#104 Mar/Apr 1999

New Hope for Public Housing?

America’s hulking public housing towers have provided a shifting symbol through the years. When built, they symbolized a generous system, giving comfort to Americans who needed help finding shelter. They […]

America’s hulking public housing towers have provided a shifting symbol through the years. When built, they symbolized a generous system, giving comfort to Americans who needed help finding shelter. They gradually transformed into the symbol of urban decay, and President Reagan stood in front of abandoned towers declaring that somehow the buildings themselves were responsible for crime, poverty, and crumbling infrastructure. Massive demolition projects followed, with images of the towers disappearing into clouds of dust, along with – it was promised – the ills of the urban poor.

For 2.8 million people, of course, these buildings are more than a symbol – they’re home. The federal government’s latest renewal effort, HUD’s HOPE VI program, has spurred debate anew about how best to meet the needs of those who rely on housing subsidies to keep roofs over their heads. This multi-billion dollar program attempts to look at the problems of public housing communities holistically, to change the very structure – physical, social, and economic – of public housing.

Public Housing in “Severe Distress”

Congress appointed the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing in 1989 to plumb the depth of the challenges facing the nation’s public housing stock. The commission reported that 86,000 of the nation’s 1.2 million public housing units were severely distressed, “because of their physical deterioration and uninhabitable living conditions, increasing levels of poverty, inadequate and fragmented services reaching only a portion of the residents, institutional abandonment, and location in neighborhoods often as blighted as the sites themselves.” The report didn’t indicate specific developments exhibiting these conditions, but the commission urged congressional action to remedy the situation.

The response came in the form of the Urban Revitalization Demonstration Program, legislation that sought to combine capital improvements with community and support services to transform the housing, communities, and families suffering from the conditions outlined in the commission’s report. The program, which became HOPE VI, has been HUD’s flagship public housing initiative since 1992. Touting HOPE VI as “more than bricks and mortar,” HUD lays out five objectives for the program:

  • Changing the physical shape of public housing by replacing the worst public housing developments with apartments or townhouses that become part of their surrounding communities.
  • Reducing concentrations of poverty by encouraging a greater income mix among public housing residents and by encouraging working families to move into public housing and into new market-rate housing being built as part of the neighborhoods where public housing is located.
  • Establishing support services to help public housing residents get and keep jobs.
  • Establishing and enforcing high standards of personal and community responsibility.
  • Forging broad-based partnerships in planning and implementing improvements in public housing.

“It’s hard to go into a city where they’re not talking about how we brought down the high-rises and built beautiful communities,” says HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo. More than $3 billion has been divided among 104 grantees in cities around the country, to implement proposals that call for demolishing 47,856 public housing units, constructing 33,009, and rehabilitating 8,614 more. The plans also call for constructing 15,404 units that are not public housing, but are market-rate units, and units financed with the Low Income Housing Tax Credit. Another 8,130 mostly vacant public housing units are being demolished under 28 demolition-only grants. The totals equal a loss of nearly 23,000 public housing units, and of about 7,600 hard units overall. HUD uses a competitive application process to choose sites for funding, and funds are granted to those who demonstrate the most pressing need and offer the most innovative proposals.

Just as there are no “quick fixes” to housing problems, there are few quick results. Six years into the program, none of the sites’ capital improvement plans had been completed, and residents were living in new units at only 11 of the sites by June 1998. As such, most are hard pressed to call the initiative a success or failure. The trends that have emerged from the processes in each city have revealed some patterns, however, that caught the attention of HUD’s own Office of the Inspector General (OIG) in a report released in December 1998. The report enumerates “significant concerns” with the program that HUD needs to address to ensure that HOPE VI adequately meets the needs of residents. Many residents and advocates say they didn’t need the report to tell them that.

Resident Participation

With HOPE VI, HUD aims to encourage resident participation. That doesn’t seem to be the way it has worked in many cities, if the number of threats of legal action and actual lawsuits filed against local public housing authorities (PHAs) and HUD on behalf of tenants who say their voices aren’t being heard is any indication. Legal services attorneys in many cities have worked with tenant groups to organize legal challenges to demolition and displacement plans that have been drafted and submitted without resident involvement.

HUD may well be adhering to its promise to approve applications only after residents have signed off on the plan, says Othello Poulard, Director of the Public Housing Initiative at the Center for Community Change, but in some instances those residents don’t represent the entire population of the development. Tenant leaders are often employed by the local PHA, he points out, leading to potential conflicts of interest.

