Reforming Public Housing?
An odd thing is happening in Philadelphia. Mayor Rendell and his housing director, John Kromer, have concluded that allowing Section 8 tenants to take their certificates or vouchers and use them in more affluent communities doesn’t work. “Aimed at lifting people out of the isolation of the projects, the [Section 8] program is perceived by critics as a neighborhood scourge,” wrote Peter Nicholas in the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Some residents contend that Section 8 tenants are hostile and inconsiderate, playing music too loudly and letting trash accumulate.”
In response to such complaints, the mayor has decided to try to change the Section 8 program by creating clustered developments. This retrograde thinking has been attacked by advocates and practitioners, including John F. White Jr., executive director of the Philadelphia Housing Authority. “People have said to me, ‘it’s racist,'” White told the Inquirer. “I said it’s worse than racist. It’s stupid. It goes against everything that is coming at us from (the federal government) to end the pockets of isolation.”
A public meeting on the issue is scheduled for November 18. We’ll let you know how it turns out. But beyond the specifics of Philadelphia, Rendell’s dilemma and plans clearly point to the weaknesses of the current system and the rhetoric of reform – devolution without accountability, choice without support, and rhetoric too full of “empowerment” without adequate tools for such.
In this issue, we examine the recently passed House and Senate public housing bills. While not yet law, these bills would bring significant changes to the way public housing and Section 8 certificates are distributed and how public housing will be managed, modernized, and replaced. Perhaps most significantly, the proposals will alter who will benefit and who will lose in the lottery system that currently leaves over 5 million eligible families without any housing assistance.
The House bill, H.R. 2, is championed by Republican Congressman Rick Lazio. In an interview, Lazio describes the philosophy behind the bill. Lazio says his bill would encourage the deconcentration of poverty and the creation of more mixed-income developments, and give individuals more choice in where they live. But does it? Democratic Congresswomen Nydia Velazquez doesn’t think so. She sees H.R. 2 and the Senate’s version as an abandonment of the poor. It’s bad enough that only 25 percent of those eligible receive assistance, Velazquez argues, now the government of the wealthiest nation on the planet would no longer give even lip service to a commitment to safe and decent place to live for all its citizens.
Advocates need to be wary that the rhetoric of “empowerment” doesn’t lead to continued abandonment. One way to assure that the real needs of public housing residents and Section 8 recipients are met is to listen to them. Yet all too often in the discussion of public housing, the voice of those most affected goes unheard. But those voices are not silent. Lucia Hwang profiles the efforts of the Center for Community Change, ACORN, and others working with public housing tenants to bring needed change locally and nationally.
Fighting Poverty with Wealth
More often than not, the range of services – healthcare, housing subsidies, cash benefits – used to fight poverty have done little more than to keep people poor but not too poor.
Even as welfare reform moves along at a feverish pace, few programs do more than move people from government supported poverty to working poverty. Few programs are designed to create long-term self-sufficiency by helping people attain wealth through education and asset accumulation.
Helping people attain wealth and overcome barriers – such as racism, poor schools, and redlining – is central in the ideas that Melvin L. Oliver, the Ford Foundation’s Vice President for Asset Building and Community Development, discusses in an interview. Oliver is co-author of Black Wealth/White Wealth, an out-of-the-box analysis of historical conditions that have led to the great disparity in wealth between black and white families. His personal experience and academic analysis undergird the Ford Foundation’s new approach to grantmaking and its exploration of innovative programs, such as the Individual Development Account, to help people build assets.
Welcome New Readers
With this issue, we welcome a group of new readers, members of the Neighborworks® Network. This collection of more than 170 community-based organizations have been revitalizing neighborhoods around the country since 1978. We’re looking forward to hearing from them and learning about their experiences.
Goodbye and Hello
Sadly, we have to say goodbye to Andy Robinson, the author of our fundraising column. We’ve appreciated not only his insightful and useful words, but also his good humor and professionalism. We’ll miss working with him, but look forward to reading the columns of Andy’s colleague, Kim Klein, editor of the Grassroots Fundraising Journal and author of Fundraising for Social Change. Kim’s first column will appear in the November/December issue.