In a world of pervasive apathy, where citizens feel politically powerless to effect change in their communities, comes a group of real live civic heroes to prove that nothing could be further from the truth; the power is still most definitely with the people.

"The huge amount of bureaucracy involved with public housing and subsidized developments often prevents things from getting done," observes Wilma Drummond, a resident of Davenport and active member of the citywide Crime Committee who also works for Moline Housing and has expertise in the area of assisted housing. "It is only when concerned citizens, who feel they have a vested interest in their neighborhoods and/or community, get involved that things truly change. Concerned citizens are passionate about their concerns, so they persevere until they get their desired results."

In February 2003, Davenport residents Tom and Sheri Carnahan met with the citywide coordinator of Neighborhood Watch, Jannette Higginson, for guidance in implementing the program for their neighborhood, Emerald Drive Neighbors (EDN), which includes Castlewood Apartments on Emerald Drive in west Davenport. Castlewood is a federally assisted Section 8 housing complex consisting of 96 rental units with a documented history of criminal activity.

Higginson directed the Carnahans to Davenport's Crime Committee and its chairperson, Jackie Bostic from United Neighbors. Together, along with 5th Ward Alderman Wayne Hean (who founded the citywide Crime Committee three years ago) and Drummond, they formed a subcommittee that facilitated an unprecedented process to hold Castlewood's owners and management accountable for cleaning up their property, both aesthetically and criminally.

"When public expenditures go up in a neighborhood, property values go down," Hean said. "If we can clean up the problems at Castlewood, then the overall city budget gets relief. Castlewood is an excellent example of a specific neighborhood partnering with the larger citywide coalition of concerned citizens that makes up Davenport's Crime Committee to share resources, information, and experiences, because all our neighborhoods are interconnected in some way. The Crime Committee is currently sponsoring a database of citizens' incident reports for criminal activity, nuisance abatement, etc., including time, place, description of activity, and description of perpetrators. All this information is shared with the police to identify any patterns or commonalities for purpose of prevention."

After attending several Crime Committee meetings, the Carnahans held their first EDN neighborhood-watch meeting in March. Ten neighbors, including residents from Castlewood, attended this first gathering, along with Hean, Higginson, and Officer Wayne Wehrheim from the Davenport Police Department's Crime Prevention Unit. A mission was identified, goals were articulated, each neighbor promised active recruitment of residents from the entire neighborhood, and the group committed to a meeting every two weeks.

"I take enormous pride in creating a sense of neighborhood by working with my neighbors, especially the fine residents at Castlewood who also desire and welcome positive change," Sheri Carnahan noted. "By stepping forward, these folks are very courageous to me. They risk retaliation, but are still willing to participate in the process. They remind me every day that we are all the same in wanting safe, clean, peaceful neighborhoods in which to live and raise our children."

The Crime Committee added its support and helped the neighborhood group develop a strategy for implementing positive change at Castlewood that would resolve much of the trouble the neighborhood has experienced over the years. The strategy included a detailed action plan to be presented to both Castlewood's management and the federal Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD). Because Castlewood receives financial assistance for low-income housing through the federal Section 8 program, it must conform to specific guidelines set forth by HUD, which has jurisdiction over such housing developments when they are out of compliance.

HUD regulations for dwellings include screening and eviction notices for drug abuse and/or criminal activity and the signing of leases that require residents to accept responsibility for the actions of individual household members and guests. These rules are supposed to be enforced by local HUD offices or housing agencies such as the Iowa Finance Authority and the Iowa Coalition for Housing & The Homeless. Over the past four years, the Carnahans made repeated attempts to get help from the Iowa HUD division in Des Moines to no avail.

In February, a letter was drafted to HUD's Des Moines office from Jackie Bostic as chair of the Crime Committee, outlining concerns about Castlewood that included the level of crime, the deterioration of buildings, and persistent management problems. After a cursory response from HUD, the frustrated but resolved group finally connected with Michael Vaughn of the Special Division of HUD/OMHAR in Washington, D.C., who proved to be an invaluable advocate.