That’s precisely the case in Cincinnati, says George Lee, a resident of the Lincoln Court public housing complex. “The PHA forced the plan down the residents’ throats,” he says, adding that the resident council president and vice president, who signed off on the plan, are both employed by the PHA. “There was no vote taken of all the residents,” he says, and only after 500 residents signed a petition has the PHA held meetings to inform them of the plans, but still not to engage them in the process.

In Boston, residents of the Mission Main public housing complex threatened the PHA with a lawsuit, says Jay Rose, a Greater Boston Legal Services attorney who worked with tenants. Negotiations then led to an agreement that gave residents enough representation at the negotiating table to block any plans they disagreed with. Winning that position wasn’t easy, he says, but residents realized that they had little to lose if they challenged the PHA, since the plans already drafted would cost most their homes.

Including citizens is good, says Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), but participation means different things to different people, and in many cases it seems poorly done. In some cities residents don’t have adequate information to understand what’s going on, she says, much less participate in the process, and in many cities PHAs simply don’t have the experience or wherewithal or instincts to engage residents in more than a perfunctory manner.

Barbara Moore was a resident of the Earle Village development in Charlotte, North Carolina, when the PHA there applied for HOPE VI funding. She recalls that “a lot of tenants felt like the plan was already put together and then we were involved afterwards through meetings that made it look like we were participating.” Jackie Abraham, who still lives in Earle Village, adds, “As long as [the PHA] still needed the money, residents were required to go to meetings, but after they got the money there were no more meetings, and they disbanded the tenant council.”

Von Gore, who manages Charlotte’s HOPE VI projects for the Housing Authority, says the tenant council was disbanded as part of the effort to create the new mixed-income community. The management company overseeing the new units will establish a resident association that includes residents of public housing units as well as the others. During the application and planning process, though, she says residents were engaged in focus groups and given many chances to participate.

“You can never get 100 percent consent on what to do in a community, and it’s understandable that people react with lawsuits,” says HUD Spokesperson Stan Vosper. HUD and local PHAs can certainly do a better job of involving residents in all phases of HOPE VI, he says, but “if residents want to be involved in the process they have to get up and go themselves. The opportunities are there.”

Residents are rightly concerned about their role in the future of their housing, after “a long, long history of broken promises,” acknowledges Elinor Bacon, who oversees the program as Deputy Assistant Secretary in HUD’s Office of Public Housing Investments. But HOPE VI, she says, is working to undo that history. She is making a concerted effort to visit sites where residents feel shut out of the process, and she says that future requirements for sites that receive funding will stress the need to include residents. Previous guidelines had mandated only that a single public meeting be held to “notify residents” of the application being submitted and the potential consequences to their community.

In the end, though, residents have to recognize that they don’t have veto power over projects. The money is allotted to PHAs, which have the final word on how it is spent, Bacon says. “That doesn’t mean resident groups shouldn’t be at the table, though. They can play a major role in the redevelopment and reshaping of the community.”

New Housing for Whom?

Bacon calls HOPE VI “a tremendously exciting program of profound and historical importance in the revitalization of cities.” HUD’s goals of changing public housing’s physical shape, integrating services with public housing programs, and steering development toward mixed-income communities have been widely praised as a step in the right direction toward healthy, sustainable communities. HUD hopes to bring up national median income for public housing residents, now $6,939, in new developments by mixing market rate, tax-credit, and homeownership units with public housing units.

But efforts to ensure that the new developments are mixed-income have raised concerns about whether families at the lowest end of the income scale will have access to these units. While many of HOPE VI’s goals make great sense, says NLIHC’s Crowley, the flaw lies in the inability of HOPE VI projects to accommodate people who are displaced and people with worst case housing needs. HOPE VI doesn’t solve the critical housing problems of the very poor, she says, and exacerbates them by making fewer units accessible.

A close look at the national numbers reveals that HOPE VI developments usually create fewer units than they tear down, and many of the new units aren’t within financial reach of families being displaced. Although many buildings being demolished have high vacancy rates, with many units in disrepair and boarded up – often by design so that the PHA can justify demolition – HOPE VI is still displacing more families than there are new units being built. Federal housing laws no longer require one-for-one replacement of units. HUD’s numbers indicate that the 1998 HOPE VI grant recipients will relocate 8,291 families, of which 3,976 will move back into the new public housing units. Another 3,607 households will receive Section 8 vouchers, and the rest will be placed in other existing public housing units.

