Making public housing livable is as simple as getting rid of the people who live there.
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
By most accounts, Stephen Davis should have been thrilled when he heard the news in the summer of 2001. The D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) planned to tear down the “deteriorating buildings” that make up the public-housing complex where Davis resides and replace them with a mix of brand-new, tastefully designed town houses and apartment buildings, a new community center, and services for residents such as job training and computer classes.
Under the plan, the federal government would pick up the $35 million tab through a program known as HOPE VI. Other city agencies and community groups would supplement the money with additional funds for a complete redevelopment of Davis’ neighborhood. All Davis and his neighbors at the Arthur Capper and Carrollsburg Dwellings in Southeast Washington, D.C., would have to do, DCHA officials told them, was move quietly away for a few years while the local government built them fresh and modern homes.
The plan certainly caught the attention of District politicians and local developers, who happily signed letters supporting the plan and attached them to the application to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which doles out the HOPE VI funds. Local media gave the plan positive press, lapping up the DCHA’s promise that the revitalization of the neighborhood—a 10-block area bounded by the Southeast Freeway and M Street SE—would spur $400 million of further development just a dozen blocks from the Capitol. In an article published that summer, the Washington Post daydreamed: “Twenty-five acres of squat public housing would be bulldozed, giving way to more than 1,500 town houses and apartments as inviting as those on neighboring Capitol Hill.”
But Davis had a different reaction when he stumbled into a community meeting that summer at the recreation center across from his one-bedroom apartment. There, for the first time, he heard the plans for the revitalization.
“I thought about the Indians, actually,” says Davis, a tall, skinny, 48-year-old Army vet who walks with a cane. Davis has been living at the housing complex for two years, after repeated knee injuries and severe arthritis ended his job as a cook at a local veterans’ hospital, put him on disability, and landed him into public housing. “They didn’t give us any options. [They said,] ‘We’re going to move them out.’”
The way Davis sees it, the grand plans for his neighborhood didn’t come from the generosity of local and federal officials concerned about improving the living conditions for Davis and his neighbors. Instead, Davis says they probably realized that his neighborhood—surrounded by swanky, refurbished town houses and a revitalized Washington Navy Yard with its 6,000 employees—was ripe for further development. Davis and his “deteriorating” home simply stood in the way.
“At the meeting, I spoke out,” recalls Davis. “I broke it down and said, ‘You’re just taking our land because we’re here in Capitol Hill. I can walk to Union Station in 20 minutes, and I have a bad leg.’…Where I’m sitting is such an ideal location.”
In the weeks following the meeting, Davis and a group of residents and volunteers calling themselves Friends and Residents of Arthur Capper and Carrollsburg canvassed the 10-block area, gathering signatures of 67 percent of the residents on a petition denying their support of the proposal. He and other residents, along with public-housing tenants from Miami, staged a protest at the Capitol last fall. HUD awarded the HOPE VI money to the housing authority anyway.
Larry Dwyer, director of the DCHA Office of Planning and Development, acknowledges that the area surrounding Davis’ home is a quickly changing neighborhood. But he promises that Davis and his neighbors will return to the revitalized homes and benefit from the surrounding development. “They are tracked and explicitly told they have a right to return and a preference if they choose to. And some don’t,” says Dwyer.
Federal and local housing planners have a long history of making pledges to low-income residents before moving them out to make way for a new and improved way of life—for others. Recommendations from a 1992 congressional commission created the HOPE VI program, which was supposed to provide better lodging for low-income residents of some of the country’s most troubled public-housing developments. In 1998, after yearly renewals of the program, HOPE VI was authorized through fiscal year 2002, which ends Sept. 30.
With Congress considering whether to extend HOPE VI, some housing advocates fear that the program hasn’t helped the residents it was intended to. According to HUD figures, 43,135 public-housing residents have been relocated from projects slated for HOPE VI development. Only 7,335—or just over 17 percent—have returned to the refurbished housing. No one is really sure what’s happened to the others.
Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg residents are now discovering that displacement is as indispensable a component of HOPE VI as shiny new town homes and ribbon-cutting ceremonies with federal bigwigs. Families will have to start leaving Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg next spring, and demolition will probably start next fall.
“You have the option to come back,” says Debra Frazier, a five-year resident of Carrollsburg and one of the project’s loudest critics. “It is possible to return. Nowhere does it say you have a guaranteed right.”
On June 15, a group of residents from Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg gathered at Van Ness Elementary School for a meeting with DCHA authorities on the new development. Meetings like this one are a staple of the HOPE VI program, for the simple reason that moving an entire community from its moorings is more of a PR operation than a logistical one. Breakfast and lunch are free for all comers.
DCHA officials had prepared well for the event. Architects working with the housing authority explained the attractive new buildings that would replace the drab-looking current development. They referenced various artistic renderings of the apartments, town homes, and recreational spaces that they hoped to build on the site where the public-housing complex now stands.
Clearly impressed with their undertaking, the architects went so far as to outline options for porch and window design. In a break-out discussion group, DCHA relocation coordinator Janice Burgess was asked about federal restrictions on public-housing residents who have past felony convictions and the vague rule that only residents in “good standing” would be allowed to return. “We don’t want those type of people to come back anyway,” she replied, and proceeded to steer the discussion toward less controversial subjects—traffic flow and building facades.
Burgess & Co. were following the HOPE VI script, which advocates giving public housing a face-lift above all else. The ideological vehicle for the program’s aesthetic makeovers is “New Urbanism,” which encourages the construction of mixed-use communities, the combination of apartments and homes with retail stores and office space, and residency by people from a range of income groups and ethnic backgrounds. New Urbanism also emphasizes the blending of new construction with the architecture of the surrounding area.
As an ideal, New Urbanism beats whatever set of beliefs formerly inspired—or doomed—public housing. In 1992, Congress’ National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing urged the federal government to take immediate action to improve the 6 percent of public housing identified as “severely distressed,” which amounted to about 86,000 units—many of them found in high-rise structures that were packed with poor families.
From the commission’s recommendations, Congress created the HOPE VI program, originally called the Urban Revitalization Demonstration. During the 10 years of its existence, the program has allowed HUD to administer $4.5 billion in HOPE VI funds to local housing authorities with plans to completely or partly demolish the troubled units and replace them with revitalized developments.
HOPE VI seemed to promise a break from federally supported warehousing of the poor, as well as from the blight and crime that has long clustered around public housing. But even some of the plan’s architects wonder whether the program hasn’t become a taxpayer-supported shot in the arm for gentrification.
Lawrence Vale, for one, has seen this sort of policy before. Vale served as a consultant to the commission that led to the creation of HOPE VI. Although he was initially hopeful about the outcome of the commission’s report, he worries now about the impact the program will have on very low-income communities.
“I have very mixed feelings,” says Vale, head of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I understand the impulse of HOPE VI, and I understand the impact of those before-and-after photos of the desolate tower structures, which are replaced with picket fences and happy people. But I also am aware of a long tradition….[Officials constructing] public housing, even when it was built the first time, often tore down the residences of the very poor and often replaced [them] with residences they couldn’t afford. And I’m afraid we’re doing too much of that again.”
In the late ’30s, the federal government responded to the hardship of the Great Depression by launching a massive public-housing building campaign. But a federal law at the time required that for each new public-housing unit that was built, a substandard one had to be destroyed, says Vale, author of From the Puritans to the Projects: Public Housing and Public Neighbors.
The result was that cities demolished acres of so-called slum areas to make way for the new housing—much of it two- and three-story-walk-up apartment buildings. But when it was built, many of the people who had been living in the run-down structures couldn’t afford the new housing. Others were barred from living there because it was reserved for white families, says Vale. They scrambled to find new homes, often congregating again in impoverished areas.
Following World War II, the federal government again set its sights on improving downtrodden areas. Congress passed the Housing Act of 1949, which encouraged slum clearance and the construction of public housing. Poor residents living in shabby housing were again told to pack up and move out, and few of them returned to the new public housing, if it was ever constructed.
