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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Hope VI: U.S. Public Housing Overhaul Nets Uneven Gains


PITTSBURGH — Viola Sowell gazes out the clouded windows of her apartment, where tattered, ruffled kitchen curtains feebly try to divert attention from peeling linoleum, crooked cabinets and a grease-stained glass dining table.

The sounds of laughter and screeching car tires waft up through the second-floor windows, occasionally forcing Sowell to raise her voice. Exhaustion clouds her eyes, the pain and difficulty of living in poverty aging her beyond her 34 years.
Sowell’s 1940s-era barracksstyle public housing complex was demolished in 2005, and the Pittsburgh Housing Authority promised her a new town house with a dishwasher and backyard. But new rules requiring her to have a job threaten to keep her in this three-bedroom unit where a living room sofa doubles as her bed.

“That wasn’t the agreement with them. They never once said like we had to have jobs,” Sowell says, angry the rules were changed more than three years into the process.
Over the past 15 years, the Pittsburgh Housing Authority and dozens like it nationwide have spent more than $5.8 billion through the federal Hope VI program replacing crime-ridden, dilapidated, high-density housing projects with smaller mixed-income communities. The grants are complemented by private funding and loans.
Hope VI legislation approved in 1993 promised that tenants whose homes were demolished would see “an improved living environment,” which was meant to include better homes in safer neighborhoods. The acronym HOPE stands for Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere.
The theory: breaking up large concentrations of poor people and providing low-income families with a higher standard of living would cut crime.
Yet in the ambitious effort to upgrade the nation’s stock of some 1.2 million public housing units, an estimated 100,000 homes have been lost and tens of thousands of the nation’s poorest continue to languish on waiting lists to receive federally subsidized housing.
Only about a third of the 149,000 or so public housing units demolished nationwide have been or will be replaced, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank in Washington.
The government has sought to compensate for that decline in part by providing more families with vouchers that provide federal subsidies to be used in the private rental market. The vouchers cover up to 30 percent of their monthly income in rent.
But housing advocates say the voucher program has been cut in recent years and many municipal housing authorities, including Pittsburgh’s, have had to freeze waiting lists.
Rules for living in the new mixed-income communities have kept many of the most vulnerable families, like the Sowells, corralled in old public housing that experts say are doomed to suffer the same problems as the worst projects that were torn down.
In Sowell’s temporary unit, two young daughters, 10 and 11, share a bedroom. Mattresses are stacked against a wall since the bed frame broke and was transformed by an industrious neighbor into a shelf for DVDs. Her 16-year-old daughter shares a bedroom with her infant son. A 15-year-old son has the other bedroom.
A stereo sits on the living room’s shabby tan carpet. A small TV set that no longer projects cable due to an unpaid $124 bill rests on a table, looking forlornly at two sofas. On the arms of one sofa are stacks of neatly folded laundry, waiting to be put away.
Sowell relies on Social Security and child support for a monthly income of $1,500 — $200 more than her paycheck from a food services job she had at a university. She others moved into public housing.”
The federal program’s failure to help the people on the lowest rung has been a fundamental flaw, Sard says, and needs to be addressed.
“For all the good that was done in getting rid of terrible housing and reducing crime, there was harm done to the original families, so I think that before we increase the funding that we need to get the policy right,” she says.
Pittsburgh Housing Authority officials acknowledge the loss of public housing but say most families are enjoying better conditions. The authority is so pleased with the results, it has raised money to build a mixed-income community without federal aid.
Bruce Katz, an architect of the Hope VI program who now works at the Brookings Institution, said his biggest disappointment is that more wasn’t done to ensure that displaced residents “had the opportunities to move to areas of low poverty with quality schools and quality jobs.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development contends that nearly all the original tenants enjoy better conditions in their new homes, including those living in private rentals with vouchers or those still in traditional public housing.
But housing advocates say concentrating the poorest, including the unemployed and substance abusers, in the same housing developments makes them more vulnerable to crime and other problems and less likely to ever pull themselves out of poverty.
The best solution, they say, is to mingle the different groups, as has been done successfully in both mixed-income communities and traditional public housing in New York, Chicago and Boston.
More Hope VI mixed-income housing could be the answer for families like the Sowells, but competition for grants is fierce. Funding has been cut from $600 million a year to $100 million during the Bush administration, which advocates using more vouchers.
In January, the House approved a bill that could allocate up to $800 million for Hope VI and require a one-for-one replacement of any future housing that is demolished. The bill is now in Senate committees.
The Hope VI communities of polished brick, clapboard siding, aluminum windows, manicured lawns and swing sets are the pride of housing authorities. They say the open plans, parks and porches have kept drug dealers and violence out.
Those enjoying the new communities are largely miniwas laid off three years ago and mum-wage earners who struggle today dreams of what could be. to put food on the table. “I would have my own en- Substance abusers and unemtrance, my own yard, light and gas,” Sowell says, her eyes showing a rare glimmer.
In her old neighborhood, more than 400 apartments were demolished. The new Hope VI plan would replace 180 units.
“The families who had suffered in these severely distressed units rarely benefited from the new units,” says Barbara Sard, director of housing policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Some did move out of dangerous neighborhoods with vouchers, but ployed single mothers who rely on welfare, Social Security, food stamps and donations are kept out. Burdened with children, illness and other problems, they often do not have the time or the wherewithal to attend courses required to qualify for the new homes.
The courses are aimed at teaching prospective tenants everything from how to be a good neighbor to properly managing a household and keeping a job.
The idea is that if public housing tenants are taught some basics, the new communities will be cared for in the long-term, solving the urban ills that have long plagued the country’s poorest.
But even Sowell sees the unintended consequence of putting people who don’t meet requirements into old-style public housing: That will simply transfer the problem from one place to another, she says. And that means someone else will have to deal with it later.