Beyond Yonkers: myth vs. reality

ONE of the saddest aspects of the Yonkers housing desegregation debacle is that it is rooted in a grossly inaccurate view of what subsidized housing is today. Much of the opposition in the Yonkers case by white residents is based on a public-housing reality that has been so greatly modified since the late 1960s that it barely resembles the old system. The old reality included a perception of enormous numbers of bleak high-rises concentrated on one site and occupied by welfare mothers and their children. The only qualification for residency was to be poor, and even if you were a troublesome or violent tenant they could not kick you out. In many projects, the results have been socially destructive criminal environments that spilled over to the rest of the neighborhood, eventually spurring middle-class flight and accelerating the deterioration of the area.

This is an oversimplification, and many projects built during the 1950s and '60s provided needed improvement in housing and neighborhoods. But there was enough truth in the old reality that it forced significant changes in the nature and operation of subsidized-housing policy in the late 1960s, and continuing today. Some of those changes include:

A shift to ``low rise'' scatter site projects, many of which were built and managed privately. This was done to build or rehabilitate housing to blend in with the rest of the neighborhood and not disrupt its existing fabric.

Mixed-income developments with a blend of residents and incomes that maintained a more middle-class atmosphere. I lived in a mixed-income subsidized project in New York City, and it was impossible to spot the ``welfare'' families.

Greater care and selectivity in choosing tenants. Although federal law still skews the subsidy to the poorest of the poor, there is greater willingness to permit managers of subsidized housing to screen potential tenants. In one program in the Chicago area operated by the Leadership Council of Greater Chicago, subsidy applicants are visited at their homes and interviewed to make sure they are willing and able to properly maintain the subsidized unit.

Less tolerance of destructive antisocial behavior. The fear in the 1960s that tenants were being persecuted and evicted by hostile management has given way to an awareness that livability may require the eviction of problem tenants within a reasonable amount of time.

The good character of a housing project can be undermined by a small number of troublemakers. With greater tenant involvement in management have come growing demands that strict codes of conduct be enforced, along with the greater likelihood of eviction. Successful tenant management experiences in St. Louis and Washington, D.C., include greater control over tenant behavior tied to a realistic threat of timely eviction. Studies show a considerable improvement in the quality of life in those developments.

Some of these changes have been occurring for 20 years. Others are of more recent vintage. But the reality they represent is in marked contrast to the vision of public housing articulated by opponents of the desegregation plan in Yonkers. This is not to deny the continued existence of high-rise monstrosities or the concentration of social ills they contain, but they represent a legacy of the past, not the policies of the present.

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