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Kesha pictures her 4-year-old daughter romping through her own back yard. Mamie, who for a time listed the YWCA as her home address, sees herself pulling into the driveway of her own three-bedroom house. During long hours as a security guard at a local Charlotte, N.C., college, Sherrill envisions plunking down her $3,500 savings for a one-story brick house near her mother. And Shirley fantasizes about the little Myers Park house with flowers along one side. They are four of the 560 people — mostly single mothers — enrolled in a novel housing experiment in Charlotte that applies the “welfare-to-work” philosophy to bricks and mortar. It requires residents to move out of public housing within five years, with the hope that they will ultimately rent, and even own, their own homes. Each woman’s story is intensely personal. But each is also a marker that will be used to determine whether Charlotte’s experiment is working — and, quite possibly, whether public housing nationwide will be transformed. “The hope is there will be successes coming out of these programs that [the Department of Housing and Urban Development] will allow to continue,” says Christie Anderson, executive director of the Portage Metropolitan Housing Authority in Ohio, which is also applying time limits to certain public housing recipients. HUD Secretary Mel Martinez has also signaled his interest in such programs. “I’ve always been taken by the idea that public housing should be transitional,” Martinez said at his confirmation hearing earlier this year. “It ought to be there for those who need it. … I don’t think it’s something that we can do in a way that doesn’t show the kind of compassion I think we must have for those who may not know how to get out of a situation. … But I’m very, very receptive [to limits].” “I believe in people,” says Harrison Shannon Jr. from his cramped corner office in the Charlotte Housing Authority’s squat main office on the fringes of downtown. “I believe that people can succeed if you create the right environment.” Shannon is a native North Carolinian and Vietnam veteran who likes to quote German philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in conversation. He has been head of the housing authority since 1990, shortly after the city began implementing time limits. For Shannon, who presides over the housing authority’s $13.5 million budget, Charlotte’s experiments in public housing are an extension of his own philosophy. “People have to believe in themselves,” he says. “You have to help them make the difficult baby steps, dealing with self-confidence and self-esteem and issues like that.” A 55-year-old who worked his way through North Carolina community and state colleges, Shannon preaches motivation, self-respect, dignity, and hard work. When he addresses groups of residents at community meetings, he conveys his own experiences growing up poor and struggling to get an education. He knows the residents in public housing are disadvantaged. He just doesn’t believe in treating them as though they are. “If we take people as we find them, we may not help them,” Shannon says, paraphrasing Goethe. “If we treat them as the people they ought to be, then we can help them become that.” For decades, government assistance programs like welfare and public housing functioned as permanent safety nets for struggling citizens. Fueled by the same philosophy that shaped welfare reform, HUD and local housing authorities have been looking for ways to move more people through public housing more quickly. HUD encourages local authorities to run self-sufficiency programs that teach residents how to earn more, save more, and move out. Six housing authorities — in Delaware; San Diego; Vancouver; Tulare and San Mateo counties in California; and Portage County in Ohio — have implemented some form of time limits since 1996, when Congress created a demonstration project to enhance local control over public housing. Most of those efforts are only a year or two old — not enough time yet to see whether they work. But Charlotte has been experimenting on its own with time limits for more than a decade. Since 1990, the city has run a series of intensive voluntary programs. Residents are required to meet with a case manager once a month, maintain employment, and attend monthly residents’ meetings to learn about such topics as credit management, the nuts and bolts of purchasing a home, and relationships. The program requires residents to set short- and long-term goals. “We don’t tell them, ‘You want to buy a house, you want to get a GED.’ They tell us,” says Janet Lynch, head of Charlotte’s Transitional Families Program, which administers the time-limited housing programs. In the Charlotte programs, the city deposits a portion of a resident’s monthly rental payment into an escrow account to build a savings account toward a down payment. Within five years, most residents have saved roughly $3,000. Until now, the programs have been voluntary. Although the housing authority tells people they must leave within the five years, residents who don’t make the deadline could return to regular public housing. No longer. As soon as Charlotte receives the go-ahead from HUD, the five-year deadline will become mandatory for every new public housing resident. The elderly and the disabled will be the only ones exempted from the time limit. Kesha Ross is a 28-year-old with a girlish voice, a 4-year-old daughter, and a 62-hour work week. “No one in my immediate family has ever been a homeowner,” says Ross, who was born and raised in Charlotte. Ross’ mother had always worked — developing photographs in a studio, installing computer chips for IBM — but she had never owned her home. “My mother is 67. My mother has been in that apartment for 50 years. When I had her,” she says, pointing to JaNile, “she was the fourth generation in the [apartment]. I was determined. I wanted a house for her.” Ross gave birth to JaNile in the summer of 1996, when she was going to college and working at the Discovery Place Museum in