspector assessed the property again. Because the department had been made aware of problems, this particular inspection was more intensive than is typical. Still, the property passed, scoring 73, just one point less than the previous year’s 74.
The property was marked down for mold and mildew, infestation and defective windows and doors inside units. But the owner compensated for those problems by posting high scores in other categories, including the exterior of the buildings and the grounds, which tenants said were manicured in the days before HUD officials arrived, while their units received little attention.
In early July, a little more than a week after the inspection, tenants held a rally and press conference where several detailed their poor living conditions and what they said was an absentee landlord. Afterward, Joseph Crisafulli, a senior HUD official from the agency’s Boston office, addressed the tenants, saying, “The stories I’ve heard about are as far away from acceptable HUD housing as I’ve heard in my 29 years at HUD.”
That same month, a rodent expert from Cornell University found that the mouse problem at Clay Arsenal defied amateur mouse traps. Because mice were living and breeding behind fridges, in walls and cabinets and in the cushions of plush furniture, he recommended an extensive and professional extermination effort to control the problem.
In September 2017, Yulissa Espinal, one of the tenants’ leaders, gave birth to a baby girl. She and her baby had to stay in the hospital for a week and then in a hotel for another while a social worker and city code enforcement officer attempted to force her landlord to rid her unit of rodents.
When Espinal returned home two weeks later, she said she found a dead mouse in the living room. It wasn’t long before the live mice returned, she said, forcing her to set traps around her baby’s crib at night. “I worried one would get into the crib and bite her,” said Espinal, a school bus driver raising four children on a limited income.
She and others continued to plead with HUD for help, while Ah Min Holding mounted a challenge to another default notice sent by the department, threatening to cancel the company’s contract. Ku’s attorney, Carl A. S. Coan III, told HUD that such a decision was “arbitrary” and “completely contrary” to the department’s enforcement regimen for a property that had passed its most recent inspection. Ku did not respond to request for comment through Coan. HUD withdrew the second default notice and instead required Ku to fix a lengthy list of problems by January 2018, a deadline the department extended numerous times.
Dismayed, the advocates and tenants kept searching for answers. They discovered what they considered an opening: Ah Min Holding had not properly obtained certificates of occupancy for its rental buildings, which require a city inspection when there is turnover of a rental unit. The city agreed. In February of this year, city officials inspected about 100 of Ah Min’s units, and nearly all of them failed.
In April, HUD once again notified Ah Min Holding that the company was in violation of its contract with the department. On May 2, the mayor of Hartford told Ku in a letter that the city would charge Ah Min $99 per violation per day until he fixed the issues. Two weeks later, a city committee voted to end Ah Min Holding’s tax abatement, which was worth about $266,000 annually.
On May 31, tenants found letters taped to their door from HUD, announcing that the agency had pulled the company’s contract and would provide them assistance in relocating. HUD also sent Ku a letter stating that “in light of the conditions at the project, and your continuing failure to provide decent, safe housing,” the agency was denying his company’s request for additional time to fix problems.
Rhonda Siciliano, spokeswoman for HUD’s Boston office, said that routine inspections are only one of the agency’s oversight tools for holding landlords accountable: “Is it the primary one? Yes. Is it 100 percent foolproof? No.”
Siciliano said that as soon as problems were brought to HUD’s attention by the advocacy organization, the agency responded. But that’s the problem, said Mackey, the executive director of the nonprofit helping the tenants.
“HUD acted only because we put pressure on them, not because that’s part of their standard oversight system,” she said.
Even as HUD is making promises to further reform the inspection system, years of inflated scores assigned to unsafe and deteriorating properties has caused harm that will be hard to reverse.
Congress has made cuts to programs that pay for renovations at apartment complexes for years, and this has led to a massive backlog of repairs. In 2011, HUD published a study saying that some 1.2 million public housing units needed about $26 billion in large-scale repairs, and that the backlog would grow by more than $3 billion annually. (There has not been a more recent assessment.)
One of the most dramatic public housing oversight failures is playing out in New York City, in Cuomo’s home state, where nearly 400,000 people live in public housing. For decades, the New York City Housing Authority, the nation’s largest, managed to avoid many of the pitfalls and public relations nightmares that plagued other large cities. It was considered a success story for government-run housing. But not anymore.
