Broken Doorknobs, Broken Locks

Memorial to Jwanta Scarbor. Photo credit: The Virginian-Pilot

Last year Jwanta Scarbor, a resident of public housing in Norfolk, was found shot to death in her apartment. Now her mother has filed suit against the Norfolk Redevelopment and  Housing Authority on the grounds that it failed, despite repeated requests, to fix broken doorknobs, locks and windows.

“My family is destroyed,” Tawanda Scarbor told The Virginian-Pilot. “Literally destroyed.”

The killing remains unresolved, according to Norfolk police. There is nothing in the article to suggest that malfunctioning locks and doorknobs allowed the killer access he would not have been granted otherwise. Regardless, it is not unreasonable for tenants to expect landlords to maintain basic security features in proper working order.

It is entirely legitimate to ask why the Norfolk public housing authority did not, or could not, respond in a timely manner to requests for apparently simple repairs. This is not an isolated incident. Poor maintenance of public housing seems to be a systemic problem. Why is that?

One likely possibility is that public housing authorities are not managed for the benefit of their “customers.” Their funding comes mainly from the federal government. Their tenants have few alternatives and have little bargaining leverage. Housing authorities, one might suggest, are more responsive to the demands of politicians, federal bureaucrats, community organizers or other outside groups rather than their tenants.

Another possibility is that public housing tenants are terrible tenants. Uncle Sam pays half or more of their rent. Some tenants — not all, perhaps, but some — are abusive of public property. They don’t take care of stuff, and they are either unwilling or unable to make minor repairs themselves. Perhaps public housing maintenance staff are so overwhelmed with complaints that repair backlogs build up.

There may be other explanations entirely. I don’t pretend to know. But Jwanta Scarbor’s death arguably was avoidable. I hope the attorneys pursuing her lawsuit lay bare the systemic institutional failures that led to her tragic death.