Friday, July 5, 2013

People want to live in public housing

Many of those who can afford and live in private housing have long called public housing a failed model, but, since public housing began in the DC in the 1930s, thousands of DC residents have sought to live in public housing.

From Southwest...The Little Quadrant That Could blog
From the beginning, the DC housing authority (National Capital Housing Authority, NCHA) planned two- to three-story townhouses for families and, when necessary, mid-rise apartment buildings for seniors. Most public housing authorities saw this as a good model. The extensive hi-rise public housing blocks of Chicago and St. Louis were not the model followed by NCHA officials. Greenleaf Gardens in SW (recent photo to the left) is an example of the NCHA model. Greenleaf was constructed in 1959 and also has a very nice recreation center.

The Congress-controlled DC government through the 1960s displaced thousands of people from SW and other parts of DC (to remove "slums," build highways, etc) and housed only a portion of those who needed housing. By 1962, 8,000 families were on the NCHA waiting list. NCHA's decision to build the few mid-rise buildings in the system seems to be the result of the resistance by most of DC, especially the area west of Rock Creek Park, to public housing construction of any kind. As a result, the NCHA could never build enough public housing to house those displaced by government programs, as well as the thousands of others in need of public housing (such as WWII veterans, the disabled, minimum-wage workers, and so on).

In addition, the Congress-controlled DC government did not allocate adequate funds to maintain public housing. The residents soon suffered from the lack of maintenance. By 1969, NCHA was one of 15 major housing authorities experiencing financial difficulties. They increased rents in 1969, but the residents protested. According to the NCHA's 1974 Annual Report, in 1969, "Financial problems made it necessary for the Authority to reduce extraordinary maintenance and capital improvements in order to keep the budget in balance." So, the Home-Rule DC government inherited this poorly maintained, indebted system, which the new, Home-Rule government renovated in serious and innovative ways in spite of the difficulties caused by national and global economic crises of the mid- to late 1970s.

In spite of the problems, DC residents still seek to live in public housing. Today, the waiting list has 70,000 individuals.[1] Why? As one Potomac Gardens resident said at a meeting, she was just like everyone else in the room; she went to work and put her sons through college; she just didn't have enough money to afford non-public housing. Are there other benefits that public housing residents acquire through public housing?

Let's not destroy public housing.  By looking at the writings of the inspiration to new urbanism, Jane Jacobs, we can understand that Jane Jacobs would have never approved of the demolition of public housing projects and the creation of the mixed-income projects funded by the HOPE VI program. She would never have approved the massive displacement of public housing residents by HOPE VI. Today, HOPE VI programs have new names, but they have similar results.

Instead, Jacobs suggests that low-income housing projects be salvaged by reweaving them into the city fabric. This reweaving is not done by erasing the housing project and displacing all its residents. Instead, in chapter 20 "Salvaging Projects" of her The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she argued that cities should:
  • Design new streets around the public housing that connect with streets beyond the project. The ground floors of the public housing should be redesigned to incorporate street-side uses, and new street-side buildings could be incorporated into open spaces. These street-side buildings of shops, offices, etc. should connect up with lively streets nearby.
  • Use vendors with carts to provide services and liveliness, if funds are not available for redesigns.
  • Improve safety inside public housing by employing residents as elevator attendants during the day and night.
  • Abandon maximum income limits, so that people can remain as they advance economically.
  • Make gradual, rather than cataclysmic, investments in public housing and the surrounding areas.
Rather than demolish and displace, as HOPE VI has done and other programs are now doing, we might instead consider Jane Jacobs' steps to keep public housing and allow the residents to benefit from the improvements in the city that they have helped to create.

[1] Mike DeBonis, “Public Housing waiting list to close April 12,” Washington Post, April 4, 2013.

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