By the late ’50s, the federal government had shifted to “urban renewal” programs, clearing out massive impoverished areas to redevelop in an attempt to attract more affluent residents to the areas. The poor residents had little hope of returning. Many were instead moved to the latest thing in public housing—soaring, high-density, high-rise structures that could hold hundreds of poor families. They would become the eyesores of today—prompting the creation of the commission Vale assisted.
“I think it’s that there is a cycle that’s gone on in terms of moving one group of people out to build a nicer-looking building,” says Vale. “People believed public housing was this great step up into modernity and now itself has become the slum to be rebuilt. And when the new structure is built it’s seen as too good for poor people. My question is, Why do we believe that?”
Public housing expert Todd Espinosa is equally baffled. Espinosa worries that many of today’s HOPE VI projects resemble urban-renewal programs of the past. Many of the projects are taking place in areas already slated for development, says Espinosa, formerly an attorney with the Oakland, Calif.-based National Housing Law Project who helped research False HOPE: A Critical Assessment of the HOPE VI Public Housing Redevelopment Program, released in June. Espinosa fears that HOPE VI may be a mechanism to clear out run-down areas to make way for the planned construction. Several HOPE VI projects in Chicago as well as one in Birmingham, Ala., are occurring in areas already noted for development and gentrification. Another, in Danville, Va., coincides with the construction of a 60-acre golf course nearby. The redevelopment plans rarely have room for all of the low-income families that moved out.
“It seems really unfair to exclude them from their homes after their homes have gone through multi-billion-dollar revitalizations,” says Espinosa. “They lived there through the bad times. They should be able to live there through the good times, too.”
At Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg, District officials claim they’re stretching the charitable potential of the HOPE VI program. In replacing the decaying housing units, the DCHA is exceeding HOPE VI’s minimum standards by doing “one-for-one” replacement. That is, a new unit of public housing will take the place of every unit that is demolished.
The DCHA’s one-for-one claim is accurate but nonetheless deceptive, because not all public housing will be created equal. Instead, HOPE VI at Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg will be public housing for those who can afford it.
In the current development, there are 707 total units, of which 297 are reserved for senior citizens. Through HOPE VI, 300 units will be built for seniors close to where they are now, and all of the seniors currently on site are guaranteed a spot without even having to move during construction. But only a fraction of the 580 public-housing units in the new development are targeted for the people now living in the 410 walk-ups and town houses on the demolition list. Most of the new units will be reserved for households that earn 30 percent to 80 percent of the metro area’s $91,500 median income. These are working poor and middle-class families who make more than roughly $27,000 a year and as much as about $73,000.
So who loses out? A majority of the project’s current residents—people who depend almost entirely on public assistance for their income—are lucky to take in $10,000 annually. For them, there will be only 140 units available, 270 fewer than currently. (Officials promise to start building 127 low-tier units nearby in two to three years.)
Paul Rowe, the housing authority’s HOPE VI project director for Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg, says public housing isn’t intended to serve only the poorest of the poor, even though that’s what’s happened over the decades. Working-class families that are eligible for subsidized shelter have been scared away from the pits that many housing projects have become. “We serve the population we’re supposed to serve,” says Rowe.
Whatever that means. The statutory language that authorizes the HOPE VI program set a vague goal of “improving the living environment for public housing residents of severely distressed public housing projects through the demolition, rehabilitation, reconfiguration, or replacement of obsolete public housing projects.” Although thousands of families have been moved from these dilapidated structures, only a fraction of them have actually returned to revitalized developments.
And when HOPE VI first began operating, in 1993, the federal government mandated the one-for-one scheme that the DCHA is voluntarily adhering to at Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg. But housing officials and developers around the country were having trouble replacing all of the lost public-housing units while still creating mixed-income homes. Construction of new housing fell behind. In 1998, Congress eliminated the requirement for HOPE VI projects, hoping to jump-start building efforts.
