A Look at Purging the Poorest

This blog post marks the first of what will be many opportunities for you to read insights and opinions directly from the desks of BPI staff and supporters. Through these posts we hope to spark dialogue about topics that have implications for the work of BPI, and beyond.

Today’s entry is penned by Alexander Polikoff, Co-Director of our Public Housing program and Senior Staff Counsel.

Professor Lawrence J. Vale’s latest book, Purging the Poorest, does a superb job of rendering the three-part history of American public housing. Part One begins with housing the working poor during Depression years and runs to the Urban Renewal “purging” of the early 1960s when slums were cleared and residents dispersed. In Part Two, from the 1960s to the ’90s, compassionate instincts turned public housing into housing of last resort for the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. When that turned out badly, Part Three, which we’re still in, “purged” and dispersed the poor once again with HOPE VI demolition and mixed-income redevelopment.

Vale tells this story with a focus on two cities and two public housing developments, Atlanta and Techwood/Clark Howell, and Chicago and Cabrini-Green. And two contending points of view. One is exemplified by Renee Glover of the Atlanta Housing Authority who believes that exiting traditional public housing is the best option for low-income families because the social networks in low-income communities transmit primarily negative influences, and that given a strategic push into the world beyond public housing most residents will benefit. The other view, expressed by advocates for the poor such as homeless coalitions and resident organizations, decries “mixed-income” as a code word for displacement of African American residents and gentrification, and argues, as does Sheila Crowley of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, that “when we are attempting to prevent homelessness, to have a housing authority purposely taking people with the least capacity and putting them on the street is wrong.”

Between these opposed views Vale settles somewhere in the middle. Public housing redevelopment should house the “political maximum” (whatever that means) of low-income families with developments that contain all, or mostly, low-income dwellings, “while still taking care to produce a community that is secure and well managed.” But what precisely does this middle-of-the road prescription mean for Chicagoans, where the struggle between the “Glovers” and the resident advocates is playing out right now in litigation at Cabrini and contention at Julia Lathrop Homes over rival redevelopment visions?

Vale’s lead example of how to do it right is North Beach in San Francisco where a dreadful public housing project was converted to a development for entirely low-income families. North Beach, however, was only 229 units. The redevelopment reduced this to 138, adding 203 units subsidized in other ways, for a total of 341. Most importantly, North Beach is adjacent to Fisherman’s Wharf and its tourism commerce, making feasible a strong commercial component of the redevelopment, including a Trader Joe’s. Not a widely replicable model. In addition, Vale requires for his preferred, all low-income developments “wholesale management reforms” (not described), plus “substantial supportive services” (not specified), plus “careful screening” (once again whatever that means).

Yet for “extremely large” public housing developments such as 3,600 unit Cabrini-Green, Vale says “an all-low income community may not be desirable.” Here, he opines, “it makes sense to do just what Chicago officials have attempted — replace the large project with smaller increments of deeply subsidized housing scattered across the broader community.” Is 925-unit Julia Lathrop Homes “extremely large?” Vale doesn’t say, but it seems to this writer that at almost three times the redone North Beach (which is itself only about 40 percent public housing), Lathrop is large, indeed far larger than any well-working, one hundred percent public housing development that I know of.

A review of Purging the Poorest by Julia Vitullo-Martin, widely-respected Director of New York’s Center for Urban Innovation, says that Vale and Glover represent “two contradictory points of view” and that in the end the Glover approach is “probably correct.” Her review concludes with Glover’s observation that poverty does not have to be a permanent, multi-generational condition, and that “we should not establish housing programs on the assumption that it is.”

Though Purging the Poorest provides excellent history, its vague policy prescriptions offer little guidance to those seeking the best path through today’s contentious public housing issues.

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