Ailing woman, 78, spared eviction after PHA's reasoning collapses

Clara McLeod, with Tiger, in her unit in Grays Ferry last week. Her eviction was called off after the People Paper made calls to PHA and HUD.
Clara McLeod, with Tiger, in her unit in Grays Ferry last week. Her eviction was called off after the People Paper made calls to PHA and HUD.
Posted: September 16, 2009

One phone call from the Philadelphia Housing Authority to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development could have saved 78-year-old Clara McLeod months of emotional agony.

Instead, the authority moved to have McLeod evicted in July from the Conswiller B. Pratt apartment building at the Greater Grays Ferry Estates, where she's lived for five years.

It was only after the Daily News got involved that McLeod's eviction was averted.

"All the way to 78 and they were going to put me out?" McLeod said. "Who'd ever have dreamed that I'd be going through this at my age?"

McLeod doesn't throw wild senior parties. She keeps her clock radio low, her home clean and pays her $355 rent every month on time. Her only infraction: She refused renovations to her apartment that would have made it handicapped-accessible.

McLeod, who suffers from spinal stenosis - a narrowing of the spine that causes her to be bent over - presented numerous notes to PHA from her doctor that said the renovations, which would lower her apartment fixtures, would only aggravate her condition by requiring her to bend over even more.

"They call it adaptability," McLeod's daughter, Marcia Dixon-Sutler, said of the renovations. "But how can you adapt to life in a wheelchair if you're not in one?"

The sawdust and fumes from the construction work also would aggravate McLeod's breathing troubles, the doctor's notes said.

PHA spokesman Maurice Brown contended the building and McLeod's apartment were already considered handicapped-accessible, though that's not immediately apparent by visiting her residence.

Brown said the renovations would only lower her fixtures an inch, but McLeod and Dixon-Sutler said they were told 2 to 3 inches.

McLeod was the only person in the 72-unit building - on Moore Street near South 29th, in Grays Ferry - who fought the renovations.

"She thought about breaking down and letting them do it a couple of times but the doctor knows what's best," Dixon-Sutler said of her mother.

For her resilience, McLeod said a notice of the authority's intention to take her to court to evict her was tacked to her front door, where other residents saw it. A passer-by let her know it was there, she said.

"I was crying," she said. "I have never been so humiliated - and for what? I don't owe anybody anything."

Brown denied the claim and said notices are always hand-delivered.

"I can't believe they were going through all of this with me for one apartment," McLeod said. "I just want to ask them: Would you like someone to do this to your mother?"

Brown said the authority had offered McLeod several options, including an apartment in a different building and a different apartment in the same building.

But McLeod said that none of the offers resolved the issue, because each alternative apartment offered to her was also handicapped-accessible.

"Not to trivialize her situation, but we did make every effort to accommodate her," Brown said when first contacted by the Daily News. "We have to make the modifications to the unit. . . . We're stumped that there's any other option."

Brown said the modifications to every unit in the apartment building were required by HUD.

"We're responsible to the federal government, and we don't have much of a choice about what we do and when we do it," he said.

But Bryan Greene, HUD's general deputy assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity, flatly denied that claim, adding that PHA had "plenty of opportunity to accommodate this woman."

Although PHA is required under a 2008 agreement with HUD to make 5 percent, or 760 units, of its inventory handicapped-accessible by 2013, PHA decides which units to make handicapped-accessible, Greene said.

"The agreement provides the flexibility for them to choose different units in different buildings in order to meet the 5 percent requirement," Greene said. "There isn't any prescription as to which units or buildings."

In fact, Greene said, HUD discourages making entire apartment buildings handicapped-accessible.

"We want to make sure those units are dispersed throughout the housing authority's inventory and that they don't represent any one type of unit and that they aren't segregated in any one building or area," Greene said.

After calls to HUD and PHA from the Daily News, Brown said his agency would allow McLeod to stay in her apartment.

Brown said he didn't know why PHA had chosen to evict McLeod before trying to contact HUD or before the Daily News got involved.

"We thought that the accommodations that were being offered to her, that she would accept them," he said.

McLeod said she was not surprised. She said that for several months she's been "tormented" by the authority.

"They insisted that it was right and they were going to put me out," she said.

Representatives came to her door, contacted her by letter and called meetings with her daughter, according to McLeod and her lawyer, Joseph DiNoto.

"This rises to a level of harassment," DiNoto said. "I sent a letter to PHA saying, 'Please back off.' I sent them copies of doctors' records and reports.

"This is an elderly woman who lives by herself in her apartment and you're disturbing her. They really should let her alone and let her live for the time she has left."

Dixon-Sutler said that her mother was happy at the apartment building until she began refusing the renovations. Now, she said, her mom has literally worried herself sick.

"She shakes. She doesn't realize it. Her lips shake, her hands shake," Dixon-Sutler said.

Even if things work out for her mom, as PHA has promised, Dixon-Sutler worries for others in similar situations.

"If it was necessary and it wasn't going to harm her, my mother would have been the first one to comply," she said. "But if they tried to evict her over this, I'm afraid they'll do it to somebody else."

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