Looking for cover
You wouldn’t expect that a 74-year-old woman in a wheelchair, a victim of multiple sclerosis, could panic a government agency, but Betty Murray seems to have scared hell out of the Little Rock Housing Authority. Or maybe it’s a guilty conscience that has Housing Authority bureaucrats jumping out of their skin. Maybe it’s a combination of the two.
In any event, Housing Authority officials have misreacted wildly to Murray’s report that the fire alarm system in Cumberland Towers may have malfunctioned on May 5. Murray is a resident of the apartment building, as were two elderly women who died in a fire that night. They and Murray lived on the seventh floor. Murray says the fire alarm in her apartment never went off, and the alarm in the hall only squawked intermittently. Since Murray came forward, other residents of the building also have complained of malfunctioning alarms, and the Arkansas Times has gained possession of documents suggesting that the Housing Authority knew about malfunctioning fire alarms at Cumberland Towers long before this year’s tragedy. (See page 9.) The Housing Authority operates Cumberland Towers.
After Murray told her story to the Times, she received an eviction notice ordering her out of her apartment by June 6. The notice, signed by Housing Authority official Dorothy J. Brown, said that Murray had broken her lease by engaging with the Times in a “planned scheme to gain illegal access to the 7th floor with the sole purpose of maligning the LRHA and other local officials.” In fact, it is Ms. Brown who is doing the maligning. The Arkansas Times was not part of any scheme to gain access to the seventh floor, and a Times reporter and photographer who visited Murray in her new apartment on the second floor complied with all Housing Authority rules, including signing a guest book and identifying themselves as Times employees. They did listen to her story, investigate it, and print it, as a good newspaper should. Bad bureaucrats hate it when good newspapers do their jobs, and when whistleblowers like Murray blow their whistles.
At a meeting called by Murray Saturday, May 28, Housing Authority representatives turned out in force, which may have had a chilling effect on tenants, who are, like Murray, subject to eviction. Tenants attending the meeting, in what is purportedly their home, also were made to write their names on a sign-up sheet before entering the room, a requirement that Murray and others said they couldn’t recall being imposed at past tenant-led meetings.
So far, all the Housing Authority has done is try to cover its own patootie. Eventually, it’ll have to face up to the real issue, which concerns the deaths of two old women, and whether those deaths might have been averted.