US Eyes Public Housing - And Begins to Remodel

In Chicago last weekend, HUD's Andrew Cuomo defends housing for poor as a 'good idea' perverted by bad construction.

It's hard to imagine that these numbingly bland brick towers, built on a treeless stretch of land just south of downtown Chicago, ever made sense to anybody.

But four decades ago, the massive public-housing developments along this city's State Street corridor rose from the notion that the federal government ought to provide affordable and temporary shelter for working families.

Today, however, these dilapidated buildings have become warehouses for the nation's largest concentration of poverty. They are isolated fortresses in a neighborhood mired in cycles of crime, joblessness, and dependence. They are a widely acknowledged symbol of wrongheaded urban policy.

At a time when taxpayer patience for federal entitlement programs is wearing thin, pressure to find a way to make public housing viable is rising. "Public housing was and is a good idea," said Andrew Cuomo, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), during a visit to Chicago this past weekend. "But sometimes when we've implemented that good idea, it's been perverted in the actual construction."

An attempt to change the nature of public housing, perhaps the most dramatic effort in six decades, has now begun. Under a program known as HOPE VI, authorized by Congress in 1993, the Clinton administration has started to tear down 100,000 of the nation's 1.3 million public-housing units and spend nearly $1 billion fixing up existing projects and building new units.

The program's goal is to demolish the largest structures and scatter their populations closer to jobs and services. Under the plan, tenants who are displaced by demolition will receive vouchers to find their own housing on the free market.

By freeing tenants from the economic isolation they've experienced in places like the State Street Corridor, and by opening up public housing for middle-class workers, lawmakers hope to create more viable communities. "We need to build communities of the right density and concentration in mixed neighborhoods with good jobs and good schools," Mr. Cuomo said.

In some ways, officials say, the new strategy is hampered by the stereotype that all public-housing developments are magnets to the worst social ills. Past failures, they say, have created resistance in many communities to accepting these new mixed-income developments.

"In large part, the residents aren't the problem," says Joe Shuldiner, president of the Chicago Housing Authority. "It's the environment we built for them." When low-income people are isolated in stagnant communities and surrounded by people who do not work, he says, they often have difficulty leading functional lives.

Congressional Republicans favor ceding more control to the 3,300 public housing authorities in the US. Some conservatives have suggested that the federal government should relinquish its role as landlord. It's an argument buttressed by the fact that HUD has spent $440 billion in the last 30 years on public housing.

"When we produce a better product, maybe then the public will be willing to spend more to support it," Mr. Shuldiner says, noting his shrinking budget.

In Chicago, the pressure is particularly intense. Public housing here is home to 86,000 of the city's poorest people, with a median household income of just $4,000. Nearly 90 percent of public-housing residents are black and 70 percent of the 15,000 voucher holders are concentrated in the poorer areas of the city's south suburbs.

In the next 10 years, CHA must tear down 17,500 of its worst high-rise apartments and help families find rent-subsidized alternatives.

Some experts worry that displaced families will end up paying more for worse apartments, if they can find them. "Across the nation, the prevailing pattern is that for every 100 housing units demolished, only about half the number are rebuilt," says Othello Poulard at the Center for Community Change in Washington. "Of that number, only about 25 to 35 percent are occupied by low-income individuals. The net loss is radical."

Mr. Poulard says that as HUD's influence shrinks, the safety net for the poor will weaken.

"In an ideal world, I would not force anyone to live in the kinds of eyesores you see in Chicago," he says. "But some of the people living there have no better alternative. To a drowning man, a straw is welcomed."

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