This winter, thousands of tenants were without heat. The housing authority later admitted it had not properly conducted inspections for lead paint in recent years, and hundreds of children were poisoned. Units are overrun with rats and mold. In a complaint, federal prosecutors accused local officials of trying to conceal the extent of the problems and mislead HUD inspectors with actions such as turning off the water to buildings to conceal leaks and posting “Do Not Enter” signs on basement rooms. The city, which manages the housing authority, has agreed to spend more than $2 billion over a decade on renovation efforts, and to be overseen by a federal monitor under the terms of a consent decree that still must be approved by a federal judge.
Yet, records show that HUD has known about serious health and safety deficiencies inside New York City’s public housing complexes for years. Some inspection reports estimated more than 1,000 health and safety deficiencies; the properties continued to receive passing scores. On Wednesday, a judge declined to sign off on the consent decree because he said it did not go far enough to address conditions he described as “somewhat reminiscent of the biblical plagues of Egypt.” He asked both sides to come back next month with a proposal for how to proceed.
Similarly, in the town of Cairo, located in the southern Illinois region known as “Little Egypt,” residents of the Elmwood and McBride apartment complexes lived with mice, mold and heating outages that forced them to heat their homes with gas ovens. And for years, HUD gave these buildings passing grades as they fell apart.
Today, both buildings are empty.
Vines stretch up their sides. Plywood boards have been stapled over windows. Mangled, wind-whipped metal awnings hang over them. Once home to hundreds of children, it’s now eerily quiet. Before HUD moved everyone out, nearly a sixth of the population of this town at Illinois’ southernmost border lived in the two 1940s-era apartment complexes.
When HUD placed the housing authority into receivership, an agency spokesman told The Southern that HUD was “stunned … at what it saw, not just in terms of deplorable living conditions” but also “poor and absent record keeping, the staggering backlog of critical repairs.”
When HUD finally announced a plan to address the unsafe conditions in the spring of 2017, officials told residents that the buildings were too far gone to save, and that the department was no longer in the business of building public housing. Residents were provided vouchers that subsidize rent in the private market, but many had to leave Cairo because it had few rental apartments. The shuttering of Elmwood and McBride leaves few public housing options: two high-rise towers and several smaller buildings.
When HUD’s inspector general released a report this summer examining why the department didn’t step in sooner, faulty inspections were identified as part of the problem.
Brown, the HUD spokesman, previously told The Southern that what happened in Cairo was a “rare” oversight failure on the department’s part. Three inspectors who had performed physical inspections at the Alexander County Housing Authority between 2009 and 2016 have been decertified for performance issues.
But Jeremy Kirkland, HUD’s acting deputy inspector general, told a House subcommittee in late September, “I am absolutely certain there are others out there like Elmwood and McBride.”
Republished with permission under license from ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom.
The Internal Revenue Service audited nearly 1.1 million tax returns last year, but that represented just 0.5 percent of all returns. That means the chances of getting audited are fairly low.
But if you are audited, there’s a good chance it’s because you claimed the earned income tax credit. That’s a credit the federal government offers to people who work, have kids to take care of and don’t earn much money. Most households who claim it earn between $10,000 and $40,000 a year. The average credit is for $2,400, but it can go above $6,000 for larger families.
The IRS audits a lot of people who claim this credit. When that happens, the IRS blocks the refund. Some people may actually end up owing tax instead of getting a refund.
Here is an actual audit notice sent to a taxpayer last year, which was provided to us by the taxpayer’s legal aid attorney. We’ve annotated it to provide important context and added links to helpful resources for those facing an IRS audit.
If you claim the credit and are audited, there’s an excellent chance it will be done entirely through the mail. Of the 1 million-plus audits the IRS conducted last year, less than three-quarters were done by mail, with the remainder by examiners in the field. But for those who claimed the earned income tax credit, nearly all — 92 percent — were done by mail.
