Monday, April 14, 2014

Keep Public Housing II

According to Where are They Now?, a fascinating study of those evicted from SW, "Southwest Washington was a rat-infested, refuse-covered, unsanitary slum," from which DC cleared out the housing and 23,500 residents by 1960 "in order to build a 'new town in the city' with air-conditioned apartments for middle and upper income groups as well as some 929 public housing units." I wrote previously about how some of those displaced became sick with grief, similar to that experienced by a death in the family. This was a common reaction to such relocations nationwide.

Before 1960, those who had lived in SW often resided with extended family or made extra money housing boarders. The housing market in DC, especially for African Americans, was incredibly difficult, and was made more difficult after the evictions of 1960 with thousands of residents looking for new housing. A lucky few made it into public housing or adequate private housing. The Where are They Now? researchers were most surprised by the different responses from those who had moved to public housing and from those who had moved to private housing. In line with the popular dislike of public housing in the 1960s, the researchers had expected much better experiences among those in private housing. They instead found: "the public housing resident is a much more integrated, optimistic, and informed person than the private housing dweller. The picture is consistent in every area that was studied." Why? While they complained about the institutional nature of public housing (especially the bureaucratic rules), the public housing residents had a sense of community. The researchers found:
The respondents in public housing are less anomic, more hopeful as to what the future will bring them, have a greater sense of belonging to their new neighborhoods, believe more strongly that they can organize for community improvement, have a great knowledge of community institutions, and believe to a greater extent that the Government actions to eliminate the blight of old Southwest was correct.
These social connections are a much needed by low-income residents, and public housing can enhance such connections. (see also the comment here by a former resident Arthur Capper public housing project)

When the lucky few moved into public housing, however, they were no longer allowed to house members of their extended families or boarders. In interviews, former public housing residents remembered cousins or other relatives periodically living with them. To move into public housing, families had to be transformed into more nuclear families. This was likely also the case with private apartments that often are zoned to have a certain number of residents. As a result of these restrictive policies, many people likely became homeless for various periods of time.

Now, with the tearing down of public housing and replacement of it with mixed-income, families are transformed again. The Post had an article about the stalled redevelopment of the several public housing projects, including Lincoln Heights. Finally, some Lincoln Heights residents were invited to move into a new mixed-income building. The article describes how one former resident moved into a wonderful new apartment. Another resident, however, "opted to stay where she was. She was approved for a one-bedroom but did not want to leave her two adult sons on the street." The family was being transformed again, as relatives had to be neglected and the family reduced to just one person or just a few people, who can fit within the studios and one-bedroom apartments that might be available in DC. Luckily, the woman could choose to stay in Lincoln Heights public housing and be with her sons.

Public housing must remain as an option for people. This post also suggests that affordable housing must be more than studios and one-bedrooms. All sorts of people do miraculous work taking in relatives, friends of friends, friends of relatives, and others desperately in need of housing. This system of mutual aid has become overloaded too, which might explain the recent surge in homelessness that left one mother with a two-week-old baby homeless. Public housing must remain an option for our DC neighbors.

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