In Cincinnati, the 886-unit Lincoln Court will be demolished to make way for 75 homes subsidized by the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, 50 homeownership units, and 250 public housing units. That’s a loss of 636 public housing units, and a loss of 511 hard units total. While some current residents, those at the highest level of allowable income within public housing, may be eligible for the tax-credit or homeownership units, most will more likely vie for the public housing units.

But Donald Trendel, Executive Director of the Cincinnati PHA, says there’s a net gain of affordable housing in Cincinnati. The city has promised 600 Section 8 vouchers to those who don’t make it into the new units, he explains. Added to the 375 new units of housing, Trendel points to the total of 975 affordable housing “slots” as an increase in affordable housing in the city by close to 100 units.

Where cities have promised every resident being displaced one of the new units, it has been the result of a legal battle, as was the case in Boston, or under special circumstances, as in Kansas City, MO, where the city’s PHA is under court-ordered receivership. Each household forced to vacate a unit slated for demolition is promised continued subsidies, either in the form of a new unit in the HOPE VI development, relocation to another public housing development elsewhere in the city, or a Section 8 voucher. In many cities displaced families are told they will each be “eligible” for the newly built units, but often that translates into several households competing for each available unit.

Raising the Bar for Tenants

HUD’s new Family Self Sufficiency (FSS) requirements also pose a challenge for tenants wanting to move into new HOPE VI units. FSS mandates that all households – except the elderly and those with special needs – participate in a community and social service program that helps with employment training, finding work, building their assets, and eventually moving out of public housing. Upon moving into a new unit, residents sign a contract outlining their educational and employment goals and are told that failure to make demonstrable progress toward these goals will result in eviction.

The OIG report claims that several housing authorities attributed low rates of return among former tenants of projects redeveloped under HOPE VI to residents’ dissatisfaction with FSS requirements. Gore says this is also true of Charlotte. “You have to commit that you are going to work on raising your education level, your earning capacity, and move out in five years,” she says. “Some people just don’t want to do this.”

Even getting into FSS is a challenge for many, requiring a background check for criminal and credit histories, and some see the programs as tailored to allow entrance to only those families most likely to succeed and who already have some resources. “There may not be real income thresholds, but the requirements of FSS discriminate against people with very low incomes,” says Terri Andrews, housing resource developer with Community Link in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Bacon disagrees, but acknowledges that some residents opt out of the program. “People who leave often don’t want to live under the rigors of supportive services,” she says, and the fact that many residents choose vouchers instead is not a bad thing, since they’re opting to return to the mainstream housing market, which puts them closer to self-sufficiency.

But residents’ choosing not to participate in FSS is different from saying they don’t want services, says Crowley, since there is a punitive nature to the programs. It’s understandable that residents are uneasy about participating if their housing depends “upon their ability to perform adequately in a program that was prescribed, that they didn’t have a role in shaping, and that is of untested quality.” Service programs work when participation is voluntary, she says, but in the case of HOPE VI, PHAs seem to use them to screen out residents with greater needs.

That’s not the point at all, according to HUD. “I haven’t heard of any HOPE VI sites when residents who want to return, and who are good neighbors, can’t return,” says Bacon. Good neighbors, she explains, are residents who meet FSS eligibility requirements and are making an active effort to become self-sufficient.

“The fundamental issue is, do you create communities by eliminating the weakest members, or by lifting everybody up?” Crowley asks. While she feels HOPE VI seems to favor the former, Bacon disagrees. “The old public housing structures were not a good way for people to live,” she says. “What we’re doing is giving everybody the opportunity to lift themselves up.”

Where Do They Go?

While Bacon says HOPE VI intends to allow displaced residents to return to the new units, the fact that fewer public housing units are built at each site implies an assumption that not everyone will want to return. Bacon acknowledges that that’s the case. The OIG report, which examined 10 HOPE VI projects, found that in six of them less than half the residents of the old units were returning to the new units, with as low as an eight percent return rate at one development. In Charlotte, where Von Gore says there are more than enough units to meet the needs of displaced residents “who want to return,” she attributes the fact that a great number of residents are choosing not to return to many families not wanting to move twice – once to get out of the old unit, and again, often several years later, after construction is complete.