In the example here, the audit is ongoing, meaning the IRS hasn't yet made a final determination and won’t release the refund until the audit is closed. And the forms don’t make clear why this taxpayer, or any other, is selected for an audit. But for those claiming the EITC, the main issue is typically whether they have what's called a “qualifying child.” In other words, if you are audited, it’s usually because the IRS doubts that the child or children you claimed on your tax return actually live with you or are related to you (biologically or through adoption or marriage).
Whether a child qualifies can be confusing. This IRS FAQ can be helpful.
No single IRS employee is in charge of an EITC audit. Instead, taxpayers are told to call a service center to speak with a tax examiner. If you call, you may speak with a different person every time.
This taxpayer claimed the EITC and had been expecting a refund of several thousand dollars. Instead, because the IRS believes she doesn’t qualify for the credit, she is being told that she owes $599.53. Almost all of that amount is tax, not interest or penalties.
Since this is an open audit, she doesn’t owe the money quite yet. The tax is legally owed after she receives a notice of deficiency, which would be a separate letter. This taxpayer eventually was able to reverse the IRS’ audit finding through the help of a lawyer with the Low-Income Tax Clinic program and the Taxpayer Advocate Service.
Taxpayers are responsible for notifying the IRS of their current address. So if this notice goes to an old address and isn’t forwarded, the taxpayer may lose the ability to respond to the audit notice. That doesn’t mean there’s no way to undo an IRS audit after it’s done, but it’s a lot harder.
Taxpayers can respond to audits on their own. However, your chances are much better with help. If you qualify for the EITC, then you will likely qualify for free legal help. Here is a directory of Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic locations. If, when the audit is finished, the IRS still does not agree that you qualify for the credit, the next step is usually to file a petition with the U.S. Tax Court.
To qualify for assistance from a low-income clinic, your household cannot make more than 250 percent of the federal poverty level. For example, a family of four living in the contiguous U.S., Washington, D.C., or Puerto Rico has to earn less than $62,750 per year in order to qualify. And the amount in dispute generally must be less than $50,000.
Once you receive the final notice of deficiency from the IRS, you legally owe the tax. Your best option then is to file a petition in Tax Court. If you don’t file within 90 days of receiving the notice of deficiency, you lose your chance to go to Tax Court. If you don't file a petition in Tax Court, the IRS may start to try to collect the tax you owe. You may still have a chance of undoing the audit finding through an audit reconsideration process, but that can take a very long time and your chances of success are lower.
This letter was signed by an IRS manager in Austin, Texas. These audits are generally computer-driven with minimal human interaction. However, if you respond to an audit, it will be reviewed by a human being. But that’s also why the IRS can take as long as six months to review documentation that you submitted.
Republished with permission under license from ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom.
The HUD secretary came to town last year and declared residents were no longer at risk, three decades after the federal government took over public housing here. In fact, the complexes are falling apart and a woman was killed in the weeks before his visit.
By Molly Parker, The Southern Illinosian
EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. — The city’s administrative building was decorated for a festive affair when U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson arrived here last September. An Americana themed banner draped the back of a raised stage. Red, white and blue balloons floated in the foreground.
“This is really an exciting day,” Carson told a crowd of a few dozen city and community leaders. “It is a day of transition and a day of progress.”
In October 1985, HUD officials arrived here unannounced and seized control of the East St. Louis Housing Authority, citing poor living conditions and fraud. Carson was in town to return it to local control.
In a brief speech, Carson said that when former President Ronald Reagan’s HUD took over the housing authority five presidential administrations ago, “the residents were at risk, and the future of our children was at risk.”
Inspectors reported such problems as windows and doors that didn’t lock, infestation, mold and mildew, fire safety violations, holes in walls, broken appliances, peeling paint and missing lead-based paint inspection reports. Among the properties that failed, HUD inspectors estimated an astounding 5,405 violations. One-quarter were deemed life threatening.
In at least one case, persistent security problems may have played a role in a tenant’s death.
Around 4 a.m. on Aug. 8, 2017, Winston made a frantic call to 911, told dispatchers someone was trying to break in, screamed and hung up the phone. When police arrived at the John Robinson Homes, they found her first-floor kitchen window shattered and Winston dead upstairs, her body on the right side of her bed. Her toddler was in a nearby playpen.
