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Seattle Post-Intelligencer

 

Public housing developments bring Hope but history says projects call for caution

February 15, 2004

By Howard Husock

PRINTER FRIENDLY

It is easy to understand why many Seattle residents and officials would cheer the advent of three major HOPE VI public housing reconstruction projects. As in cities across the nation, HOPE VI developments appear to offer a long-term solution, not just a short-term fix, for the well-known woes of public housing.

Developments that had been in decline are not just renovated via HOPE (Homeownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere), they are rebuilt from the ground up, typically as modern town-house developments. More ambitious, what is said to be one of public housing's core mistakes -- its so-called "concentration of poverty" -- is to be corrected by complementing new public housing for the very poor with rental and for-sale homes for those of middle income.

Seattle has more riding than many cities on the success of this latest approach to the long-running public housing experiment, which dates, as a matter of federal policy, to the Roosevelt administration. The city's three HOPE VI projects -- Holly Park, Rainier Vista and High Point -- will have 2,412 new low-income units, more than a quarter of the overall city public housing stock. In contrast, New York City, with its 185,000 public housing units (far and away the highest total in the country), has received only two HOPE VI grants. It can certainly be hoped that the combination of income mix, housing design and such innovations as integration of the new developments' street system with that of the surrounding south Seattle residential neighborhoods, will help ensure their success.

Still, there is good reason to be concerned that HOPE VI is just the latest false hope for public housing, and likely to be burdened by problems not dissimilar to those in previous generations of public and "philanthropic" housing for the poor.

Despite its apparent positives, the Bush administration has proposed to eliminate new funding for Hope VI. The administration may well be pursuing the right course.

Originally begun in response to a 1992 congressional report that found that some 10 percent of public housing developments could be classified as "severely distressed," HOPE VI -- rather than simply undertaking capital improvements -- must be understood as a leap of faith, even a utopian one, based on a number of assumptions that are open to question. These questionable assumptions notably include the belief that the non-poor will continue to choose to live in a project with the very poor over the long term, and that the Seattle Housing Authority will be able to maintain at high standards the large number of units it will own. Open to question, more broadly, is the assumption that public housing, HOPE VI-style or otherwise, is worth saving -- that it is the right approach toward poverty and prudent city planning.

The idea of mixing the poor and non-poor in one development appears on the surface to be an obvious improvement over public housing projects dominated by those at the bottom of the income scale. It's important to keep in mind, however, that this has been tried before and failed.

Public housing began (as a result of the National Housing Act of 1937) as apartments for middle and working classes. Its early advocates believed the private market would fail all but the most affluent third of the population. Over time, however, those with means have departed public housing, leaving behind what amounts to a modern-day version of the 19th-century poorhouse, dominated -- except in those projects reserved for the elderly or handicapped -- by single mothers and children. Nationwide, only 8 percent of public housing households are two-parent families with children.

Keeping a middle class in HOPE VI developments is central to the concept of the program, which is based on the belief that more middle-class households (renters or owners) will serve as role models for the poor, thus heading off the problems of crime and lack of aspiration. But this model contravenes the norm for American neighborhoods. In other words, it's quite predictable that the middle classes would have, historically, left public housing behind. Census data has shown that American residential neighborhoods are overwhelmingly populated by households of relatively similar income and education levels.

By offering good financial deals on brand-new houses, HOPE VI developments may, at first, overcome this powerful tendency and attract middle-class households to live alongside the poor. But the planners' dream of households of differing income levels living harmoniously will not inevitably continue. Turnover is a given. Keeping a steady stream of replacement middle-income households entering over time will require that the large number of public housing units that will still be part of HOPE VI projects are physically well-maintained. It also will require that the poorer households in the development be perceived as good neighbors.

Public housing, however, has a long track record of looking attractive at the time of the ribbon cutting and then going quickly downhill. The fact that it focuses, by definition, on households of limited means makes it difficult to realize the necessary income to achieve good long-term maintenance. Those projects that Congress deemed to be "severely-distressed" -- sparking the advent of HOPE VI -- were themselves once hailed as a great improvement over slum neighborhoods. Indeed, the problem of maintenance of apartments reserved for the poor goes back more than 150 years.

In 1854, an organization called the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor decided to build a "model tenement" on the city's infamous Lower East Side. Constructed by a limited-dividend enterprise, it degenerated until just 11 years later it was called "one of the worst slum pockets in the city." It was sold and soon demolished. Public housing has had the same maintenance problems, especially since the 1968 decision to limit the rents its tenants pay (set today at 30 percent of income). Housing authorities must rely on operating assistance from the federal government -- assistance that is not guaranteed. And the public must rely on the competence of the authorities to spend the money wisely despite the fact that many authorities qualified for HOPE VI monies in the first place because their developments had so deteriorated. The stakes here are high: It can well be anticipated that, if maintenance declines, middle-income families will desert the development, leaving behind the feared concentration of poverty.