downtown Charlotte for $6.50 an hour. In 1998, when JaNile was two, Ross moved them both to an apartment in Grove Place, a small, tidy public housing community outside Charlotte’s Beltway. She had never lived in public housing, but moved in to join the Stepping Stone program and save for a home of her own. She started working at a local hospital, hopscotching her way through different departments and positions to move up to the higher-paying jobs. She now puts in 40 hours a week as an administrative assistant filling out paperwork in the trauma unit. Last year, she picked up a second job as a customer service representative for Sprint PCS, logging 10 hours on weekends. She’s taken a break from her studies at Gardner-Webb University, where she is a junior, to work and save money. Now in her third year in the Stepping Stone program, Ross pays $395 a month for her two-bedroom apartment; $45 of each rent payment is deposited into her escrow account, which, as of January, held roughly $800. Ross knows exactly what she wants — a four-bedroom house with a yard, one room for her aging mom, and guest bedrooms for visits from her out-of-town brothers. She earns $29,700 a year and is saving $67 each paycheck for her 401(k). Ross was supposed to meet with a real estate agent a few weeks ago, but she postponed until the beginning of July. Sprint is offering an overtime incentive to its employees — between $3.50 and $8.50 more an hour for employees willing to put in more time. Now she’s picked up an extra two hours of work on the weekends, and swings in to Sprint after her hospital job to work 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday. “I think it’s drive,” she says. “I am a very strong-willed person. Everyone wants to be accepted. I am just fine with being Kesha. My mom, when she retired, she was cleaning up in the hospitals, and that’s fine. But I think she wanted more for me. Every parent should want more for their child. I can’t let her down. I can’t let my daughter down.” Mamie Profiro, a 56-year-old with no kids in the house anymore, lives east of Ross in the Claremont public housing community. She has a one-bedroom apartment filled with plants, candles, and the furniture she buys from Goodwill and then refinishes. She just started truck-driving school — the quickest shot she saw for a higher-paying job. Profiro had worked for several years as a janitor for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, but recently took a job as a night-shift attendant at a substance-abuse clinic so she could go to school during the day. She makes $9 an hour. She stubs out her long, brown Mores halfway through a smoke as she talks about her bumpy road to the program — the communal quarters of the YWCA on Park Road, the four years in a cramped apartment in a seniors tower in the public housing system, the move to the family self-sufficiency program. “I don’t think about what I want to be in five years,” says Profiro. “I think about what I want to be in three years so I can make the money and move. I don’t want to be here terrorizing people for three more years.” Profiro, who has a high school diploma and went to college for two years, worked for 22 years in an IBM manufacturing plant in East Fishkill, in upstate New York. In 1992, the company began cutting back on its work force. Profiro took an extended leave of absence — which allowed her to keep her pension — packed up the belongings in her rented apartment, and moved alone to Charlotte, which she had fallen in love with after a visit. But Profiro did not have much luck in Charlotte’s job market. She temped and worked in nursing homes, but couldn’t keep up with the expenses while making $5 or $6 an hour. Her car was repossessed, and then she couldn’t afford to pay rent, so she ended up in the YWCA and then in public housing. Currently in her first year in the Family Self-Sufficiency Program, Profiro pays $454 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. Less than a year into the program, she doesn’t have any money in her escrow account, yet. “I am going to make the money I need to be in my house,” says Profiro, who pictures a three-bedroom home with a basement. “You can’t wait and ask for things to be handed to you. I do want to sit back one day and say, ‘Look what I worked for, not what somebody handed to me.’ “ Charlotte has had some good results with its time-limits programs. Among those who have graduated, about half have been able to purchase homes. From 1991 to February 2001, the programs had 499 graduates. Of those, 272, or 54 percent, bought a home, and 227 moved into the private rental market. Charlotte, of course, has had its failures, too — residents who dropped out of the program soon after joining, women who put in their five years but still didn’t have it together enough to move out. Charlotte’s more recent and complete records show the program’s limitations. In 1999, there were 74 graduates and 44 failures. Of the graduates, 38, or 51 percent, bought homes. Of those who didn’t make it, 14 were evicted for failure to pay rent or for drug crimes; 28 were terminated for violating the terms of the program; one resident left voluntarily; another left over a payment dispute. In 2000, 62 residents graduated, 30 of whom bought homes. But 20 were terminated; 14 left voluntarily; 13 were evicted; 15 completed the contract but remained in public housing. In 2000 an equal number of residents failed as succeeded. Shirley Gomillion was 9 years old when her mother moved her and her two sisters into Charlotte public housing. Since then, she has dropped out of 10th grade, given birth to and raised four children, wandered in and out of jobs at local nursing homes and Wendy’s fast-food restaurants, kicked a two-year crack habit, gone on and off welfare, and just lived her life, all in public housing. “If you grow up in a place all of your life, you don’t want to move,” Gomillion says. She sits on the edge of her plastic-covered couch in a T-shirt that once bore the words to the Single Mother’s Prayer. The words are barely visible. Gomillion’s life is