In the months preceding her death, Winston made repeated requests to the housing authority, then still under HUD’s control, to fix the window, according to family and friends. It didn’t lock and was missing a security screen, commonly seen on other windows throughout the apartment complex. Winston’s complex failed its HUD inspection last year.
Carson did not tour any public housing complexes in East St. Louis when he visited last September, HUD spokesman Jereon Brown said in a written response to questions. At the time, Carson also was not aware of Winston’s death, Brown wrote. Asked if Carson stood by his remarks, the spokesman declined to comment.
“The path forward for public housing is not a dilemma that is limited to East St. Louis,” Brown said in an email.
The neglect of public housing in big cities like New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C. has been widely documented. But the crisis is also hitting small towns and mid-sized cities — places like Peoria, Illinois; Gary, Indiana; Birmingham, Alabama; Hoboken, New Jersey; Buffalo, New York; and Highland Park, Michigan, HUD property inspections show.
And now, after years of congressional funding cuts to public housing programs, the Trump administration has proposed slashing far more. HUD funding for major repairs at public housing complexes, for instance, has fallen 35 percent — from about $4.2 billion in fiscal 2000 to $2.7 billion in 2018, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning think tank. Earlier this year, the White House proposed completely eliminating this funding.
St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly said a homicide investigation into Winston’s death remains open.
Kelly, who is also the Democratic nominee for a U.S. House district that includes East St. Louis, has been critical of HUD. After reviewing inspection reports for the properties given to him by The Southern Illinoisan, Kelly said they should have prompted the housing authority to further assess and fix security concerns in all units, and flagged HUD to make sure it was done.
Roughly one in every four of the 27,000 East St. Louis residents live in public housing.
“HUD failed Alexis and so many others there that simply want to live in peace and safety,” he said. “How can anyone put their lives together and lift themselves out of the circumstances that lead them to public housing if you are fighting for your own safety every day?”
A century ago, the city of East St. Louis was a powder keg. During the World War I industrial boom, African Americans flooded the city, looking for jobs. Shut out of work in the South, some were willing to cross picket lines, angering many white workers.
In the summer of 1917, a white person drove into a black neighborhood and sprayed homes with gunfire. Other black people reported being pulled from their cars by whites and beaten that night. Black citizens returned fire, unintentionally striking two police officers in a parked car who had arrived to investigate the shootings. Over the course of three days in July, dozens of black people were beaten and lynched, one of the most savage race-based attacks in the 20th century. Whites set fire to their homes and shot at them when they ran.
Some black residents fled town and never came back, but far more moved in.
In the 1930s, between the world wars, discussions began about building two public housing developments in East St. Louis — one each for black and white residents. After years of political infighting, protests and attempts to scrap plans for African-American housing altogether, more than 400 families moved into the Samuel Gompers Homes and John Robinson Homes in 1943.
East St. Louis’ population peaked at more than 82,000 in the 1950s — and several additional large public housing complexes were built.
But since then, the city has been in a freefall. Between roughly 1960 and 1990, the city lost more than 13,000 jobs. The white middle class had already moved. During this time period, much of the black middle class packed up and left, too.
In 1990, about five years after HUD took over the housing authority, then-Illinois Gov. James Thompson agreed to spend $34 million to pull the city from the brink of bankruptcy. But that couldn’t prevent East St. Louis from turning over the deed to its four-year-old City Hall that same year after losing a lawsuit filed by a man who was beaten by another inmate while in jail on a traffic violation.
“Many American cities such as Los Angeles, Baltimore and Detroit have neighborhoods where need is urgent, but they differ from East St. Louis in one important respect,” East St. Louis noted in a 1995 report to HUD, discussing its housing needs. “They can shift resources from more affluent neighborhoods into poorer ones, whereas East St. Louis has such pervasive poverty and a woefully inadequate tax base that shifting is exceedingly difficult.”
“As an East St. Louis native, it pains me to see my old home town in such extreme distress,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who was raised in East St. Louis. Residents here “suffer from one of the highest violent crime and homicide rates in the country” and “deserve better,” he said.
