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Athens housing director says he's not informed about complaints

By Holly Hollman 340-2445

ATHENS — The Athens Housing Authority's executive director said Wednesday that the mayor and congressman looking into complaints of intimidation of residents have not informed him of the allegations.

T.A. "Al" Harris said he became director in October and knew of no complaints until he read The Daily.

"That's not true," Harris said, when told some residents have complained that his staff has intimidated them into signing new leases and paying higher pet deposits. "I know they are not doing that."

On Tuesday, Mayor Dan Williams said he received complaints and forwarded them to the authority's local board for investigation, if needed. A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Bud Cramer, D-Huntsville, said Cramer's office also received complaints and "is looking into it."

Houston Court resident Dollie Gull-Goldman, who wrote to Cramer and Williams, said authority personnel allegedly have gone door-to-door demanding residents immediately sign new leases and pay an increased pet deposit. She said when met with objections, the personnel allegedly used abusive language and threatened eviction.

Janet Ezell O'Conner, who lives at Houston Court Apartments, said an employee told her she would have to pay $450 to keep her dog, Libby, a boxer, and that if she couldn't pay, the authority would evict her.

O'Conner said she paid a $75 pet deposit when she moved in four years ago. She said she cannot afford $450. O'Conner said she has multiple health problems that cause imbalance. She said she uses Libby to stand and walk without falling.

She said she signed what she thought was her yearly lease in September, and then had to sign another this month. O'Conner said she was going Wednesday to get verification from her doctor that she needed her dog.

Houston Court resident Carolyn Diane Riddle, who is diabetic, said the staff called Athens Police to arrest a man living with her.

"He wasn't on the lease, but he helped take care of me," she said. "Now I have nobody."

Riddle said police arrested him for criminal trespassing, but Capt. Marty Bruce said the man, Melvin Meeks, was an unregistered sex offender that the staff had told not to be on the property.

Riddle said she also had to sign a lease this month, although hers isn't renewable until February.

Harris denied that his staff has gone door-to-door to force residents to sign new leases. He said the staff also will work with those who have medical proof they need a service animal.

"We're not in the business of putting folks out," Harris said.

Harris and Larry Pippins, director of property management, said the complaints may stem from residents being worried about new management and any changes.

"But we are only going to make changes that are beneficial to them," Harris said.

Residents who are confused about paperwork or policies, or who have complaints, are welcome to discuss those issues with him or Pippins, Harris said.

A copy of the pet policy Harris provided The Daily states that service animals are not considered pets and require no fee. The policy states that pet owners must pay an annual $50 registration fee and a $200 security deposit that is refundable if the pet has not caused damage to the apartment.

Harris said he did not know what fees residents paid in the past, but said his staff is following all U.S. Housing and Urban Development guidelines and working to bring the authority "into the 21st century."

He would not say if he inherited problems from the previous administration, but said, "We have issues we're addressing to try and make life better here."

The authority already has started removing brush and trees to improve visibility, and Pippins said the authority is working with Athens Utilities to improve lighting.

Pippins said the Police Department is making identification tags for employees, and that the staff soon will have uniforms so residents can identify workers. Pippins said the authority has added identification on its vehicles.

Harris said he wants to remove the banker's window in the authority office on Fifth Avenue because it's too impersonal. He said he also wants to find a place in the community where the authority can hold meetings with residents, so they can express their concerns.

To make moving in easier, Pippins said the office now can provide the clearance applicants must have to live there.

"They used to have to go to the Police Department to get that," he said.

The office now can also verify income instead of requiring residents to do that. The authority bases rent on 30 percent of a person's income.

Harris said he has worked in the industry 30 years, including a stint at Huntsville, and came out of retirement to take this position.

"I want to make sure everyone is treated fair and with dignity," Harris said. "The staff I have on board knows to do that."

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