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HUD housing program under fire; Congress to consider killing funds
(Published September 9, 2002)
By JOHN DeVAULT
On a bright, sweltering day last month, Mayor Anthony A. Williams raised a golden hammer and, along with other D.C. officials, posed for photos at a groundbreaking ceremony for the new $81 million Henson Ridge housing development in Southeast Washington.
The Henson Ridge kick-off was also a campaign event: like the media bus tour of new and refurbished city-financed housing that preceded it, the groundbreaking was intended to showcase the Williams administration’s commitment to housing, development and jobs in Wards 7 and 8 – areas of the city where Williams is generally thought to be politically vulnerable in this fall’s mayoral campaign.
Referring to the federal program that provided the initial $40 million for Henson Ridge – which will rise on the site of two recently demolished public housing complexes, the Stanton and Frederick Douglass Dwellings – the mayor said that HOPE VI-funded projects are "changing the landscape of the city."
"People were tired of fighting a lonely, losing battle against crime…and poor housing," Williams said.
"We keep our ear to the ground," the mayor said. "The people demanded what we’re doing, and we’re doing it."
But others hear something different: increasingly loud criticism of HOPE VI from just those public housing residents cited by Williams, as well as from affordable housing experts nationwide, and recently from even some of the program’s strongest former supporters.
Here in Washington, residents of the Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg public housing complex, the city’s newest HOPE VI project, last year filed a petition with federal officials rejecting the terms of a HOPE VI redevelopment there.
Public housing residents in Miami, Chicago and New Orleans have recently filed lawsuits against the program, in some cases winning substantial changes to HOPE VI projects in those cities.
And this week in Washington, representatives of affordable housing organizations will meet to plan a campaign of local and national opposition to HOPE VI, which is up for congressional renewal this fall.
Jennifer Kirby, a National Coalition for the Homeless representative, said the groups will ask that if HOPE VI is re-approved, all future projects replace on a one-for-one basis any public housing demolished, and that all residents displaced have a legally guaranteed right to housing at the redeveloped properties.
Just two weeks before Williams spoke, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, the Maryland Democrat who led the fight 10 years ago to establish HOPE VI and is sometimes called the program’s "godmother," issued an invitation to some of the program’s harshest critics to meet with one of her senior aides, to air criticism of the program found in a recent report they authored called "False HOPE."
Some of those at that meeting said they were surprised to hear the Mikulski aide say that the senator shared several of their concerns – especially that HOPE VI had deviated from its original goal of replacing a small percentage of "severely distressed" public housing and, instead, was displacing thousands of low-income families in order to create mixed-income developments where the amount of housing affordable by the poor is drastically reduced.
Participant Vytas Vergeer, one of the authors of "False HOPE" who until last month was a staff attorney at the National Housing Law Project, said he emerged from the meeting convinced that Mikulski is open to substantially reforming HOPE VI – and perhaps to killing the program outright.
"I went in assuming they’d be against the report," said Vergeer. "But their willingness to consider sunsetting the program was very encouraging."
The Mikulski aide, who asked not to be named, largely confirmed that account.
"The senator definitely thinks the report raises points that should be considered," she said.
She also said Mikulski is open to ending the program entirely.
"Yes, that’s on the table," she said. "If HUD and others can’t demonstrate the program’s efficacy, then it shouldn’t continue."
HOPE VI is administered by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The senator’s aide noted that HOPE VI has produced some benefits. "There are cities where it’s given public housing residents more opportunities than they had in their old public housing," she said.
Still, she said, "The program is expensive. It was designed to meet a specific goal. It was never intended to go on indefinitely."
Mikulski doesn’t sit on the congressional committee that will initially vote on HOPE VI re-authorization, but her voice is viewed as crucial because of her close association with the program. Most observers expect the program to be temporarily renewed this fall – but that as soon as next year, it could be heavily revised or ended.
The False HOPE report charges that though HOPE VI’s original mandate was to renovate or replace only "severely distressed" public housing – which the federal commission that laid out the program’s goals set at just 6 percent of all public housing, or 86,000 units – that limited goal has never been adhered to.
To date, the report notes, 135,000 public housing units have been approved for demolition under HOPE VI and other programs. If current trends continue, the report says, nearly twice the amount of housing originally slated as "severely distressed" will have been approved for demolition by the end of this fiscal year.
The report cites a 1995 federal audit that found that most HOPE VI sites appear to be chosen mostly for their potential for higher-income housing redevelopment – not because the original housing was "extremely distressed."
D.C. Housing Authority Director Michael Kelly said last week his agency just follows HUD’s lead.
"I think we’re clearly following what comes from HUD," he said. "And I think you can judge that by the fact that we keep winning these things."
Washington has received five HOPE VI projects to date: for the Townhomes on Capitol Hill (formerly Ellen Wilson), East Capitol Dwellings, Wheeler Creek (formerly Valley Green), Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg and Henson Ridge – all in Southeast Washington.
Kelly acknowledged that the District’s HOPE VI projects have targeted housing that is not physically "severely distressed," but he defended that approach.
"I think you look at the overall gestalt, at the overall public site, going beyond the technical definition of ‘distressed,’" he said. "You ask, ‘Would I want to raise kids here?’"