Durbin, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he’s helped East St. Louis secure half a million dollars to install a new security and lighting system at two large public housing complexes. Durbin also supported efforts by Mayor Emeka Jackson-Hicks to end the receivership. In an interview last year, the senator said the federal takeover had long been a “sticking point” for city leadership because they wanted the opportunity to manage the housing authority on behalf of their residents. Durbin said he has confidence in Jackson-Hicks, who was elected in 2015, that he didn’t have in previous leaders.
“But it is clear that more work remains to keep the families living within ESLHA [housing authority] safe,” he said.
Neither Winston nor any immediate family members had ever lived in East St. Louis Housing Authority apartments, but she added her name to the waiting list in the winter of 2017.
At the time, Winston and her baby were staying with Winston’s mom, Florince Harlan, in Belleville, Illinois, a short distance away. When Royal turned 1, Winston had started working as a clerk at Circle K in St. Louis and she was eager to establish her independence.
The first apartment she was offered was in the John Robinson Homes. Harlan said she was concerned about it by reputation. “I didn’t want her to go there,” she said.
The John Robinson Homes was named for an ex-slave, a Civil War captain and turn-of-the-century civil rights leader. The complex sits downtown, in the shadow of the Gateway Arch on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. The signs of neglect are clear: holes in the soffit lining of the roof exposing ragged yellow insulation, a boarded-up community center with holes in the windows that appear to have been caused by bullets. Inside the units, there are mice, roaches, holes in walls, leaky ceilings and missing appliances.
After moving in, Winston reconnected with Devanie Moran, a close friend from grade school who lived in another public housing complex, John DeShields Homes, a half-mile away. They had children about the same age; the moms worried together about keeping their kids safe.
Moran showed Winston where the management office of the apartment complex was located, and how to file a work order. Moran knew the drill, having moved in several years before Winston. At one point, Moran’s living room ceiling leaked so badly “it was basically raining inside.”
Farlon Wilson lives on the opposite end of the complex from Winston. Leaking pipes caused a hole in Wilson’s living room ceiling that the housing authority patched over, and she continues to battle a mold problem with bleach, which she believes is making her children sick. Her bathroom sink fell off the wall. She would have preferred to live elsewhere but this was the apartment offered to her and she took it.
Winston’s mom and sister said that Winston wasn’t thrilled about moving into the John Robinson Homes, either. But she was determined to keep an upbeat attitude, her mom said.
“We accepted this because you have to accept something low in order to get to something big,” Harlan said.
When HUD officials took over the housing authority in 1985, they told reporters that they would improve living conditions and the housing authority’s finances. Over three decades, the housing authority’s financial condition improved from a $14 million deficit to a surplus. A few longtime residents said living conditions had also improved in the earlier years of HUD’s takeover, but then declined again.
Longtime tenants such as Delbra Myles have complained that the housing authority hasn’t painted occupied units for 20 years. This isn’t just a cosmetic problem. The paint chipping from window sills and bathtubs may contain toxic levels of lead, according to a lead paint assessment that was conducted in April for the Samuel Gompers Homes, which was built for whites but is now occupied almost exclusively by black families. That report was obtained by The Southern Illinoisan through a public-records request.
HUD inspectors have cited Gompers for missing lead-based paint inspection reports for years. From 1995 to 2016, while HUD was the receiver, state health department test records show at least 70 cases of children with dangerously elevated lead levels. Lead poisoning can cause lifelong developmental delays and health problems in affected children. The cause of the children’s high lead levels has not yet been established.
Mildred Motley, the East St. Louis Housing Authority’s executive director, said her agency is examining “the exact impact of the alleged lead levels” and has applied for a grant from HUD to assist with removing or sealing lead paint, if necessary. Brown, the HUD spokesman, declined comment on the missing lead paint assessments during HUD’s receivership.
The troubles go beyond lead paint. In audits of the East St. Louis Housing Authority in 2011 and 2012, HUD found that the housing authority double-billed the federal government for certain salaries and unit renovations, and mismanaged stimulus funds during the recession of the late 2000s.
