#088 Jul/Aug 1996


MAYORS, ADVOCATES FEAR CUTS Mayor Edward G. Rendell of Philadelphia is one of the first big-city mayors to cite new state welfare regulations as a direct factor in the need […]


Mayor Edward G. Rendell of Philadelphia is one of the first big-city mayors to cite new state welfare regulations as a direct factor in the need to cut local services. According to the July 29 New York Times, Mayor Rendell recently announced that the city had already exceeded its current budget for the homeless by $4 million, and has to limit access to city shelters for single adults in order to serve the homeless in the winter, when demand increases.

Responding to the city’s decision, more than 100 protesters marched on Philadelphia City Hall in late July. Protesters gathered outside Mayor Rendell’s office to chant, “Hey Ed, give us a bed.” Advocates for the homeless say Philadelphia’s decision is only the beginning. Cutbacks in federal programs, changes in state welfare policies, and the recent welfare bill passed by Congress [see Washington News & Views] could increase the numbers of homeless and leave local governments ill-equipped to contend with growing demand.

In announcing the City’s new policy, Mayor Rendell pointed to a measure recently passed by the Pennsylvania Legislature that could cut off welfare benefits for more than 40,000 single men and medical benefits for as many as 220,000 recipients. Mr. Rendell, a Democrat who called the measure “inhumane and unconscionable,” said that even before the new legislation, the city experienced a 10 percent increase in the number of people seeking shelter since last year.

This trend is nationwide. The most recent report on homelessness by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that in 1995 requests for emergency shelter in 29 cities surveyed increased an average of 11 percent over the previous year. An average of 19 percent of requests went unmet. But mayors are concerned about more than the growing number of people needing shelter services. They say a rising tide of homelessness would ultimately cost more than what welfare changes are meant to save, through an increase in crime, the need for job training and the economic loss from people who can no longer afford housing or goods, The Times reported.

“We’re left with a Hobson’s Choice.” Mr Rendell said. “Either…our needs go unmet, creating havoc, with crime, homelessness and people living in the streets. Or we meet them dollar for dollar, forcing us to raise taxes and continue a horrible vicious cycle of losing our tax base, which gives us less revenue for programs. If that happens, it kills any chance for the future viability of cities. They’ll drown.”

Officials Laud Public Housing Changes, While Others Raise Caution

Cities that became notorious for high rise public housing have begun to replace their towers with low-rise townhouses. Almost every major city in the country except New York plans to tear down high rises. Baltimore plans to raze about 40 buildings in four projects, which will make it the first city to eliminate all its public high-rises.

After destroying 22,000 apartments in 12 years, HUD is in the midst of an eight-year plan to spend more than $2.5 billion tearing down 100,000 high rise apartment buildings – in all, about 10 percent of the public housing built in the 1950s and 60s, reported the June 2 New York Times.

In Newark, New Jersey, the federal government plans to spend $300 million replacing 3,500 units in five complexes with low rises scattered over 50 to 60 sites. Having already built 700 low-rise units, Newark is ahead of most cities. According to the Times, this is largely because of a lawsuit by the Newark Coalition for Low-Income Housing, which sued in 1987 to make the housing authority obey one-for-one replacement (which has been suspended and may be rescinded). While an agreement in Federal District Court set the number of replacement units at 1,777, Harold Lucas, director of Newark’s Public Housing Authority, said occupied units would actually increase from 7,000 to 10,000 , because many high-rise apartments were deemed uninhabitable. HUD officials expect that a similar shift and subsidized rent vouchers will offset decreases in the number of units nationally.

But with two million people on the public housing waiting list nationwide, advocates say low-rises won’t automatically solve management lapses or housing shortages. “Even with low-rise there are complaints about the construction and crime,” said Richard Cammarieri of the Newark Coalition for Low-Income Housing. “It is management, and not the style of the housing, that ultimately determines the quality of the housing.”

Developers of Brooklyn’s Nehemiah Housing, I.D. Robbins and cousin Lester Robbins, died recently in New York City. I.D., 86, died on July 2, and Lester, 90, died July 16. I.D. Robbins, who was a columnist for The New York Daily News, persuaded The News to present his idea for inexpensive single-family rowhouses. After the article appeared, with floor plans and architectural renderings, one of the thousands of responses was from the Industrial Areas Foundation, challenging Robbins to put his theory into practice. With the IAF’s help, 36 congregations banded together in an ecumenical effort called East Brooklyn Churches, and helped raise an $8 million revolving fund for construction. The first Nehemiah home – a $39,000 three-bedroom, brick town house – opened in October 1982. Lester Robbins was the lead builder of the project, while I.D. supervised. Lester had created more than 6,000 moderately-priced single-family homes in New York and New Jersey, and gradually expanded his company, Robbins Construction, to develop housing for the elderly in New Jersey, and commercial and industrial projects across the country.


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