Tribal members evicted in push to clean up housing
WAPATO — For the past few weeks, Stephanie Shippentower and Billie Shoulderblade have been helping renovate homes at a Yakama Nation housing project they were recently kicked out of.
Shoulderblade was long behind on her rent. Shippentower had been caught living there with her dad after she was evicted two years ago because of repeated police calls to her house.
Both women are among a wave of evictions that began in June, the largest the tribe has seen in recent history, with more than 270 tribal members kicked out of housing across the 1.2 million-acre reservation for violating lease agreements.
Yakama Nation Housing Authority officials acknowledge that rules have long been ignored in at least one housing project, where overcrowding from unauthorized tenants for years fostered drug use, crime and unkempt properties. While the push to clean up housing projects is sudden and drastic, housing officials say something has to be done to improve the quality of life.
Many of those evicted — more than 50 families and 130 people, including Shoulderblade and Shippentower — have taken refuge at the tribe’s RV park in Toppenish, where they are living in tents and are allowed to use restrooms, showers and laundry facilities. The tribe is providing food daily.
“My kids aren’t used to sleeping in tents,” said Shoulderblade, who’s living in a tent with her seven children and husband. “It broke my heart to see my kids suffer.”
A bulk of the evictions have been at the Apas Goudy housing project in east Wapato, where a massive $14 million project to refurbish the tattered homes there is underway.
But funding requirements for the project prompted Housing Authority to step up enforcement of rules that had largely gone ignored for years at Apas Goudy, where crime and drugs have been common, said Housing Authority Director Craig Dougall.
That funding comes from a state housing program, in which investors fund the project upfront and reap tax credits for 10 years. Those investors set requirements to ensure that the property is maintained, and the requirements are more stringent than regulations set by the Federal Housing Authority, Dougall said.
“I’d say my position is we’re running into extreme social conditions, social problems with crime, with overcrowding. A number of these issues come with a housing park with no rules being enforced,” Dougall said. “The Housing Authority has had a hand in these poor conditions. Hopefully (we’re) honest enough to admit our own failures and strong enough to address them.”
Now Shoulderblade and Shippentower have taken jobs with the Housing Authority as a way to make up for past problems and get back into permanent housing.
On this recent afternoon, both women labored on demolition work inside one home at the project.
“My hope is to get back on my feet and take care of my kids,” said Shippentower, mother of five children ages 2 through 19. “It’s going good now — I’m learning a lot. It’s temporary, but they said (the job) could go into a permanent position.”
Providing a safe and clean environment for children is the thrust behind refurbishing the housing project, Dougall said.
“There are many good tenants and we owe them the protections provided by our policies and mission for safe, decent and affordable housing,” he said. “We are not judging our membership, but we are responsible for the conditions of our housing parks. We need to take this responsibility more seriously.”
But the move hasn’t come without controversy. Several evicted tribal members who refused to be identified, saying they feared retaliation from the Housing Authority, said they were given little notice and that the enforcement action was too sudden and harsh.
Not so, says grants and housing coordinator Debra Whitefoot. Letters were sent to tenants early last year informing them of the refurbishing project, funding requirements and what would be expected to meet those requirements and community meetings were held, she said.
“They knew over a year ago that this was coming,” she said.
The Yakima Housing Authority is a tribal agency that operates 750 homes and duplexes stretching across the Lower Yakima Valley from Toppenish to White Swan. It also provides repairs and other services to more than 3,000 homes occupied by tribal members on the reservation. Housing employs about 120 workers, most of them tribal members.
Apas Gaudy, a project of 58 homes and duplexes on Larena Lane on Wapato’s east side, has been one of its biggest challenges.
Meth labs were discovered at four houses during the evictions, each costing some $40,000 to clean up, Housing Director Dougall said, largely blaming outsiders who found tribal members and the project easy prey for drug operations because of lax policing.
“This one housing project is not reflective of Yakama culture at all,” said Dougall, who was hired by the tribe a year and a half ago. “This is a complete collapse. I said we’ve got to address the drug culture here because we’ve got too many good people, children and elders living here too.”
The housing project has a capacity of about 180 residents, but the housing authority found more than 500 people living there. For example, 18 people were found living in one threebedroom home, Dougall said.
“We can’t blame tribal members who take in family in need, as is customary within the Yakama culture. We can blame ourselves for not having the discipline to build more housing for our membership over the years.”
Of the authorized tenants at Apas Goudy, 178 were evicted, he said.