The plan worked: Housing authority officials let out a collective sigh of relief and began razing developments ready for new construction. The result wasn’t a good one for poor renters.
In 1999, the DCHA, along with its community and development partners, completed its first HOPE VI project, the Ellen Wilson Dwellings, which was renamed the Townhomes on Capitol Hill—located only blocks from where Stephen Davis lives. A mix of town houses and apartments—all tastefully designed to fit in with the surrounding Capitol Hill neighborhood—replaced the dilapidated high-rise and row-house structures that had made up the old development (see “Dream City,” 4/16/99).
Completion of the project marked a highly publicized victory for the District’s public-housing agency, whose colossal dysfunction had landed it in a federal receivership in 1995. The selected fix-it guy was receiver David Gilmore, whose goal was to revolutionize public housing in the District by reforming not only the agency but also the housing stock and the population that lived there.
At Ellen Wilson, that approach translated into displacement. Less than a third of the 134 units were reserved for the lowest-income families that make up the majority of public-housing residents. In the end, only 11 of the 129 families that had lived at the project in the first place returned to the revitalized structure.
That’s not a comforting precedent for Davis. Competition for the 140 low-income units in the renovated development will be fierce—a dynamic that pleases housing officials. The high demand and low capacity will enable the DCHA to cherry-pick its ideal residents and pull off the sort of social engineering implicit in HOPE VI. In choosing the new crop of residents, housing officials will be able to act almost like the admissions office of a prestigious university. Although they say original residents are given priority to return to new developments, many of the new HOPE VI projects include a stringent screening process. Rent-payment history, credit and criminal background checks, and home visits are all part of the gantlet. Some revitalized developments also require a security deposit that can be as much as two or three months’ rent—a hefty sum for renters already on a tight budget.
The screening requirements and paucity of low-income dwellings have turned many residents of Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg into sneering critics of the HOPE VI conversion. At the Van Ness Elementary meeting, for example, Frazier proclaimed to her neighbors: “We have no guaranteed right to return—we’re entitled to that. And they tell us there will be a one-to-one replacement, but not at income levels we can deal with,” she continued. “Even if it’s $20,000 a year—do any of you plan on making $20,000 this year?” Frazier asked the audience.
“No!” yelled the crowd.
Rowe hopes 40 percent of the families that leave return, a far greater proportion than at Ellen Wilson. “A lot of people won’t return because they won’t want to return,” he says. “They become settled where they are. They’re probably in a better situation than they were before.”
Housing officials have had plenty of practice responding to complaints from residents such as Davis and Frazier. Accordingly, they have some pat answers for the commonly aired gripes about low-income housing units.
DCHA official Rowe, for instance, acknowledges that the background screening and rental-history checks will weed out some current Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg tenants. However, he prefers not to term the procedures “restrictions” on securing a place in the new development. Rather, he says, “I’d call them opportunities.”
HOPE VI, he says, provides intensive job-training programs and other social services that will help even those excluded from the complex get their lives in order. Residents who can’t find room in the new Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg will learn how to repair their credit or earn a healthy wage. That doesn’t mean they get in, now or ever; it means they get specialized attention that may pay future dividends. “It’s an incremental process. For some, it’s shorter-term than others; some, longer-term than others.”
The feds, meanwhile, respond to displacement complaints with little more than a shrug. Michael Liu, assistant secretary for HUD’s Office of Public and Indian Housing, which oversees HOPE VI, says officials there have heard anecdotal stories and unofficial results but they have no solid records about where displaced residents settle.
The most comprehensive analysis of displacement patterns to date comes from the Urban Institute, a D.C.-based think tank that examined the limited data available on the phenomenon. Its study found that about 49 percent of displaced residents moved to other public housing. Thirty-one percent signed up to receive Section 8 vouchers under a HUD program that subsidizes rent for eligible tenants at privately owned dwellings. The remaining 20 percent were no longer receiving HUD assistance. Housing officials like to presume that those residents had progressed beyond the need for housing assistance. However, the report also noted that there is “another serious concern on the ‘people side’ of the program that we do not have the data to examine here: namely, that in some developments, the local Public Housing Authorities (PHAs) operating HOPE VI have, in effect, ‘lost’ many original residents in the process of displacement and relocation.”
