They're No Ladder To Success
The rise of Sonia Soto mayor from the Bronxdale Houses to a Supreme Court nomination (via Princeton and Yale) has sparked a rebranding of public housing. The projects, mostly associated with crime and other social ills, suddenly are being portrayed in the press as a sort of urban log cabin: a starting point for up-from-poverty success stories.
“Who will be the next star to emerge?” asked The New York Times in a story about the citys massive, 178,00-unit public-housing system. But success stories like Sotomayors -- many from public housings early years -- arent easily replicated today. In fact, the rosy stories misrepresent what the projects have become: a latter-day poorhouse where residents, rather than moving up, remain for prolonged periods -- and in which residency rules encourage a lack of social and economic mobility.
Contrary to the sentimental view, public housing was never conceived as an out-and-up proposition. When its construction began during the New Deal, it was intended, instead, as permanent housing for the working class, a sort of public utility -- owned and operated by public authorities whod provide “safe and sanitary” housing by eschewing profit. Maintenance would be financed with proceeds from rents. Things didnt work out that way, however.
The suburban building boom of the 1950s -- famously symbolized by Long Islands Levittown -- disproved the premise that only the government could provide housing for the nonrich. By the late 1960s, working families started leaving public housing. It began to become the province of the very poor -- especially after a new law set rents at 25 percent of tenants income, starving housing authorities of income for maintenance. Families with higher incomes moved out in order to avoid rent hikes.
Today, housing authorities like New Yorks are constantly starved for maintenance funds -- and low-income tenants dont move out; they stay put. Incredibly, the average length of tenancy in New York City public housing today is 20 years. That figure has been rising: It was just 18.5 in 2000. Nationally, Department of Housing and Urban Development data show the average time in public housing at almost 9 years.
Neither in New York nor nationally is public housing a system of intact nuclear families -- like the immigrant Sotomayors -- raising children and bent on upward mobility. The most recent HUD data show that only 13 percent of public units house two adults -- and 40 percent are home to single-parent, largely female-headed families, often of very low income. Most of the rest are elderly or disabled.
Unlike the Ivy League-educated prospective justice, those children arent likely to be high academic achievers. A March 2008 study by New York Universitys Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy and Institute for Education and Social Policy found that “New York City children who live in public housing perform worse in school than children who live in other types of housing.” It also found that students living in public housing were more likely to drop out of high school and less likely to graduate in four years than those who dont live in such housing. Additionally, “fifth grade students living in public housing perform worse on standardized tests than those living elsewhere,” the study says.
This is an especially ironic finding: Early housing reformers thought that poor children, given a clean, light place to do their homework, would do better than they would in the “slum” housing that housing projects often replaced.
If were truly to get serious about encouraging upward mobility among public-housing residents, we should take at least two steps. First, set a time limit for new residents. A five-year limit similar to that for public assistance would encourage residents to increase their income -- perhaps even to marry -- knowing that they could not remain in the projects indefinitely. Second, HUD should encourage local housing authorities to charge fixed rents, rather than setting rents as a percentage of income -- a rule that discourages increased earnings.
In contrast to the Sonia Sotomayor family story, many public-housing projects are home not to upward mobility but to concentrated, long-term poverty. We shouldnt let an exceptional, feel-good story blind us to the projects long-term problems.
Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/seven/06082009/postopinion/opedcolumnists/puffing_the_projects_173061.htm