Friday, September 9, 2011

Public Housing Residents: Criminalizing the Victims?

I get the sense that some DC residents consider public housing residents 1) criminals, especially when crime occurs around public housing, and 2) the cause of the assumed "failure" of public housing. This is not the picture I get from reading 10 years (1979-1989) of Washington Post reporting on Potomac Gardens and the personal papers of John A. Wilson, DC council member and chair, who worked to improve other Ward 6 (then Ward 2) public housing in the 1980s. I have found that public housing residents not only have been accused of the crimes done against them but also that their decades-long, partially successful efforts to improve their living environments have been forgotten.

Across the nation, federal, state, and city governments had assumed that rents would cover maintenance costs, but this was not the case. In Ward 6, unmaintained public housing projects were without heat (many families used kitchen ovens to heat their apartments) and functioning elevators, had collapsed roofs and ceilings, had broken sewage lines and flooded first floors, and other results of the lack of general maintenance. From 1979, the Marion Barry Administration made renovation of public housing a top priority. Throughout the 1980s, renovations were made through the city, but at a very slow rate, leaving people in horrible conditions. Public housing residents feared for the health and safety of themselves and their children.

The lack of funds also meant a lack of security. Most public housing did not have functioning front doors or fences, which meant that anyone could enter their buildings anytime of day. At the 1200 Delaware Ave, SW building, there was "widespread fear among the tenants. This is apparently due to the fact that the building is totally open at all hours to anyone who wants to enter the building" (JA Wilson Papers, MS2190, Box 25, File 15). These outsiders continually broke all the lights, leaving residents in the dark. In 1988, Greenleaf residents in SW reported:

At Greenleaf, front doors were installed for a brief period last summer, but then removed so they would not be vandalized. Security guards were hired for a brief period, but then left becuase they were unsafe without doors or a guard station...When residents met with Mr. Jackson about this, he said that residents had to take responsibility for reporting drug pushers before the Department would improve security. (JA Wilson papers, MS2190, Box 25, File 17)
The city basically told residents that they would have to deal with the situation themselves. Residents across the city organized themselves. At Greenleaf public housing, a group of residents formed The Committee for the Betterment of 203 N St, SW and organized "Operation Fight Back" to drive out drug dealers in their building through regular resident patrols. A non-profit working with them asked the police for assistance in this terrifying endeavor:

Can we have 24 hour police coverage for at least three weeks -- one week while we are patrolling the halls, and coverage later so there will not be retaliation?

Would four police be possible -- two for the front, two for the back?

Could there be some undercover police?

How can we be sure pushers won't hurt the children of residents who are patrolling? Is there some way the residents who are most active can have a call-in point, where they tell their whereabouts or where they are going?

Is there any special equipment we need? What about walkie-talkies?

What has been the experience of other neighborhoods who have tried to get rid of drugs? How did 14th Street get cleaned up?

What other precautions should we take? (JA Wilson Papers, MS2190, Box 26, File 12)
For those without the money to enter the private apartment market, public housing was all they had. There were thousands on the waiting lists for private apartment vouchers or other options. Yet, public housing is more than just housing. Public housing often provides community and social networks (and social capital) that poor people in particular need to survive. As one Potomac Garden resident told the Washington Post in 1983, "I like it here. I like the people. I don't like the problems. But the people are good people."

Many in the DC government sought to help and were successful in many cases in the late 1980s, but poor residents in general were abandoned to fend for themselves. The residents organized, but a basic level of security and maintenance would have helped them to realize their goals.

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