Liu says HUD has contracted with the Urban Institute and consulting firm Abt Associates to conduct a more comprehensive study of displaced residents. He says that he and other officials at HUD, like residents and their advocates, are anxious to see the results. HUD, however, doesn’t have an official deadline for the report.
In the meantime, the housing crunch in the D.C. area and nationwide pushes more and more families to the brink of homelessness. Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, says that across the country, there are few places for low-income renters to go. HUD research shows that the number of units available to families making less than 50 percent of the area median income—the same people who make up the majority of the public-housing population, says Crowley—dropped by 1.3 million between 1991 and 1999.
Poor families struggle to find space in subsidized buildings, many of which are already filled to capacity, or add their names to lengthy waiting lists. In D.C., about 15,000 families have signed up on the waiting list for public housing. And there are 22,000 on the list awaiting Section 8 vouchers. Loss of housing stock and massive displacement caused by HOPE VI only aggravate the situation, says Crowley.
The District’s experience with HOPE VI illustrates the chaos that the federal housing program can wreak. The city has a total of six HOPE VI projects in various phases of development or planning. Only three other housing authorities have received more in HOPE VI funds than the DCHA, according to a HUD report submitted to Congress in June.
The upshot is that several public-housing projects are being demolished at about the same time, making transition relatively permanent. Last year, for example, Sheila Green moved with her daughter to Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg from East Capitol Dwellings when East Capitol started its own HOPE VI transformation. Now she’s going to have to move again before she can return to East Capitol. “When it’s time to leave, I’m hoping we’ll hear there’s someplace else to go.”
Dwyer and Liu say that they expect many of the displaced residents to take advantage of the federal Section 8 vouchers. They say that program allows residents the freedom to move where they choose, ideally to mixed-income areas, and therefore further advance the dispersion of poverty. “It was the intent of the program and the intent of Congress that as public housing became transformed, that it all not be put back in the same spot,” says Liu. “I think there has been a movement toward not pigeonholing people. [We’re no longer saying,] ‘Well, once in public housing, always in public housing.’ We want to give a chance [for residents] to move to other areas or toward self-sufficiency.”
That’s a noble goal, but it loses steam in the Washington area’s cutthroat housing market. Some 1,300 people who received vouchers in the past year put them to use, but there are still 500 vouchers that have yet to be used—most likely because the market is saturated. Rowe acknowledges that finding places in the Washington area to use vouchers is difficult and that space is tight in existing public housing, but “Someone is not going to be put out in the street, let me put it that way.”
Until officials can show that all displaced residents find themselves in better living conditions, whether they return to the revitalized project or not, then HOPE VI has failed, says Crowley. “At the end of the day, everybody who was there to begin with should have their housing circumstances improved,” says Crowley. “If they’re not, then you have not succeeded.”
Crowley says she can’t help her cynicism when it comes to HOPE VI. “It’s not really about what residents need. It’s about what the developer wants, what the city wants, what the government wants. They go through the motions of resident involvement and people think, Maybe—maybe—this is real. And then they get screwed again.”
The debate over HOPE VI might not amount to much if the arguments didn’t come at a critical point in the tenure of the program. With the current authorization set to end, advocates on all sides of the issue see this as the perfect time to implement necessary reforms—or to give up on the program altogether.
Liu is one of the first to admit that HOPE VI could use some fine-tuning. He says he is troubled by the pace of “tens of thousands” of projects that have lagged well behind schedule. He blames the delays on poor planning. Housing authorities are required to supply evidence that other agencies or groups will supplement the HUD money with additional funds, but Liu says that some struggle to actually acquire the funds after a HOPE VI proposal is approved.
In their FISCAL YEAR2003 budget proposal, HUD officials indicated to Congress that they will be submitting a detailed proposal to reauthorize HOPE VI, says Liu, who adds that he hopes to see some changes to the program.