In 2012, HUD’s Office of Inspector General found that the department’s failures to give East St. Louis the consistent leadership and detailed attention it needed had prolonged its receivership and led to “significant management and operational” shortcomings.
The report concluded that HUD “needs to improve its structure for managing receiverships.” Since taking over East St. Louis, HUD has placed about 20 more housing authorities into administrative receivership. Three remain under HUD’s control, all of them in small majority African-American cities in the Midwest: Gary, Indiana; Wellston, Missouri; and Alexander County, Illinois, home of Cairo, the southernmost town in the state.
The day of Winston’s death, Carson was in Cairo, about two hours from East St. Louis, speaking with tenants of two 1940s era housing complexes that HUD plans to demolish because they are no longer safe. The decision to shut down the Cairo complexes after years of neglect and HUD oversight failures was one of Carson’s first major decisions as secretary.
Five days after Carson visited East St. Louis and declared the housing authority in excellent shape, HUD’s inspector general released yet another damning report about the city’s housing agency. This one accused a private management company, working on the housing authority’s behalf, of improperly paying workers and awarding contracts to companies owned by employees or their spouses instead of honestly evaluating bids. In a response contained within the report, the company noted that its president initially contacted HUD when “made aware of an employee conducting fraudulent activities,” but disagreed with the amount of money the inspector general claimed was overpaid to workers. The housing authority has ended its relationship with the company.
It didn’t take long after Winston moved in for issues to arise, Winston’s family and friends said. For starters, the mice and roaches were everywhere, her mom said. Harlan said she bought her daughter a bug bomb, and they set it off in her apartment. But what bothered Winston the most was the lack of security.
Winston tried repeatedly to get her kitchen window fixed.
Moran, Winston’s friend from grade school, recalls going to the management office more than once to help Winston file work orders. When she visited the office a final time, an employee said, “Be patient because they barely have maintenance men,” Moran said.
When that came to nothing, Harlan said she accompanied the petite 4’ 9” Winston — her family called her “Precious” — to the housing authority’s headquarters a couple of miles away.
A few weeks before her death, one of Winston’s sisters, Laquitsha Bejoile-Hayes, helped her lock the window with a broom handle and two nails. But a permanent repair was never made, and the security screen never arrived.
The inspection report noted that nearly half of inspected windows were inoperable or wouldn’t lock. More than a third had damaged or missing screens. This was out of a total of 25 units inspected between the John Robinson Homes and neighboring John DeShields Homes (the two sites are inspected together as one project).
Nationwide, the failure rate for public housing projects nearly tripled, to over 13 percent from about 4.5 percent, between 2015 and 2017. African Americans were disproportionately more likely to live in unsafe conditions, an analysis by The Southern Illinoisan and ProPublica of HUD inspection scores found. While apartment complexes are expected to pass routine inspections and fix problems in exchange for federal dollars, HUD rarely orders that they be closed and residents moved if that doesn’t happen.
During the past five years, at least 120,000 people, nearly half of them children, lived in public housing apartments that received repeated failing scores, the analysis found.
Earlier this year, Bejoile-Hayes asked Motley, who took over as executive director of the East St. Louis Housing Authority in late 2015, for copies of work order requests Winston had filed. Motley declined to provide them. Subsequently, The Southern Illinoisan submitted a public-records request for work orders from April to August 2017 for the development where Winston lived.
Among the roughly 130 requests for repairs, five were for window repairs. (Tenant names and unit numbers were not included for privacy reasons.) Of those five requests, the records show that an order to fix one broken window was closed on the day it was reported in late April. The others were not closed until at least mid-September, after Winston’s death, the records show.
Motley would not comment on any requests made by individual tenants, including Winston, to repair their units. She said in an emailed statement to The Southern Illinoisan that “window and screen replacements are major improvements which require capital funds.”
Scared to be in her apartment at night alone, Winston spent most nights at her mom’s home. But on Aug. 7, Winston decided to stay overnight at the John Robinson Homes. She had a hearing scheduled for that week at the nearby county courthouse to get child support for her daughter.
A few hours after Winston was killed, a police officer knocked on the door of her sister’s home in Belleville. Tynesha Bejoile was at work, so her fiancé answered. The officer asked him to have Bejoile call the police department as soon as she could.
