Public Housing's New Mortar: Innovation
America's needy try living among college students, others will get to own their homes
BOSTON — This month, some of Paulette Ford's fondest dreams will begin to come true.
After 15 years of living with plumbing mishaps and a crumbling exterior, Ms. Ford's public-housing apartment is getting a major rehab. If that isn't enough, the American dream of home ownership is now within grasp, too. The inner-city middle-school teacher and the 275 other residents of Boston's Camfield Gardens will become joint owners of their complex by 2010.
"I'm very happy and the residents are excited. And with God's help, I think this will all turn out all right," says Ford, who is president of the Camfield Tenant Association.
While Ford may be fortunate, she is not alone. The scarcity of affordable housing and changing priorities at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) are spawning more innovation in how America houses its poor than has been seen in decades.
Across the country, state and local governments, private institutions, and nonprofit organizations are developing - and implementing - creative ways to shelter those in need:
* In Louisville, Ky., Humana Hospital is pitching in to provide housing for its lower-income workers.
* Pennsylvania's legislature recently passed a plan that helps the poor put money away for a down payment by matching the funds in their savings accounts.
* In Fremont, Calif., the city budget includes funding for a housing scholarship program for those in transition from welfare to work.
"Clearly, lots of people are doing things differently than they have in the past," says William Apgar, head of the Joint Center on Housing Studies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
One reason for the change in strategy in public housing is a drop in federal spending.
"The pressure on the budget nationally has forced a lot of rethinking on how we do business in the housing arena," says Mr. Apgar.
Boston: a city of ideas
One hot spot for public-housing innovation is Boston. Its imaginative approach stems largely from the many private and nonprofit agencies that have sprung up in response to the city's high rents. Its cutting-edge plans include:
* The Demonstration Disposition Program is a joint HUD-Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency project that will renovate 1,500 apartments - including Paulette Ford's - by 1998.
The pilot project is being watched by housing authorities nationwide as a solution for handling property that has fallen into disrepair and off HUD's priority list.
It sets a 15-year timetable for handing ownership and management to residents. It also provides for unprecedented involvement of residents in the renovation of the units - from helping choose the architects to creating new Boys and Girls Clubs for the area.
* Northeastern University has submitted a plan to the city that would mix student apartments with low-income housing - the first time this has been tried anywhere in the country.
The design calls for 228 units to be built. Twenty percent of the apartments would be for city residents earning less than 50 percent of the Boston median income. The rest would be filled with Northeastern upperclassmen.
"It's clear that no other institution is really taking this kind of mix on," says Mary Breslauer at Northeastern. "We believe ... that we are responding to the mayor's call to relieve some ... pressure around the housing stock in the city."
* The Boston Aging Concerns Young & Old United Inc. will oversee construction of 26 apartments this summer. The housing - the first in the nation to target this growing group - is reserved for elderly people who are raising their grandchildren. The units will have handicapped access and a playground - items not usually provided in the same housing complexes. The Grandfamilies project, as it's called, will also offer services tailored to grandparents raising children.
But many who applaud these creative efforts also worry that these projects - smaller than those paid for by Washington in the past - will leave many without housing. "The good news is that these are more locally generated," Apgar says. "But the real question is whether, when all is said and done, there will be enough funding for all this innovation.
"I think this is all to the good, but the housing shortage is such a big problem that, eventually, we'll have to bring these programs to [a larger] scale," he says.
Apgar's and others' concerns come at a time when the guarantee of housing, one of the last vestiges of President Roosevelt's New Deal, is in jeopardy. Last month, the House of Representatives voted to repeal the housing law that has been on the books since 1937 and replace it with one that emphasizes local control of public housing.
Like welfare reform, it requires residents to find a job or perform community service to stay in public housing. The Senate is expected to take up its own housing-reform legislation this month.
"Where we can work without federal mandates ... but instead work with local authorities and tenant groups in federal government-facilitated partnerships, that's exactly what we're looking forward to doing," says Sean Cassidy, GOP staff member for the House subcommittee on housing and community opportunity.
The debate in Congress puts even more pressure on programs like the Demonstration Disposition Program to succeed.
But the purpose of each individual project must be to shake up today's thinking in how to house the poor, says Steven Pierce, executive director of the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency, the semi-public agency working with HUD on the program. "The whole thrust is economic and social self-sufficiency," he says. "We all have to work together, otherwise we'll constantly be running these programs over and over again."