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Advocates tell the poor to make voices heard

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For 17 years, Michelle Daniels lived in San Francisco public housing, raising two children, knowing little about federal subsidies or her own rights.

Not until she faced losing housing assistance did Daniels begin asking questions and making noise.Darlene Hardman was an occupational therapist in Salt Lake City for 10 years before a disability made her unemployable. She, too, knew little about the bureaucracy of public housing, about the programs, the waiting lists, the vouchers.

But the women were preachers Saturday, telling a gathering of low-income, disabled and elderly Utahns that they need to make their voices heard.

Public housing is a complex and emotional issue. Changes on the horizon have made it even more so.

Housing authorities along the Wasatch Front are working together to create a new "Moving to Work Demonstration" project that may increase tenants' rents and the amount of time able-bodied people can live in public housing. The project is awaiting approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In addition, contracts are expiring for a number of Utah complexes which are privately owned but have historically contracted with HUD to provide low-income housing.

To educate tenants, a group of poverty advocates sponsored the daylong conference Saturday at the Horizonte Learning Center in Salt Lake City. About 150 people attended.

Hardman, who lives at Calvary Towers near downtown Salt Lake City, represents Utah as a board member for the National Alliance of HUD Tenants. She urged others with concerns for the future of public housing to join her.

"If we join together we are a force to be reckoned with," Hardman said. "We can't do anything alone but together we can conquer this monster."

Daniels, a board member of the national Coalition for Low-Income Housing, said she has worked with tenant associations in California who, rather than lose their housing, bought out their landlord. Others balked when California's "Operation Safe Home" sent law enforcement officials into public housing units looking for welfare fraud and violated the tenants' rights.

She urged the Utah group to not let Saturday be the last time they met collectively.

"Just because you're low income doesn't mean you're of low opinion or low voice," Daniels said. "We have to stick together. We have to write letters. We have to visit people . . . and not allow America to drop the ball on housing for low-income people."

Jane Wilson, from the Davis County Housing Authority, said her agency urges tenants to form associations but none have.

Many of the frustrations tenants have match those of the housing authorities whose hands are tied by HUD regulations and limited funding. Because housing authorities can't lobby lawmakers, Kim Thomas, of the Salt Lake County Housing Authority, told residents that tenants have to make their voices heard in Washington.