Working Poor in the South Bronx. Contrary to the stereotype, life in the projects does not always mean welfare, too. PORTRAIT: AN AMERICAN FAMILY

CYNTHIA WILSON rises in predawn darkness, boils four pots of water to take the icy chill out of her unheated apartment, and awakens her three children as the first shafts of sunlight blanket the monolithic housing projects of the South Bronx. Ms. Wilson is like most women and men who live in the Daniel Webster Houses in the Bronx: She holds a job, she heads a family, and she harbors a dream.

Her job is to clean linens three nights and two days a week at the Roosevelt Hotel, where she earns a yearly salary of $14,000. Her family consists of three sons and two daughters ranging in age from eight to 28. The two oldest have left home.

Her dream, she says, is to one day leave the towering, blocky projects and the brazen drug traffic that scars East 167th Street, and buy a small place of her own.

Ms. Wilson has lived in the Webster Houses for 11 years. She admits that she is likely to remain there for 11 more.

``Yeah, I dream, but I don't fuss with it too much,'' she says matter-of-factly. ``The prices [for private housing] are so staggering that after you pay your rent you can't eat. Here, you can eat but you can't get heat.''

Twenty-one stories high, the Webster Houses sprawl over 4.5 acres along Webster Avenue, a hurly-burly commercial strip lined with gas stations and car washes, laundromats and bodegas. Empty crack vials lie scattered across the sidewalk fronting the projects. Inside, the elevators run sporadically, and the stairwells reek of urine.

`THAT'S pretty tough country up there,'' said a housing official of the Webster Houses. But for 600 families, the Webster projects are home. All of the families struggle, and according to the New York City Housing Authority, most of them work.

Working families comprise 60 percent of the New York authority's 121,152 households headed by someone under 62. This dispels the stereotype that the projects are the last resort for people who are on welfare, and are in no hurry to get off.

``Public housing was always intended as a way to give working people a ladder out of poverty,'' says Val Coleman, a spokesman for the New York authority. ``It was deliberately set up so that it not become a welfare institution, but a place where families shattered by poverty are mixed with people who work.''

About 38 percent of Webster tenants are on welfare, a figure somewhat larger than the 27 percent average for the city's projects. Twenty-one percent of Webster's residents are 62 years or older, and many of them receive other forms of government assistance.

Working families constitute a significant segment of the nation's public housing population, particularly where housing authorities have reached out to the working poor, according to the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities (CLPHA), a research and lobbying group. The proportion of non-elderly, working families who reside in public housing averages 42 percent nationwide.

Tenants in New York's housing work at jobs offering small reward for the pocketbook as well as the ego. They are porters, subway conductors, fast-food cooks, and dishwashers. The average yearly gross income in the Daniel Webster Houses is $10,310, which is slightly under the city-wide average of $11,424.

A stout, genial woman who retains the lilting accent of her native Barbados, Ms. Wilson recalls that 15 years ago she lived with her four young children in a one-bedroom flat.

``That place was so tight, it was driving me crazy and my kids crazy,'' she says. ``So I went to the Housing department and I said `Please, I'm a working mother, and I need help.'''

Once she was certified as eligible for public housing, Ms. Wilson was placed on a waiting list that last year swelled to more than 200,000 families.

According to Herbert Hamburg, director of the Department of Housing Applications, homeless families are given priority over families living in grossly overcrowded or substandard conditions. To maintain an economic cross-section in New York's projects, preference is also given, where possible, to working families.

``It's not always an equitable system,'' says Mr. Hamburg. ``But then public housing is not merely the housing of last resort. We need stable families who can act as role models to others in the system.''

After a four-year wait, Ms. Wilson was taken to the Webster Houses to inspect her prospective home.

``With the bedrooms and all the closet space, this place seemed like a mansion,'' she says. ``I took it as soon as I saw it.''

The Wilsons' apartment has three small bedrooms, a living room with three plastic-covered sofas and a sideboard crammed with family photographs, and a kitchen with flowered wallpaper, a refrigerator and a stove.

During her first years in the Webster Houses Ms. Wilson, like the rest of the nation's working tenants in the projects, paid 25 percent of her income for rent and utilities. In 1981 the Reagan administration increased rent levels in federally subsidized public housing to 30 percent of a tenant's income.

Some housing officials contend that the higher rent levels may force low-income families out of public housing. They predict that if the working family population declines, the projects will fail to maintain an economically mixed tenancy and public housing will someday be principally populated by the very poor.

TENANTS at the Webster Houses complain bitterly of the rent increases, but few plan on moving. As the construction of affordable housing in the city dwindles, few in public housing can find an alternate place to live. Indeed, New York's turnover rate of public housing apartments is now at an all-time low of 3.2 percent.

The gap between the limited resources of the poor and the availability of low cost housing is most acute in California, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C.

There are at least twice as many low income renters as affordable units in these states, according to estimates by the Low Income Housing Information Service.

Even though the number of working parents who are unable to find affordable housing is increasing, the New York authority has in the last eight years received federal allocations for construction of just 1,418 new units, according to Amy Cohen, director of program planning for the New York City Housing Authority.

By contrast, in 1971 the federal government subsidized construction of a record high 9,833 public housing units in New York.

Nationally, new construction of subsidized housing units in 1987 totaled 2,449, down from 36,365 units in 1980, according to CLPHA.

By contrast, approximately 8.9 million households qualify for subsidized housing, but do not receive any form of housing assistance. About 27 percent of those households with an annual income below $10,000 pay more than 75 percent of their income for rent.

``These are prime candidates for homeless shelters,'' says Bob McKay, executive director of CLPHA.

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