Ultimately, many residents with very low incomes end up in other public housing developments elsewhere in the city – perhaps to begin the cycle again, since the units they end up in are usually the very kind HOPE VI seeks to eliminate, or replace with Section 8 vouchers.

Many PHAs have chosen the Section 8 course. The Richmond, Virginia Redevelopment and Housing Authority’s plan, approved in 1997, calls for demolition of all 499 units at the Blackwell development, where the median income is $7,900. The construction plan calls for just 54 units targeted to residents with a $7,900 median income, leaving hundreds of families to take their Section 8 vouchers and look for housing elsewhere in the city, or go to other public housing developments.

Residents who choose to leave public housing are offered housing counseling services, says Bacon, that help them consider housing opportunities they may not have otherwise thought were within their reach. But since vouchers can mean residents must contribute more to rent than they had in public housing, and since many landlords won’t participate in Section 8, the pickings are slim when residents are looking for apartments, and they’re usually relegated to neighborhoods with little transportation or other infrastructure. In Cincinnati, says George Lee, “some tenants are just leaving, and not waiting to get their Section 8 vouchers, because people are finding that some landlords won’t rent to them if they have vouchers, or if they know they’re from [public housing].”

Bacon acknowledges that residents who have “vouchered out” of HOPE VI developments have been difficult to track and provide services to, and she says HUD will insist that future grantees provide such services to residents who leave public housing. A tracking and evaluation system is also being implemented, she says, which will allow HUD to measure outcomes of these services.

Yet reliance on vouchers may have an effect counter to HUD’s goal of reducing concentrated poverty and segregation, according to David Bryson of the National Housing Law Project. Bryson says he has noticed that in San Francisco many developments being demolished are predominantly minority, often in well-integrated, mixed-income neighborhoods. When given a portable voucher, many tenants choose to move to more heavily minority neighborhoods with lower median incomes – often the only areas where they can afford rent. An investigation by the Chicago Reporter cited similar findings in that city.

That may well be the case, admits HUD spokesperson Stan Vosper, but “HUD is not in the business of telling people where to live.” At the same time, he says the goal is to do more than simply move pockets of concentration around the city. The new public housing law requires PHAs to submit deconcentration plans, which will help in that effort, he says.

The OIG report notes the “irony” in the fact that the very people whose condition could have made the site eligible for HOPE VI funding are not among those who benefit from the grant. “Since authorities primarily provide HOPE VI community and supportive services to residents who will live at the revitalized site, residents choosing not to return may not receive any services.”

The Role of Advocates

The advocacy community needs to recognize those qualities of HOPE VI that improve conditions of low-income folks and improve communities, says Crowley, but also needs to point out the flaws and not just accept it. That means advocating for a substantial increase in funds allocated to housing subsidies, she says, as well as for guidelines that target resources to those in the greatest need.

The Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998 places a great deal more authority with local PHAs. The law allows them to further limit very poor families’ access to public housing, says Crowley, but also requires resident participation in planning. The public housing plans, in turn, have to be consistent with the municipality’s Consolidated Planning process, which details local housing needs.

Poulard, who coordinates the Public Housing Residents National Organizing Campaign, and Bacon have agreed to co-organize a series of regional workshops, at which residents will be trained in the intricacies of HOPE VI and the new law. “These relationships that the campaign has begun to establish with HUD decision makers are leading to commitments to work together to prevent problems by furthering resident participation in ways it hasn’t been promoted before,” says Poulard.

Nobody says HOPE VI is an immediate solution to the housing affordability crisis. More than a million families remain on waiting lists for public housing units, and many PHAs have closed their lists to new applicants. By HUD’s own estimate, 5.3 million Americans have unassisted “worst case housing needs.” Says HUD’s Vosper , “For every one person that receives assistance, there are four or five more who qualify but we don’t have the resources to meet those needs.” HOPE VI is a step in the direction of ending the cycle of dependence on housing subsidies, he says, and moving people out of public housing to make way for others who need help.

While the blueprint for HOPE VI seeks to address what residents, advocates, and HUD agree are the issues at the root of the crisis, program implementation has raised questions about the combination of strategies that seem to disrupt more lives than they help. Until the program addresses concerns that those who most need assistance aren’t being served, many will remain unconvinced that the effort is more than symbolic.



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