Another letter was drafted to Vaughn outlining the residents' concerns about the crime at Castlewood, with supporting documentation that included the number of police dispatches in a given period, the number of citations with special emphasis on those relating to drugs, a financial breakdown of the cost per dispatch ($119 each), and a copy of the most recent city inspection of the property; highlights of the rules that govern Section 8 contracts with emphasis on the remedy for breaching said rules; an eight-page document defining goals and an action plan with timelines for implementation; and finally the neighbors' expectations for responsiveness by HUD and enforcement of its stated guidelines.

"HUD's guidelines are supposed to protect all residents, both within the Section 8 housing complex and the surrounding neighborhoods," Sheri Carnahan explained. "If HUD did its part by holding the owners and managers accountable, who in turn would hold the residents of the complex accountable, the result would be a safer, cleaner, more peaceful neighborhood. It is not the job of the police department to manage housing developments, yet Castlewood management suggests more police patrols and a possible substation on-site. Taxpayers should not have to pay for poor property management through increased policing, especially when we are already contributing significantly to the housing provision. Utilizing more police does not address the problem systemically. It is reactive rather than proactive. By implementing proper management policy, the opportunity for criminal activity is greatly reduced, thereby reducing the need for existing police support, let alone any additional resources." In Castlewood's case, the federal Section 8 program provides a rent subsidy per unit that ranges between $510 and $590, depending on the size of the unit.

There are two assisted-housing complexes within the Emerald Drive neighborhood-watch area: Castlewood Apartments (north of Locust) with 96 units, and Emeis Park Apartments (south of Locust, just across the street) with 107 units. From January 1 though May 13, 2003, Davenport police officers were dispatched 46 times to Emeis and 332 times to Castlewood, a difference of 286 dispatches during the same period of time. If each dispatch costs taxpayers $119, then Castlewood accounts for $39,508 of this total $44,982 bill. Add to this over three quarters of a million dollars in rent subsidies for Castlewood alone, and the argument that neighboring citizens should have a voice in the quality of such housing developments is undeniable.

To its credit, the neighborhood group went beyond just problem identification and citing the authority responsible. A comprehensive plan was developed for Castlewood that included 19 items that, if implemented, would radically improve conditions at Castlewood and the overall neighborhood.

The 19 items include an on-site manager or a manager on the premises from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.; a new management company; managers completing all phases of Multi-Unit Crime Free Housing Training; a full-time service coordinator to implement and enforce HUD regulations and guidelines; security cameras and data collection; re-routing of traffic with one entrance to the complex; enforcement of eviction policy that includes those not on the lease; no loitering or drinking in public; tenant keys for the laundry room; locked security doors that require intercom for entrance; tree-trimming to increased lighting; activity-monitoring on west side of complex; the replacement of sod, weed control, and more frequent mowing; litter control with consequences for littering on and around complex; additional dumpsters with more frequent pickups; enforcement of the no-pets rule; changing floor coverings to substrate that better controls dirt, odors, etc.; changing broken window treatments; upgrading playground equipment; and installing benches.

The Emerald Drive Neighbors, in conjunction with the Crime Committee, held a special meeting on May 15 at United Neighbors to present a proposal to implement its plan in an effort to create positive change at Castlewood. The meeting was unprecedented because a variety of stakeholders were present at one time: Mayor Charlie Brooke; Alderman Hean; William McNarney, HUD-Des Moines and a regional HUD representative from Kansas City; Aimco Capital President Tom Pikua (property manager of Castlewood) from Denver, Colorado; Davenport Police Chief Mike Bladel; Trudy Stonebecker (local manager of Castlewood, employed by Aimco); and members of the police Crime Prevention Unit.

The proposal was met with mixed reviews at first but ultimately could not be faulted, especially in the context of the mission of HUD relative to providing housing, which states: "to provide decent, safe, and sanitary conditions" and "not disturb the peaceful enjoyment of their neighbors."

