The apartment complexes that are the site of most of the problems in North Columbia all accept federal Section 8 housing vouchers.
But while they accept tax dollars, they are not required by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide security for the residents.
The feds only dictate that apartments have essential features such as heating and air conditioning, screens on windows and street numbers.
So an intruder could blow up six people with a hand grenade outside a Section 8 unit and all the federal government would require is that the screens be patched.
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That’s outrageous to Bobby Gist, chairman of the Columbia Housing Authority, which administers most, but not all, of the federal housing vouchers used by the poor in Columbia.
“If the bank has been robbed three times on Friday, then I would put a police officer in front of the bank on Friday,” he said. “We need (federal) legislation that would require security and define what that security is.”
Gist and Gilbert Walker, executive director of the Columbia Housing Authority, said fences, security cameras and private guards should be required by federal housing officials.
But Latimer Manor, one of North Columbia’s most dangerous complexes, is owned by the Housing Authority.
Gist and Walker said they do not have the money to fully secure the complex, though they’d like to erect fences and hire guards.
“We don’t have the budget as long as HUD doesn’t care,” Gist said.
That’s the same argument many private owners make.
Advocates of more housing for low-income residents fear more restrictions will cause landlords to stop accepting federal vouchers, thus reducing the number of low-costapartments.
Politicians fear erecting a fence around housing mainly for minorities has echoes of isolating and segregating the poor.“You don’t want to create a compound or a disincentive for people to participate in the program,” said Linda Couch, deputy director of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Federal housing officials in Washington say local officials are responsible for security.
“It’s up to the city and the owner to do it,” said Donna White, a spokeswoman for Housing and Urban Development in Washington.
Walker of the Columbia Housing Authority said he doubts many owners would stop accepting vouchers if they were required to provide security.
He termed the vouchers “guaranteed money.”
“You would still have plenty of housing available in Columbia,” he said.
Mary Myers, resident president at Gable Oaks, said the people who live at that apartment complex would welcome a fence and cameras.
“That’s just crazy,” she said of fears of stigmatizing poor people in her neighborhood. “I wouldn’t feel caged at all. A fence and cameras would be an asset to this property. That’s crazy.”