Scattering the Projects
By the 1990s, stakeholders in the public housing discussion had decided that the way to save public housing was to dismantle the core tenet that had defined public housing projects for several generations. While project housing projects had always been designed to be highly dense living spaces, usually relying on high-rise buildings and often housing far more individuals than had originally been planned for. The new model of public housing would be to "scatter" housing for the poor throughout established neighborhoods. This would be accomplished by the federal government getting out of the business of direct funding and construction of housing projects and instead providing vouchers for individuals to use towards renting housing in established middle-class neighborhoods.
The HOPE IV project was centered on this idea of "scattering":
The ostensible motive was to end the isolation of tenants from the wider city. The supposed barriers were twofold. One, public housing tenants were deleteriously affected by living in areas of concentrated poverty, where schools were in poor shape, the local economy was sputtering and crime and gang activity were entrenched. With public housing labeled a failure, it seemed reasonable to send families to the private market with a rent subsidy -- the Housing Choice Voucher. And two, public housing families were held back by their neighbors who, according to conventional wisdom, were dependent on welfare, had numerous social problems, lacked a mainstream work ethic and were a bad influence on one another. The prevailing idea was that, with vouchers, tenants could separate off from one another and meet new, employed, law-abiding neighbors. (Venkatesh & Celimli, 2004)
So far this concept of "scattering" or integrating public housing into established neighborhoods has met with some very limited success, as detailed below:
Those CHA families who have managed to move to the private market have had varying experiences. Conservatively, based on our research, about 20 to 25% boast dramatic improvements in their living situation. This is not insignificant, but it certainly is not stellar, given that since 1995, over 80% of tenants have moved to areas with at least a 30% minority population and greater than 24% poverty. This is a violation of the CHA's own relocation objective of preventing further segregation and poverty concentration…. In theory the voucher units undergo an extensive inspection process so that families do not face conditions similar to the projects that they leave behind. [In the new homes] slum landlords make quick-and-dirty repairs, and the units are never rehabbed properly. (Venkatesh & Celimli, 2004)
The question then becomes how to improve on the basic idea of integrating public housing into communities with established communities and a range of incomes and ethnicities.
Several issues need to be addressed to improve the process. The first is to install greater government supervision. Capitalism certainly has its place, but not in an unfettered form. The performance of landowners in the process so far has shown that this is not a process that can be handed over to the private sector. This is one way in which the Obama stimulus money can be used. Providing help to poor residents as they move into new neighborhoods would provide key job opportunities to individuals interested in public service.
One of the great flaws of the stimulus package so far is that it has not produced as many jobs as it might have. One of the primary differences between this stimulus and the kind of public spending and support that the Obama Administration has overseen and the great public works projects of the New Deal is that there has not been an emphasis on the creation of jobs in a wide array of employment sectors. There has been nothing comparable to the employment of writers and artists and other creative and professional individuals that existed during the 1930s, for example. Surely there are appropriate professionals now out of work -- from architects to civil engineers to landscape designers -- that could be called upon to help...
There is no incentive for them -- or very little incentive -- to improve the property beyond the bare minimum. The residents who are moving in are so used to substandard housing that they may not even be aware of the ways in which they are being cheated. And even if they are aware of the flaws in their new housing (flaws that may be initially obscured but that are likely to come to the surface very quickly) they may not have the political capital to make changes.
Another key connection to the New Deal comes quickly to mind when considering possible futures for public housing that meets legitimate community needs: The need for increased public housing is linked to the need for increased infrastructure. While some of the current stimulus funds have been used for infrastructure projects, the scale of infrastructure investment and improvement has not been comparable to the programs that were funded and supported to the new deal.
An extensive study of the history, present, and potential future of public housing recently completed by Columbia University makes this point, arguing that by linking new public housing projects to other investments in the shared public space, it may be able to create a new narrative about public housing. This is essential: For while innovations in architecture and building materials will no doubt be an important part of future public housing projects, the most important change that can and must be made is in the perception of the place of public housing in the larger society.
The term [public housing] is barely heard in public today, except in reference to historical policies and the buildings they produced, many of which now face demolition. In the United States, when discussing future policies and practices, you are more likely to hear terms like "affordable housing" or "mixed-income housing." Among other things, this shift in terminology reflects a gradual shift in cultural meaning, where the "public" aspects of public housing have come to signify dependence or subordination, while responsibility for the basics of human habitation has fallen mainly on the markets.
But "public" can and ought to carry a positive meaning. It can mean the kind of responsibility that government traditionally upholds on behalf of its citizens. It can also refer to all of those others without whom any individual could scarcely prosper, regardless of personal ability or resources. And, at another level, it can refer to the realms in which collective responsibilities are discussed and debated, as in the expression the "public sphere." (A New Conversation, Buell Center, 2009)
In addition to linking the future of public housing to future investments in other aspects of public infrastructure (from repairing roads and bridges to investing in a more efficient, truly national electric grid), the Columbia University report emphasizes another key connection, that between the way in which public housing must be conceived and created and the recent housing crash.
Owning one's own private home is an essential part of the American Dream and has been at least since the GI bills after World War II gave thousands of families the means to own a home that they would never have been to afford before. However, that key aspect -- a home that a family can afford -- has become lost in recent years as a bubble in the real estate market lead people to borrow against the rising value of their homes, a value that would suddenly plummet, leaving hundreds of thousands of individuals "upside down" on their homes, owing more than the house was worth.
One of the consequences of this sudden devaluation of so many American homes was that many neighborhoods, many in the suburbs, became devastated. These suburban neighborhoods, whose residents would once have conceived of themselves as fundamentally different from the residents of public housing projects, have by fleeing their homes created areas of blight that now rival the inner cities that they would most certainly have spurned.
These neighborhoods are now in need of renewal that is as dramatic as the public housing projects that so many see as the worst types of neighborhoods. It should be noted that in comparing the problems faced by hundreds of suburban neighborhoods across the nation are now drastic there is no equivalence being suggested in terms of the quality of life faced by residents of public housing projects and suburbs. What is being posited instead is that there is more than one kind of neighborhood that must now be reconsidered, reconceived, and rebuilt.
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