Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Public Housing Problem

This post is comprised of several comments posed on other blogs expanded, combined and edited.

Recently several of my fellow bloggers, moved by the plight of those less fortunate, have taken part in a demonstration to reopen the St. Bernard Housing Project.

Pre-K I drove past the St. Bernard Project frequently, until I was informed by a reliable source (A United Cab driver) that the intersection of St. Bernard and I-10 was the single most frequent site of carjackings in New Orleans. She chose to ignore this authoritative warning and frequently exited the St. Bernard ramp, often with me in the car.

There is a broad consensus by housing experts that Public Housing projects conceived in the New Deal as constituted in the thirties, fifties and sixties don't work. HANO had been moving slowly toward demolition of large projects. St. Thomas was demolished as were the Fischer Project towers. I'd have preferred demolishing he low rise elements of Fischer but retaining the Towers as elderly housing, but nobody asked me, and I have no idea if it was practical.

In 2004 it cost the successor to HANO $800/month per authorized unit to operate, and only about 80% of the units were actually livable (that estimate is probably wrong, it might have been even lower than that). I’d much prefer to have the people who need housing assistance get $800/month and let them find a place to live on their own. If $800 doesn't match the current rental market, let's pay the current median rent. I'm sure the cost would be less in the long term and the recipients better off.

I was able to find at least 3 - 3 bedroom apartments on the Internet in a few minutes for $750/month. I imagine most Grandmas would not need that many bedrooms. Generally there is a requirement that public housing residents pay the rent they can afford (I think it’s generally about 20% of income but I’m not sure). If I had looked harder I’m sure I could find more apartments, for example I didn't look at Craig's List, which I find visually disconcerting. If community activists helped it would be easier. If the government paid a real estate commission I'm sure people would be coming out of the wood work.

Public Housing in New Orleans was a rat hole of cronyism, neglect stupidity and crime, and I’m talking about the people who ran it. The Residents of any place deserve better. If it hadn’t been a government agency, the Owners would have been called slum lords and in some cities sent to jail.

There is actual evidence that some of the problem is with layout of the buildings. Oscar Newman did work in this area 30 years ago. You might want to read some of his work. Even if that could be fixed, concentrating the vulnerable in a small area creates problems. You get a larger concentration of poorly socialized individuals who use violence as a solution combined with a larger proportion of vulnerable people (elderly, disabled, etc.) than in the general population. Bureaucratic barriers further make it difficult for Public Agencies to deal with bad actors.

One of the problems with the design of “the bricks” (as they used to be called in the ‘hood), is that they offer little resident security. Police and security are easily observed and tracked. There are easy vantage points so “Collaborators” can be easily identified and targeted. The “pedestrian scale” and “play areas” make it hard to pursue people, except on foot, in an environment much more familiar to the criminals than the cops.

The “public space” becomes a “no-mans-land” with little control by the residents. You can actually see this same thing in Lake Vista, although the residents there would notice strangers.

Section 8 is not much better. It merely substitutes private financing for public financing. The effect is the same. It’s only advantage is that the developments are generally smaller than the older public projects, avoiding some of the concentration problems.

I don’t know if the existing public housing buildings can be repaired, although with enough money anything is possible. I can tell you as an architect the nature of their construction along with the probable presence of lead paint and asbestos will make it very expensive and very slow. Most of these buildings are more than fifty years old, the plumbing and wiring is near the end of its useful life however sound the structure may be.

If the goal is to move people back quickly, the quickest way is to provide a stable market for rental housing. That could be done by providing the former public housing residents with a general rent subsidy, free of many of the restrictions usually placed on rental assistance. Alternately we could provide low interest loans for non profit housing corporations, committed to low income housing, although I much prefer the former due to the past misuse of housing funds by political operatives (anyone remember SUVgate?).

If the residents were less vulnerable they could build communities, defend themselves and provide for their own security. They could implement technical security measures, like video surveillance of public areas and panic buttons. One possibility might be for existing projects to be converted into high end condos, with sales proceeds going into better housing for those in need. Unfortunately almost no one would accept that outcome and I doubt there would be much profit due to political "friction".

No one set out for this to happen no one anticipated the changes in resident demographics, in particular the dissolution of what was considered the 'natural' condition of the traditional family. Mom, Dad and the kids. Certainly exceptions existed, widows and widowers were common, but children out of wedlock were virtually unheard of. In the thirties or the fifties when these projects were conceived no one anticipated the current conditions.

We should try again certainly, but try something different. Doing exactly the same thing again will generally lead to exactly the same results. Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is one definition of insanity.

We have a unique opportunity here and now to try new things. We also have a clear record of government failure.

I’m not suggesting abandoning those in need. I am suggesting we as a society have failed them in the past and we must find a better solution.

I'm for home ownership. I would love to see a urban homesteading program, I've written about that before, although in a comment on other blogs. It would naturally be for the young, able stable families. There should be ample housing stock for this program as a result of the Road Home and foreclosures. It could become a major attractor of young families if there is someplace for them to work.

I'm also wondering whether some 'activists' are condescending and suggesting the poor can’t take care of themselves and need the 'good' people to take care of them, or suggesting the elderly should live in poorly maintained, crime infested, unsafe warehouses? I find myself hard pressed to find any rational reason to spend more money on a failed agency in a failed experiment when the same amount of money would allow the same or more people to obtain decent, safe housing on the open market.

I actually expect rental prices to fall over the next several months as the economy continues to stagnate and more apartments come back on line. They have already fallen somewhat from the peak.

All of that said I’m not opposed to having public housing for the elderly and disabled. I’m just not convinced that the government here can deliver anything acceptable. HANO was a disgrace and an embarrassment.

I have heard that some communities on the Mississippi coast had already moved to providing public housing only for the elderly and disabled, with rent vouchers for others. Perhaps that a model we can follow. In that case the existing high rises are very suitable, given appropriate security.

1 comment:

Sophmom said...

Very interesting post, Mominem. I love the idea of urban homesteading.