He's Still Opening Doors But 'Boo' Burrus's Way Is Often The Wrong Way

Posted: February 12, 1991

A brief history of the rise and fall of Charles "Boo" Burrus would go something like this:

He was one of a group of housing activists who arose out of a need, and used their unique talents to get a job done.

Their talent was for transmitting a sense of urgency, which stood in stark contrast to the sleepwalking ways of a whole class of bureaucrats who got paid to tell people why things couldn't be done.

They met inaction with action and confronted the immovable object of programmatic paralysis with the irresistible force of persistence.

Burrus saw matching homeless people with vacant units as a simple solution to the problems of homelessness and boarded-up houses.

He had a way of opening doors that had been slammed shut in people's faces.

But he missed a simple lesson in the earlier history of community activism - those whom the gods of government would destroy, they first give a grant.

In Burrus's case, it was $530,000 in federal money which the city passed through to finance a housing program he helped set up to move poor families into abandoned city-owned houses.

City officials dropped the bundle in his lap with no strings attached, and headed back to their comfortable offices for another extended nap.

Later, Burrus was accused of stealing vast sums of this money. He was convicted of converting $55,000 to his own use and sentenced to one to five years.

The truth is that Burrus was not quite as good at helping people as he thought and not nearly so bad with a buck as prosecutors made him out to be.

If you give sacks of money to untrained administrators, you're lucky to lose only a dime on a dollar.

Today Burrus - who is free pending appeal - still has a way of opening doors for people.

But it's the wrong way. His way may even end up being a serious part of the city's housing problem.

Because ironically, some effective programs in place today because of people like him may be threatened by some of Burrus's direct action.

Burrus's Prevent Homeless Coalition claims it has put 150 families in homes owned by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The practice has set the city and HUD squabbling over who should remove Burrus's "squatters" from the HUD-owned homes they have laid claim to.

And it may lead to conflicts between squatters and the families who pay good money for the houses they've occupied.

Unlike some of the city-owned abandoned houses Burrus and others occupied years ago, these houses usually pass quickly through HUD's hands.

Typically, they are sold within six months. Proceeds go back to the Federal Housing Authority's insurance fund to repay loans and make mortgage money available to other would-be homeowners.

About $21 million was raised in 1990 through the sale of homes in Philadelphia alone, according to Linda Marston, HUD's acting regional director.

In some cases, the houses will be sold for less than they should because the prices have to reflect the fact that there are people living in them illegally.

An article last week by Daily News reporter Joanne Sills tells about Theresa Moore, who bought a HUD home in West Oak Lane for herself and her 85- year-old father, a recent stroke victim.

First, though, she has to find a way to evict a 21-year-old mother, who is living in her house with an infant and two other pre-schoolers.

It's an example of how Burrus's way of doing things can double the number of victims.

But the effect can be even more widespread than that example suggests.

Because publicity about the squatters increases resistance from neighborhoods already fighting the influx of subsidized housing.

"I was out there in the streets with him in 1979," City Housing Director Ed Schwartz said of Burrus.

"But a lot of what we fought for back then, we've got now. We've put 1,000 units a year into the city's housing stock for the last two years.

"I'm not going to tell you we're doing all we should. But we're doing a lot more than we used to."

Thanks in part to people like Burrus, who broke through barriers with the sheer weight of their will.

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