here in this First Ward apartment — the spindly palms growing out of pots in the living room, the tiny ceramic figurines that cover nearly every available surface. Three of her children — ages 16, 17, and 18 — also live here. “This is basically my roots,” she says. But Gomillion, 41, is running out of time. She enrolled in the Family Self-Sufficiency Program nearly five years ago. But a sizeable chunk of her years in the program were spent moving from apartment to apartment while the housing authority razed and rebuilt the complex she once lived in. Her time in the program is up in November. She fluctuates between defiance and hope when speaking of the prospect of leaving — or being forced out of — public housing. “I’m not going to move. I’m going to fight it,” she says during one conversation. “The day they are not going to get a fight from me is when I’m lying in a funeral home with my eyes closed.” On another day, she sounds more optimistic. “I was looking at my grandbaby. I said, ‘You know, I wonder where he will be in a couple of years from now?’ And I started thinking about it and I said, ‘I don’t want to die and have no job and have nothing.’ I prayed that night. I said, ‘I am getting up and I am doing something.’ “ But Gomillion is unemployed again and not paying rent. In March, she lost a job at Wal-Mart after a matter of days because she could not fit the work schedule around her required computer classes. Her work history is spotty: months and years with no job at all, firings, and positions that just didn’t work out. She was kicked off of welfare last year after nearly 20 years on the rolls. “I thought the worst thing would be when they took welfare from me. That was the best thing for me,” she says. “I can see it’s preparing me for when I get a job.” Her boyfriend of 10 years is a plumbing company supervisor who lives in his own apartment. He helps her out with some of the expenses, often gives her a little spending money, and has paid for furniture and a television set for her apartment. She is finally learning to drive a car. She has just re-enrolled in another GED program. Gomillion will probably not be forced out of public housing when her time is up because she entered the voluntary program before the new mandatory rules kick in. With more time, Gomillion thinks she can succeed. She doesn’t see how many other women in her circumstances could get out in five years. “At least a good eight to 10″ seems more feasible to her. The Charlotte Housing Authority wants to be flexible — offering residents without GEDs or who haven’t worked an additional two years on top of the five-year limit. Those who have unexpected or unavoidable setbacks — a death in the family, a company downsizing — will be given extensions. “If there are extreme or mitigating circumstances, you have to be capable of compassion,” says housing chief Harrison Shannon. “But if it’s a case of slothfulness or laziness, there is no excuse. I have a problem with people sitting around doing nothing. It’s a drain on resources. We have to help them become productive members of society so they can give back.” “I can’t be the one to change their lives,” says Alcia Carr, a case manager who handles 41 residents at the First Ward development. “I can only give them the tools.” Sherrill Davis is a success story waiting for a happy ending. A 50-year-old single mother, she has worked most of her life — packing companies, hospitals, security work. A breakup during a period when she wasn’t working led to her move into public housing seven years ago. She’s been working full-time as a security guard at Queens College in Charlotte for the past six years, earning $8 an hour. She has one son in the 6th grade and pays her mother, who lives in nearby Clanton Park, $50 a week to look after Jamil while Davis is at work. She has saved roughly $3,500 in the program-mandated savings account. And she is ready to move out. But for Davis that is proving difficult. She was looking for a house in the $60,000 range to keep her mortgage payments around her current $450 monthly rent. But she hasn’t found much — six different houses that were too rundown or in areas that just looked too scruffy to move into. “I was looking at an eyesore here and an eyesore there,” says Davis. It’s that flaw — the inability of the private market to meet the demand for affordable housing — that worries national housing activists the most about the time limits concept. An annual study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition has found a disconnect between wages and rents. While minimum wage is only $5.15 an hour, the study found that a resident needed to make $12.47 an hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment. “In some areas there is no way a person who is working full-time at many of the jobs available can afford housing of the size they need,” says housing activist and National Low Income Housing Coalition founder Cushing Dolbeare. “When people are able to find housing elsewhere, they move out. I don’t think you need time limits to force that.” In Charlotte, where the county’s median income is $60,000 per four-person household, the market rate for a one-bedroom apartment is about $650 a month. In 1999, the average price of a residential unit was $187,974, according to Carolina Multiple Listing Services. Annual income of public housing residents averaged $9,000 in 2000. “You have to have something affordable for them,” says Shannon. “Here, in Charlotte, the concern is that for the working poor, the blue-collar workers, there is no housing.” Sherrill Davis continues to look, pushing up the price she’s willing to pay; it is now in the $80,000 range. Nothing yet. “It seems like you need more money,” Davis says. “I want to be satisfied with what I am going to pay for. It’s just a slow process even though I am ready to find a home. I just want an average-size brick house. If I couldn’t get the brick, they have the vinyl siding. Just one story. I don’t want a big yard. Just an average-size, affordable house.”

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