There’s also an accumulation of about $1.5 million in unpaid rent at all housing projects, he said.
But the neighborhood hasn’t always been that way, said Whitefoot, who lived there as a child in the early 1970s. “Years ago, Apas Goudy was a nice housing project,” she said. “The park was nice — everyone had nice yards, lawns.”
Lease agreements require tenants to pass drug tests, remain current on rent and take care of the property. But Whitefoot said changes in tribal leadership over the years as well as differences in philosophy over how to run the Housing Authority led to less enforcement.
Now, current tribal leaders want to change that.
Tribal leaders couldn’t be immediately reached for comment before leaving for North Dakota, where they’ve joined other tribes in protest of a proposed oil pipeline.
“They see a need to send a different message to the people, provide a positive environment for the children,” Whitefoot said.
Evictions were triggered in the process of relocating tenants in the housing project to temporary housing elsewhere while homes are being refurbished, Dougall said.
Those who are current on their rent and pass drug tests will be placed temporarily in alternative housing until their homes are rebuilt, while those who don’t meet the requirements are evicted, he said.
“But there was no initial plan to launch a mass eviction,” Dougall said.
If anyone in a family failed a drug test, the entire family was evicted, he said.
A combination of unpaid rent and failed drug tests was responsible for most evictions, Whitefoot said.
But a group of seven evicted tenants who met with a Yakima HeraldRepublic reporter argue otherwise. They wouldn’t provide their names for publication, citing a fear of being blacklisted from future tribal housing programs.
They complained of unfair drug tests, and accused the Housing Authority of training staff “on the spot” to conduct urinalysis drug test. They also say collection cups were used by more than one tenant, and merely rinsed after each use.
Evicted tenants say Housing refused to accept the negative test result from a professional drug treatment facility of a woman who was contesting Housing’s results. Tenants disputing screenings had the option of getting tested by an outside professional, and Housing would pay for it if the results were negative.
Housing Director Dougall said two tenants were tested again by a local drug treatment provider. Results of one test were overturned after learning the tenant was on prescribed painkillers while the other was upheld because of cocaine use, he said.
Dougall said he has staff that are certified by a national drug test supplier in administering drug screens.
Evicted tenants also blame housing for not fulfilling its side of lease agreements, letting homes fall into disrepair.
Residents described homes where people had to use chains for door locks; where asbestos was common in the walls and flooring; where, no matter how much they cleaned, cockroaches would manage to get inside through the connecting pipes between structures.
“Housing allowed the homes to go down the way they did,” one evicted tenant said. “They never took care of Apas. They knew about the problem; they knew about the situation in the homes.”
Dougall said often tenants refused to allow Housing Authority staff into the homes to conduct annual inspections and that overcrowding led to much of the wear and tear.
“As a result, the home deteriorates far more than you would expect,” he said.
Tenants can appeal evictions before a board appointed by the Yakama Tribal Council. Although several tenants challenged the evictions, none were overturned. Dougall said.
Controversy often surrounds efforts to clean up housing projects, said U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development spokesman Leland Jones in Seattle.
“My impression would be the Yakama Housing Authority isn’t the first to face this challenge and it won’t be the last,” he said. “To its credit, I think what the Yakama Housing Authority is saying ‘We’re not going to take it anymore,’ and that’s a tough thing for a housing authority to do. They’re putting their foot down.”
Standards have to be met if living conditions are to improve in the housing project, Dougall said. To that end, Housing is offering those evicted employment, education programs and even access to substance abuse recovery programs.
Displaced tenants who commit to substance abuse treatment or any other needed services to help them improve will be allowed into transitional housing and eventually into permanent housing, Dougall said.
In January, the tribe purchased a 41-unit apartment complex at 310 S. Ahtanum St. in Wapato that’s now being used as transitional housing for the homeless as well as housing for homeless veterans.
The tribe also purchased the former armory on Division Street in Toppenish that it plans to use as a homeless shelter, and has applied for 100 trailers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that will be used for transitional housing.
Dougall said tenants who have been evicted will be allowed into the shelter when winter comes. If they commit to treatment or agree to begin working off any unpaid rent, they will be allowed into transitional housing, and eventually into permanent housing if they stay the course, he said.
“Our sincere hope is that people who are affected by this get help and get all the services the tribe provides and develop a sustainable lifestyle,” Dougall said. “If we can develop a generation of sustainable parents, then the children will see that and follow.”