Friday, November 30, 2012

The Poor are Too Expensive

Back in September at a friend's outdoor dinner party, I talked with someone at affordable housing company. Here are my notes:
Last night, conversation with X who works at a private company working with cities on mixed-income affordable housing. Her point was that it was too expensive to house the poor.
It is true that mixed-income affordable housing does not really house the poor. For example, a new residential complex could have 158 units with 112 units sold at market rate and the following affordable units: 

units for those making less than $32,250
5 units

units for those making less than $64,500
29 units

units for those making less than $86,000 12 units

It is quite easy to work full-time and make less than $32,250. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data on DC-area average wages, a household with one breadwinner can easily be in poverty working full-time at the following jobs:
  • Barber/Salon Shampooers $19,390
  • Fast-Food Cook $19,660
  • Dishwasher $20,600
  • Cashiers $21,780
  • Food Preparation Workers $22,510
  • Child Care Workers $23,980
  • Janitor $25,480
  • Hotel Desk Clerk $26,190
  • Bank Tellers $28,410
Since many people working these jobs make an hourly wage and not the full-time salaries listed above, households with two breadwinners also could be making less than $30,000. A janitor working full-time could afford to pay $541/month in rent (30% of their monthly post-tax income).

Yet, these low-wage service workers are absolutely essential to global cities like DC. Highly and not-so-highly paid professional rely on these low-wage service workers. We live in a society that has no place for the poor and, at the same time, completely depends on the poor. The private and public sectors do provide housing to those who can pay market rate, but somehow the poor are too expensive?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Contributions of Public Housing

Someone recently sent me this post "Home of The Supremes & First Black Public Housing Complex to be Demolished in Detroit" by Duke University Professor of African & African American Studies Mark Anthony Neal. In Detroit, the Brewster-Douglass public housing project was closed in 2008 and is now being redeveloped. In this article, the Mayor of Detroit is quoted as saying: 
The former Brewster-Douglass complex has a proud place in Detroit’s rich history, as the nation’s first federal housing project for African Americans; as the place where Joe Louis learned to box; and where Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard formed the Supremes.
Yet, the emergence of great musicians and athletes from the Brewster-Douglas public housing project in Detroit was not a fluke. I suggest that, across the country, public housing projects produced many great musicians and athletes, as well as many other professionals. Why? And why is this not generally recognized?

I base my argument on what I have learned from the oral histories that I am conducting with former residents of Ward 6's Arthur Capper public housing project. The MLK Library's Washingtoniana Division is now processing the first batch of these oral histories, and the public will be able to listen to these oral histories any day of the week.

During a recent interview, I asked one of the former residents why she thought that Arthur Capper changed for the worse in the mid-1980s. Those I have interviewed so far have stated emphatically that it was wonderful growing up in Arthur Capper during the 1960s and 1970s. So, what had changed? She said that 1) in the early 1980s, DC Park and Recreation dramatically cut the funding to the Arthur Capper Recreation Center and 2) in the early 1980s (1981 to be exact), one of the main employers in the area, the Washington Star, went out of business.

The Arthur Capper Recreation Center, probably like other public housing recreation centers, was an amazing source of activities that not only occupied the time of children, but developed their skills. The rec center had coaches for the boys sports teams and girls sports teams, which practiced seemingly everyday. These teams regularly competed with teams at other public housing projects, especially Greenleaf in Southwest. These were seriously competitive games that brought out people from across the city. From all this practice, these children turned out to be some of the best athletes in the city.

The rec center also organized an enormous music scene. Well, there were already male singing groups that regularly met, maybe everyday, on every corner of Arthur Capper to sing Motown, such as the Dells, and R&B. Then, in the early 1970s, Arthur Capper had numerous soul/R&B bands, including Free Form Experience (definitely listen to this), Redds and The Boys (who had a 1980s hit song “Movin’ and Groovin’”), Mousetrap (earlier Young Sounds of Soul), The Spirits of Liberty, Zoom Band and Show, Larry Anderson's K Street Crew, and Keith Hatcher's band. Some bands from other parts of town were seen as competition, such as East Coast Connection (definitely listen to this) and Brookland Highlights. Kids would learn instruments from watching these bands play and then would form their own bands. Like the sports teams, all these bands practiced a lot. Every Friday and Saturday night, bands from Arthur Capper or from elsewhere in the city would play at the stage at the Arthur Capper Recreation Center or in other places around Arthur Capper. [The role of DC Park and Rec reminds me of the importance today of the US National Park Service's life-shaping concert scene at Fort Reno and Fort Dupont, as well as my own experiences learning to swim and play tennis through the park and rec.]

