Federal program has caused angst amid hope

Across the country, public housing tenants have been `squeezed out'

September 24, 2001|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

From Texas to North Carolina to California, many former residents of blighted public housing projects are discovering they may not be welcome when their old homes are replaced by bright new developments.

By design, the crowded, crime-ridden high-rises are being replaced in most cases by garden-style apartments that house only a fraction of the original residents. It is all part of HOPE VI, a program administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The highly praised program, created nearly a decade ago, has been credited with giving new life to cities and public housing. Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano says HOPE VI is the "cornerstone" of modern public housing.

Graziano and other advocates of the program say that the high-rises, with their high concentrations of poverty, were bad for the community and even worse for the people they were supposed to help. Instead, the new developments are designed to draw residents of a variety of income levels.

"There is no debate," Graziano stated emphatically. "It is well established that mixed-income works."

The theory behind mixed-income developments is that higher-income residents will provide both motivation and an example to the lower-income residents.

U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, said she came up with the idea for HOPE VI along with a member of a national commission that had done an extensive study of the nation's public-housing program.

"The high-rises," Mikulski said, "had become ZIP codes of poverty and incubators for drug dealing." As a result, she added, both residents and taxpayers were victimized.

She said the HOPE VI program was designed to change not only the physical appearance of public housing but also the "social architecture." Under her blueprint, Mikulski said, the public-housing residents "had to be directly involved."

But there is debate about the HOPE VI's potential for success as well as the theory behind it. That debate is likely to intensify as the authorization for HOPE VI expires next fall. Although Mikulski says her goal is to further develop HOPE VI, critics say the plan already has gone too far.

"Poor families get squeezed out of their neighborhoods," said Don Driscoll of the Pennsylvania-based Community Justice Project.

"It's federally funded gentrification," said Robert Damewood of Regional Housing Legal Services in Pittsburgh. "The people who lived in the old projects should be the ones who benefit from the new ones."

In several cities across the country, tenants' groups are organizing and demanding that they be given guarantees that they will be allowed to return to the rebuilt projects. At a recent demonstration outside a Houston HOPE VI project, former tenants complained that they were not allowed to live there.

In High Point, N.C., the chairman of the housing authority acknowledged at a meeting in June that "I think it will come as a surprise to some residents that they won't be returning."

In July, a tenants' group in Washington, D.C., presented a petition to HUD asking that a HOPE VI project be rejected because it said it was convinced tenants would not be welcome in the rebuilt project.

Larry Keating, an associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology who did a study of HOPE VI projects in Atlanta, said that despite the beliefs of HOPE VI advocates, there is no scientific evidence that mixed-income developments bring improvements to the lives of lower-income people.

In Atlanta's acclaimed Techwood project, Keating said, the low-income families keep largely to themselves. He said that the net result of the development was a cut of two-thirds in the units available to public-housing tenants. Keating said his review found that although local officials contended that the public-housing tenants were actively involved in the planning for the new development, residents were "involved but never engaged."

In the end, said Keating, many had already left the decaying development while those who remained were simply worn out.

Mikulski, however, points to Atlanta as the "shining example" of how all HOPE VI projects should be implemented.

As for HOPE VI projects in other cities, Keating said, "The question is: Are they just running off residents, which is what they did here?"

Wayne Sherwood, a Maryland housing consultant, said a survey he conducted recently based on statistics from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development showed only about 15 percent of the original occupants of public-housing projects are making it back to the rebuilt developments. At best, said Sherwood, 40 percent of the public-housing units that have come down will be replaced under HOPE VI.

Lawrence Vale, associate professor of urban studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that beneath the surface of HOPE VI and its mixed-income tenants lies a long debate in this country over the purpose of public housing and who it is supposed to benefit.

"The issue is: When it comes to housing, who should the government support? There is a long tradition of looking at housing as a reward. But there's also a long tradition of looking at it as punishment, like the old poor farms," Vale said.

Vale said there are examples of successful, predominantly low-income developments, such as Commonwealth House in Boston, where only 81 of the 400 residents have full-time jobs. Renovated before HOPE VI was initiated, Vale said Commonwealth House has become "a showpiece. They didn't feel the need to talk about mixing incomes."

Graziano dismissed Commonwealth House as "an anomaly."

But Vale warned that turning away many of the low-income tenants may have long-term consequences.

"It seems to me to be very shortsighted to turn away the neediest from public housing," Vale said. "You want to get rid of the drug dealers, but you don't clear everyone out."

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