The limits of hope

July 08, 2002

IT HAS BEEN a remarkable transformation.

In six years, Baltimore has replaced most of its crime-ridden public housing high-rises with attractive, private townhouse communities. Homeowners now occupy units next to subsidized tenants. There are few telltale signs of income differentials.

Similar sweeping changes have occurred in many other big cities under the federal government's decade-old Hope VI program. But few original tenants have benefited. Instead, the spanking new units have gone to people with jobs (who can afford higher rents) or to homeowners taking advantage of cut-rate prices.

In fact, displaced tenants often are left in a worse predicament than before.

In Baltimore and elsewhere, housing authorities have been steadily reducing the inventory of public housing. Tenants, with Section 8 rent certificates in hand, have been sent instead to see private landlords. But decent private stock, too, has been shrinking. The result: Nearly 2,000 of Baltimore's 9,930 Section 8 tenants cannot find apartments to rent that pass an inspection. (Another 9,000 city residents, often living in substandard housing, are waiting for Section 8 vouchers).

The situation is so dire that a recent report by the National Housing Law Project and three other advocacy groups contends the Hope VI program "increasingly appears to do more harm than good."

With the current authorization expiring in September, Congress should insist on reforms in Hope VI. Federal housing officials, while promising changes - partially in response to criticism from Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and other legislators - so far have not outlined their proposals.

Hope VI was advertised as a way to eradicate concentrated poverty. But it has not achieved that goal. Too often it has simply shifted large populations of impoverished families from housing projects to declining residential neighborhoods. For all its merits on paper, Hope VI in practice is creating new pockets of despair.

The reauthorization bill must make sure such concentration of Section 8 renters in a few neighborhoods is halted. And it ought to make sure that the truly poor are not left out of public housing units here and in other cities.

The nation's public housing stock has been dwindling since the mid-1990s, when local housing authorities were no longer required to replace each unit they demolished. In Baltimore, four high-rise projects and a low-rise development were demolished. Three of the high-rises have been replaced, but with far fewer public housing units. Meanwhile, the city, citing management problems, has removed hundreds of scattered-site units from its inventory.

It is no mystery why the city's Housing Authority has done this. By changing the makeup of public housing, it wants to create more revenue and attract tenants with fewer problems. These are laudable goals. But they should be achieved without making the most vulnerable among us even more so.

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