The DC government and federal government cut funding to public housing and recreation centers for a variety of reasons, including due to significant cuts in federal aid to cities. During the 1960s and 1970s, the Federal government invested heavily in cities because states neglected cities. The Reagan administration severely cut the federal budget, including federal funding to cities. I need a more reliable set of data, but here is something general from the National Housing Institute:
By the end of Reagan’s term in office federal assistance to local governments was cut 60 percent. Reagan eliminated general revenue sharing to cities, slashed funding for public service jobs and job training, almost dismantled federally funded legal services for the poor, cut the anti-poverty Community Development Block Grant program and reduced funds for public transit. The only “urban” program that survived the cuts was federal aid for highways – which primarily benefited suburbs, not cities.
At the moment, I have only anecdotal evidence that the activities at the Arthur Capper Recreation Center were significantly diminished, leaving the children in the area without the development of their sport, musical, and other skills.

At about the same time, the Washington Star newspaper went out of business in 1981. The Washington Post took over the building and presses, but the number of jobs seemed to have dropped significantly. Adults and children had regularly worked for the Washington Star. Everyday after school, kids were picked up by trucks and delivered around the city to sell newspapers. This money was extremely important to both the kids and their families. Adults could work regularly or drop by for temporary work. The end of these jobs placed an additional burden on the Arthur Capper community.

So, this post is a first attempt at trying to document the vibrant sport and musical life in public housing that created such stars as the Supremes and to explain some of the reasons for the changes in public housing life in the 1980s and 1990s.

Friday, November 23, 2012

What would Adolf Cluss do?

A couple of years ago, at a meeting about the redevelopment of the Hine Jr. High site (8th and Pennsylvania, SE), one of my neighbors asked the architect, "What would Adolf Cluss do?" Cluss had been the architect of so many beautiful buildings in DC, such as the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building (to the right) and Ward 6's Eastern Market (to the left). Cluss also designed the Wallach School (below), the school torn down to make way for Hine Jr High. So, if Cluss was alive today, what would he have done with the Hine site? Since he built such beautiful buildings that are so popular today, could we capture some of his spirit and inspiration?

Well, this is an interesting question, especially considering the fact that Cluss was a communist, an active participant in the 1848 revolution in Germany, and a close friend of Karl Marx. For information about Adolf Cluss (1825-1905), I turned to the beautiful book Adolf Cluss, Architect: From Germany to America. Arriving in the US in 1849, Cluss worked at the Navy Yard and organized the workers there. He also sought to transplant the Communist League from Germany to the United States and wrote articles for a variety of communist and left-wing periodicals. In 1858, Cluss broke with Karl Marx and allied with German communist and future Civil War Union General August Willich (Letter from Marx to another revolutionary; see much of Marx's correspondence here).

In 1862, Cluss began his architecture career when he won a competition to design the Wallach School, yes, the school before Hine. He designed six of the earliest public schools in Washington, DC, and many public buildings and public works, as well as private residences and churches. As discussed on the book's website, "Cluss promoted the quality of urban life by designing enduring, beautiful school buildings for Washington's students, both African-American and white. His public schools in Washington enabled all segments of society, regardless of wealth or race, to experience architectural beauty and style." In her review of another book on Cluss, Kate Holiday wrote, "Cluss's idealism made him an active urban reformer, and he spent much of his architectural energy on building 'multiclass urban public schools.'" At that time, such an approach was, in fact, revolutionary!

However, maybe such an approach would also be revolutionary today in an age when most developments involve condos (with a few "affordable" units), high-end retail, boutique hotels, and high-rent office space. So, what would Cluss do? He almost certainly would not design something like the current Hine redevelopment plan. Any ideas of what Cluss might do?