The same problem can arise, however, if middle-income families lose confidence that the developments' social fabric, not just physical environment, will be maintained (although these are certainly linked, as the so-called "fixing broken windows" theory of crime control would have it). Although HOPE VI proponents emphasize its mixed-income quality (and left-of-center opponents criticize the fact that it is not targeted only at the very poor), it's important to keep in mind that, of the 4,956 housing units in Seattle's three HOPE VI developments, fully 2,412 are set aside for those of low income, with 2,068 owned by the housing authority.

In public housing, low-income non-elderly households are, for the most part, single-parent households. (Housing is not unaffordable for most two-income families, as a U.S. homeownership rate of more than 68 percent, an all-time high, makes clear.) Indeed, of non-elderly households in Seattle public housing, 1,147 households include children; only 26 percent include two adults with the responsibility of raising them (the authority does not report the percentage in which these are two biological parents.) In the authority's Housing Choice voucher program (commonly known as the Section 8 subsidy program that allows public housing tenants to rent apartments in privately owned buildings), fully 75 percent of 3,131 households that include children have just one adult present. Many of those raising children in such circumstances are hard-working and responsible parents. But children in poor, single-parent families are widely understood to be the most at-risk for poor academic performance and other problems; one parent inevitably cannot supervise as well as two. Thus are gang problems and related ills spawned.

In addition to its use of middle-class role models, the HOPE VI theory to ward off such problems might be called that of "environmental determinism." Here's how that works. If people live in a clean modern home, they will feel better about themselves. Unconsidered is the possibility that people will conclude, perhaps not consciously, that simply by declaring their need, they've been given a perpetual lease on a new home worth more than $200,000 -- the same reward that working families in the development have attained. It's not a policy designed to encourage work and savings. It may well be, in contrast, that it is the struggle to work and put aside money -- along with good life decisions, such as avoiding out-of-wedlock births -- that help people to achieve and, as a result, obtain a better home.

In other words, it's the struggle to obtain better housing, not the fact of occupying it, that improves habits. Better housing is the reward for work and frugality. Of course, if it were true that no matter how hard members of a household worked, and how diligently they saved, home ownership was always somewhere off the horizon, then government-owned and -operated housing might make sense. That's what early public housing advocates believed, and what post-World War II American history has shown not to be true.

Besides the perils the HOPE VI projects will prove, over time, to have been Potemkin Villages -- attractive only at first and on the surface -- there is another peril for Seattle as a whole. The Seattle Housing Authority asserts that all three HOPE VI developments are "excellent sites for residential development."

But vibrant, economically healthy cities change, often in ways not anticipated by urban planners. By setting aside so much of the HOPE VI housing for public ownership, Seattle continues to risk what might be called the "frozen city" problem. The HOPE VI sites are locked in as housing for those of low income, even if the next Microsoft believed the sites would be better for new uses that might produce large numbers of jobs, including jobs for the poor. This is a problem endemic to HOPE VI projects; planners are so focused on fixing the distressed projects, they pay scant attention to the possibility that other uses might be appropriate for the sites.

In Boston, for instance, a HOPE VI town-house project -- looking like a suburban subdivision -- was built in the shadow of some of the nation's most well-regarded hospitals and medical research facilities, many of which have long searched for land to expand. As the great urban planning critic Jane Jacobs has written, there are substantial risks for healthy cities when land can be used for "nobody's plans but the planners.' " With all the attention on the future of the World Trade Center site as a key to New York City's future, planners there give little thought to the fact that public housing occupies a space equivalent to some 156 World Trade Centers -- standing in the way of the rebirth of whole sections of the city.

It is pointless, of course, to object, at this point, to the advent of HOPE VI in Seattle. The developments have come. But the housing authority can still take some prudent steps to safeguard these major public investments. A strongly enforced eviction policy for criminal activity or even small lease violations must be enforced. At the same time, the authority should seek HUD approval for a time limit -- similar to that for cash public assistance -- on residence in a HOPE VI public housing unit.

Charlotte, N.C., has used the prospect of obtaining a HOPE VI unit -- and a five-year time limit -- as an incentive to convince public housing residents from other projects in the city to move up and, in time, out. Charlotte's program is voluntary. But there's no reason not to impose a mandatory five-year residence limit, after which residents could have the chance to purchase their unit. In time, the HOPE VI developments as a whole could be entirely owner-occupied and, as in other neighborhoods, residents would all have the same incentive to maintain their properties to protect their investments. That is not the case in the current configuration.

No doubt it can be difficult for some U.S. households to afford the housing they would like. But HOPE VI, and other housing subsidy programs, is not the way to help them. Instead, we must continue to seek ways to encourage the construction or renovation of a wide range of housing types; the combination of density and housing starts has always been the recipe for long-term affordability.

At the same time, we must recognize that households will only be able to afford housing, like other goods, if they make good life decisions. The best design, and the most celebrated ribbon-cuttings, will not change these realities.

Original Source: http://www.seattlepi.com/opinion/159956_focus15.html?searchpagefrom=1&searchdiff=3

 

 
 
 

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