When Bejoile called the police, she was told that there had been a tragedy in Winston’s apartment. The officer asked her if any immediate relatives could arrange to pick up Royal, who had been taken into the custody of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services at the scene. “I asked if my sister was OK, and she said, ‘I can’t tell you that over the phone,” Bejoile recalled.
Bejoile-Hayes, another sister, left work and drove to their mom’s house. Florince Harlan, who was asleep, woke up to numerous missed calls, then got another from her ex-husband. A co-worker had told him that rumors were spreading on social media that Winston had been murdered in her apartment.
Bejoile-Hayes drove Harlan and Winston’s stepfather to the John Robinson Homes.
Around 8:30 a.m., they arrived at a scene filled with signs of tragedy: multiple squad cars in the parking lot, crime scene tape stretched across the apartment complex, and two armed officers guarding the front door of Winston’s apartment. Harlan collapsed in pain. Her ex-husband steadied her by the arm.
“That’s when I started screaming,” she said.
Eventually, she went to find Royal at a state office just a short drive away. An officer met Harlan there, and walked her over to the police station, where they confirmed that her daughter had been killed.
Winston’s mom and sisters spent the next 10 days planning burial services. In the days following her daughter’s death, Harlan said she kept thinking about the fact that her daughter had complained repeatedly about her unsecured apartment.
If the screen had been in place, “I think it would have saved her life,” she said.
Winston wasn’t the only East St. Louis Housing Authority tenant to die in the weeks before Carson’s visit. Last July 26, a fire broke out in an eight-story apartment complex for seniors known as the Orr-Weathers E-2 building, located about a mile from where Winston lived.
Derwin Jackson, a tenant in the building, said the alarm sounded loudly on the first floor, but was difficult for some tenants on higher floors to hear. “I’m on the sixth floor. I couldn’t hear it,” he said.
“I believe it’s going to take another life for them to even consider getting this building up to code like they are supposed to,” said Jackson, who was Jefferson’s cousin as well as his neighbor. HUD inspected the property a week before Jefferson died. Like Winston’s complex, it failed, scoring a 37 out of 100 points.
Willie McDaniel, who also lives in the building, said tenants have long complained about the building’s lack of security. People who are not authorized to be in the building sleep in the hallways at night, he said. McDaniel said that it’s not uncommon for feces and urine to linger in common areas for several days.
At a meeting last December, tenants asked for the housing authority to assign one of its security workers to patrol the hallways of this high-rise and others. The housing authority responded that security personnel visit the high-rises several times per day and monitor security cameras from their vehicles. But the housing authority “does not have sufficient resources to have Public Safety stationed at each high rise building,” according to responses included in the housing authority’s annual plan.
Terrell Wren, another resident in the Orr-Weathers high-rise, had a list of complaints, particularly about bedbugs. His bathroom is in shambles. In late April, a jammed hot water knob caused the water to run continuously. “It’s been like this going on three, maybe four months,” he said.
McDaniel said he’s so fed up that he organized a petition drive to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, asking her office to intervene. A half dozen tenants wrote to Madigan about bugs, frequent hot water outages, and security concerns they say they’ve raised for years. “Help!!!” one tenant wrote.
“They need to condemn this building,” McDaniel said.
Annie Thompson, a spokeswoman for Madigan, said the attorney general’s Consumer Fraud Bureau reviewed the complaints and determined that it does not have jurisdiction in the matter. The complaints will be forwarded to the East St. Louis Housing Authority and copied to HUD, Thompson said.
Lakena Harmon remembers hearing that Winston’s had been killed last August. It was all anyone talked about for several days. “I thought of, what if this happens to me, could this happen to me, and will these windows be able to protect me?”
Although Harmon didn’t know Winston, she thought of her when her own apartment was sprayed with gunfire this spring.
In mid-April, Harmon returned to the Samuel Gompers Homes from a get-together in Belleville. Friends and family had thrown her a gender reveal party. Excited to learn she was having a boy but worn out from the festivities, Harmon said she laid down on her bed at about 10 p.m.