Sheri Carnahan stipulated in her speech, "Our goal is to create a sense of neighborhood. We are committed to creating a safe, clean, and welcoming environment for all residents surrounding Emerald Drive." With HUD and the neighbors on the same page, the final buy-in must come from Castlewood's owners and managers.

As luck would have it, Castlewood happens to be in the process of restructuring its debt on the property, which includes renewal of its Section 8 contract with HUD. The restructuring is mandatory for properties after either 10 or 20 years, and Castlewood has reached the end of its contract.

HUD contracted Real Estate Recovery of Herndon, Virginia, to handle the restructuring and submit Castlewood's required two-fold plan for property improvements (building upgrades, landscape, etc.) and quality-of-life improvements that deal with issues such as crime, neighborhood relations, and residents' input for approval by HUD.

Castlewood's first plan was denied, so a revised plan is in the works and must be accepted before Castlewood can move forward. Therefore, the restructuring has afforded the neighbors the leverage necessary to get their concerns and ideas on the table for consideration as part of the revised plan. To that end and in support of the neighbors, Vaughn directed Real Estate Recovery to meet with Castlewood residents and neighbors to get their input before a new plan is submitted.

Real Estate Recovery representative John Hawk met with residents and neighbors in two separate meetings on June 11. He referred to the neighbors as "vigilantes" but eventually acquiesced to 18 of the 19 items proposed to improve Castlewood, claiming that they were within the HUD guidelines and money could be written into the restructuring to accommodate them. (Management personnel is not covered in HUD guidelines and is therefore outside the purview of Real Estate Recovery.) The operative word is "could," but the neighbors feel confident that most of the 18 will be included in the new plan, which is scheduled for presentation to HUD this month for approval.

"This is the first step in a much bigger picture," says Tom Carnahan. "This city has standards and all rental owners and managers should be held to them. By doing so, the city would realize a significant savings because the elements that contribute to crime and property degradation would automatically be minimized, while simultaneously holding property values."

"It is our hope," Bostic states, "that once we have a positive outcome to the Castlewood issue, our efforts will serve as a model in dealing with other troubled properties and inspire more neighborhoods to get similarly involved."

Sheri Carnahan emphasizes: "It is important to remember as citizens [that] it is the responsibility of each of us to work toward bettering our neighborhoods. We must do more than just place blame. We must acknowledge and accept that we are responsible for our own surroundings, then interact and engage with one another to make positive change happen. It is not the responsibility of government or the police to improve or control our neighborhoods. The responsibility belongs first and foremost to us as community and neighborhood residents. With municipal resources so stretched, it is more important than ever to get civically involved."

Sidebar: Why Should All Quad Citians Care?

This neighborhood watch group's efforts illustrate the positive change that can occur by residents joining together and enlisting the appropriate professional guidance for the purpose of resolving problems and improving a neighborhood. HUD has final jurisdiction over all Section 8 housing nationwide, regardless whether the property contains single-family or multi-family units; therefore there are resources available to help neighbors who might be experiencing similar trouble. In addition, each city has its own standards and/or ordinances that should be enforced relative to property condition and criminal activity. In many cases, the solution is as simple as enforcing regulations already in place.

Relative to neighborhood-watch groups and public-housing issues, a model has now been created via Davenport's Crime Committee that can be implemented elsewhere when appropriate. The action plan is a blueprint for implementing specific controls and safeguards to improve property conditions, especially with absentee ownership and management by proxy, so to speak. At a minimum, it could provide a launching pad to address other neighborhood problems.

More importantly, however, is this group's testimony to the power of ordinary citizens when motivated to create change. This small number of residents took matters into their own hands and prevailed against all manner of intimidating bureaucracy to bring about meaningful change in less than six months. No one gave up their lives to fight the good fight, nor was there hair-tearing, teeth-gnashing, or cloth-rendering. (Swearing, yes, and a bit of name-calling ... just kidding.) The lesson is that there is nothing more powerful or influential in bringing about change than a collective effort of concerned citizens who are passionate and resolved. Nothing.

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