He’s not the only one. The U.S. Senate committee that approves the HUD budget recommended continuing the HOPE VI program for another year, with $574 million in additional funds. However, in the appropriations bill, the committee urged department officials to use the year to scrutinize current HOPE VI projects, submit a report on the public-housing units still in need of revitalization or demolition, and think hard about what a reauthorized program should look like. “The Committee is taking this action because of concerns over the future and mandate of the HOPE VI program,” reads the bill.
And in March, Rep. Marge Roukema (R.-N.J.) introduced legislation that would extend HOPE VI for two years but encourages department officials to alter the criteria for awarding grants. Winning applicants should be able to complete their plans “expeditiously,” minimize displacement of current residents, and create more public-housing units, according to the comprehensive housing legislation. Both bills have to get the once-over from the full Senate and House of Representatives.
While members of Congress hash out their proposals, housing advocates urge them to scale back the demolition-heavy element of the program and encourage local housing authorities to consider rehabilitation of existing buildings whenever possible. Espinosa urges a return to one-for-one replacement ideals—or at the very least, a greater effort to ensure that demolished public-housing units are replaced by others that are open to very low-income residents.
Espinosa says HOPE VI is changing public housing so fast that no one really knows what it’s doing. “If Congress is going to reauthorize the program, then they should do it on a short-term basis that requires reporting before continuing,” he reasons. “I think there’s a real argument for looking at the program and saying, ‘Do we need it anymore?’ We addressed the 6 percent of housing [identified as ‘severely distressed’]. If we’re going to continue, we need to rethink what its purpose is.”
As housing-policy wonks debate urban-planning philosophies and income qualifications, the residents of Arthur
Capper/Carrollsburg project have a unified message for the administrators of public housing: Play it straight with the tenants.
Residents say they’ve never had a real say in what’s happening at Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg. Davis said he learned about HOPE VI by chance, after seeing some people crossing the street to a meeting.
It was a false bill of goods from the beginning, says 12-year resident Mary Robbins. “They lied to us,” she says. “They told us they were going to renovate…#not tear it down!” The public-input sessions are a sham, she adds. “They were telling us about our new community and what we would like in it, knowing full well it wouldn’t be our community: We won’t be here.”
Davis, who is on one of the project’s resident subcommittees at Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg, suggests that the DCHA confuses public comment with fait accompli. Two weeks ago, for example, he received a letter announcing the subject of the next subcommittee meeting: a blueprint for social services that had already been submitted for HUD approval six weeks before.
In their June report to Congress, HUD officials agreed that a failure to work well with others—namely, public-housing residents—is not unheard-of among housing authorities. “Baseline assessments of early HOPE VI revitalization projects revealed that a number of housing authorities actually discouraged resident involvement, while others only peripherally engaged residents in the development process,” reads the report.
Rowe insists that DCHA authorities have provided ample notice of everything that has been going on—through door-to-door canvassing and mailings. The social-services plan, he says, was based on resident focus groups, and in the interest of meeting the project timeline, it was passed along to HUD. It can still be altered, he says.
But Davis hasn’t given up. He and his group of concerned residents meet weekly. They want to ensure that everyone will be able to return, or at least have a safe place to live. “We’ll chain ourselves to buildings, sit on politicians’ doorsteps, whatever it takes,” says Davis.
Residents are experimenting with other forms of resistance as well. This summer, Frazier et al. got some 300 signatures on a petition against using a credit check as part of the readmission process. They have yet to show it to the DCHA. Frazier says they haven’t been given an opportunity to do so publicly, because the agenda at the public forums is so strictly controlled.
Rowe says the critics of HOPE VI in the neighborhood represent just a handful of voices. “There is a large segment of the population that is indifferent to what’s going on,” he says. Might that be because people believe that decisions have already been made for them? “That’s probably part of it,” but “there are people who actually work and have lives and really could care less.” CP
Sarah Godfrey contributed to this report.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.