Soon after, she heard what she thought was a rock hitting her window.
When she heard it again, Harmon realized it was gunfire and rolled off her bed, hitting the floor with her pregnant belly. The window shattered, leaving a bullet hole in her bedroom closet door. She was unharmed, but for weeks her window was covered with a plywood board.
As she waited for the window to be replaced, Harmon slept on a mattress in her living room. Then, about two weeks after her window was shot out, she awoke to the smell of raw sewage. “As soon as I put my feet on the floor, it’s all water, all water,” she said. She shuffled across her wet floor to the bathroom and threw up. Then, she started mopping up the mess.
Neighbors have had similar experiences. After the incident, Harmon’s doctor wrote a note for her to give to the housing authority saying she needed to be moved or have her apartment repaired as “exposure to raw sewage creates a health hazard for the patient.” The housing authority hasn’t responded, though, and Harmon said her apartment flooded again on July 31.
Since HUD ended its receivership, living conditions have remained bleak.
A recent assessment showed a staggering backlog of needed repairs at East St. Louis’ public housing complexes. The report said that it would cost $42 million to immediately renovate units and building systems to HUD standards and another $180 million over 20 years.
To put that in context, the housing authority only receives about $3 million each year from HUD for major repairs. It also receives about $9 million in federal operating subsidies, intended to cover the difference between the reduced rents charged to tenants and the estimated cost of managing the apartment complexes. Roughly three of every four dollars the housing authority receives comes from the federal government.
Kelly, the prosecutor who is running for Congress, has been critical of HUD’s lack of investment to improve the East St. Louis housing complexes. He said last September that he was concerned the agency had sought to distance itself from ongoing problems by returning control of the housing authority to local officials without giving them enough resources to fix its problems.
“The aging housing stock continues to deteriorate. The prior repairs have been plagued with inferior workmanship and materials and unskilled maintenance staff. The lack of maintenance staff has also taken a toll on timely repairs,” the local housing authority wrote in a brief report on the issue. In recent years, major systems such as plumbing, electrical, roofing and heating, have not been properly maintained, the report said.
Based on the projected annual funding from HUD for major system repairs, “it will take over a 70-year period to correct the deficiencies” identified by inspectors and in a separate assessment of property conditions.
Brown, the HUD spokesman, called Motley, the local housing authority executive director, “a glimmer of hope for housing in East St. Louis.”
“As committed as she is, she cannot do it alone,” Brown wrote. “There is a direct, indisputable correlation between housing and the local economy.”
The local housing authority “strives to meet HUD standards,” Motley said in an email. “Inspections have identified several items that need to be addressed, and we are in the process of addressing those items.”
Under the transition plan back to local control, the housing authority also was asked to improve security on its properties and track monthly crime statistics.
In April, police received three reports of home invasions and two of shots fired at the John Robinson and John DeShields apartment complexes, which combined house about 300 families. In May, police responded to an aggravated assault and two incidents each of aggravated battery and criminal damage to property. In June, police responded to a criminal sexual assault. At the John Robinson Homes, some windows are still missing security screens, and are sealed with boards and nails.
Winston’s daughter, Royal, is now living with Bejoile-Hayes, her husband and their children.
Bejoile-Hayes said it pains her to think of all the moments her sister is missing, like when her little girl turned 2 this January. Royal was in her pretty white dress, squealing with delight at her brightly colored Trolls-themed birthday party and a few of her favorite foods: a pancake bar with whipped topping, fresh strawberries and chocolate chips.
Late last month, Harlan sued the East St. Louis Housing Authority in St. Clair County Circuit Court, alleging that its failure to secure the window after Winston’s multiple requests contributed to her death. Any money collected will go into a trust fund for Royal’s continued care, Harlan said. She’s also hoping it sends a strong message to the housing authority and HUD about the importance of fulfilling work orders so that “nobody else’s child has to die in those apartments down there.”
The housing authority and HUD, which is not a defendant in the suit, both declined to comment on pending litigation. The housing authority has yet to file a response in court.
“You knew my child needed help,” Harlan said, “and you turned a blind eye.”
Republished with permission under license from ProPublica.