But said Catherine Bishop, a National Housing Law Project staff attorney who helped write "False HOPE," "There’s nothing wrong with building mixed-income housing. What’s wrong is if at the end you have less housing for the people who need it most."
She pointed to recent HUD figures in "False HOPE" showing that "very-low" and "extremely-low" income Americans – those earning up to 50 percent and 30 percent of their locality’s median income, respectively – are experiencing an "acute" and worsening housing shortage. The HUD figures also show that higher income groups, even those defined as "low income," are not experiencing a serious shortage.
In Washington, about two in five households – and substantially more if the median income for the whole metropolitan area, including Virginia and Maryland suburbs, is used – are "very low" income.
"There is absolutely a low-income housing crisis in Washington," said Ed Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.
He cited a 2001 study from his institute showing that 44 percent of D.C. families with incomes of $25,000 or less were either living in physically deficient housing or spending more than half of their income on housing – or both.
He said the District differs from HUD’s overall picture in only one way: in the city’s present hot real-estate market, middle-class residents are beginning to feel the housing squeeze as well.
"For middle-class families, it’s ‘Can you find something that’s decent and in your income range?’" he said. "For poorer families, it’s ‘Can you find anything at all?’"
According to an analysis of Williams administration housing policies that Lazere authored last year, D.C. officials obscure the problem – and distort the picture of the housing the city is building – by defining "affordable" housing in the District in terms of the median income level for the entire metropolitan area. That median income level includes some of the wealthiest suburbs in the country in Virginia and Maryland.
The median income for a family of four in the metropolitan area was $85,600 in 2001. But in the District, the median income for such a family in 2000 was not much more than half that – only $46,800.
In an interview after the Henson Ridge kick-off, Williams said that the Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg HOPE VI project will replace all public housing units on a "one-for-one" basis.
But that assertion was challenged by Debra Frazier, a Carrollsburg resident and a member of Friends and Residents of ArthurCapper/Carrollsburg, a group challenging the terms of that HOPE VI project.
"Technically, it’s one-to-one," she said. "But that’s affordable public housing defined by the area median income."
Frazier pointed out that a "low-income" family – one earning 60 percent of area median income, or more than $50,000 a year – would thus be eligible to buy or rent non-market-rate housing at the new HOPE VI redevelopment.
"If I’m making $25,000, and another applicant is making $50,000, it’s a no-brainer who they’re going to take," she said.
Frazier also expressed skepticism at another claim made by the mayor: that HOPE VI-affiliated job training and other social programs will effectively prepare residents like her to compete for the new higher-income housing when the new development opens a few years from now.
"The residents at Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg are the working poor, people on TANF (welfare) and seniors and disabled people on fixed incomes," she said, pointing out that the average income at the complex is less than $15,000 a year.
Frazier said that she currently receives TANF payments and has participated in welfare-to-work job training programs. "And at the end, these programs try to place you as a stock clerk, a clerical assistant, in hotel work," she said.
"Tell me there’s going to be a program to train 400 people to take well-paying jobs in five years," she said. "Where is it? I haven’t seen it."
It is for such reasons, "False HOPE" charges, that HUD’s own numbers show that only about 11 percent of displaced residents nationwide have won housing at redeveloped HOPE VI sites.
HUD says many residents simply choose not to return.
But Boston-based housing researcher Barbara Sard explained the low return rate differently.
"At the end of the day, yes, you’ve torn down problematic housing," she said. "But you’ve dispersed the residents. You’ve done little or nothing to help them with their lives. And you’ve put them out of their homes.
"And then," she said, "you make a priority to move into the new project people who are already working."
Bishop, too, argued that HOPE VI is a poor model for urban redevelopment.
"It depends who your audience is," she said. "Maybe for you or me, we can drive through and it looks nicer."
But, she said, HUD figures show that about half of the original residents at HOPE VI sites are simply transferred to other public housing complexes, with the same problems of racial segregation, crime and poverty.
Another third of residents, Bishop said, are able to use housing vouchers handed out by the city – but they are typically accepted only by landlords offering substandard housing in similarly poor, racially segregated neighborhoods.
"If they had a plan – OK, the density in these public housing complexes is too great, so we’ll use vouchers to scatter people throughout the community – maybe that would be fine," she said.
"But guess what? People are actually living in communities little different from where they came from. The difference might be between a 98 percent and a 92 percent minority impoverished community," she said. "And, at the end, you’ve lost housing."
But, said Kelly, "Everything is relative. If we’re moving people from most distressed to slightly less distressed, that’s some improvement."
He compared the process to medical triage. "You deal with the most critical lot first," he said.
"We do what we can do, and we try to feel good about that," he said. "You can’t do everything all at once."
But Linda Leaks, executive director of Washington Inner City Self Help (WISH), one of the local D.C. organizations gearing up to support HOPE VI resisters at Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg and other sites, said the Williams administration needs to redevelop the city’s impoverished neighborhoods in ways that don’t do broad damage to local residents.
"The idea of redevelopment is a good one," she said. "But we believe in development without displacement" of residents. And we think that can be done, if there is the political will to do it."
Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator