Public housing on the chopping block
by Matthew Cardinale
San Francisco BayView, September 12, 2007
Atlanta (IPS) – Even as people around the United States and the world recall the horrors of Hurricane Katrina two years ago, which displaced tens of thousands of the Gulf Coast’s poorest residents, government-subsidized housing has come under increasing attack by policymakers in the U.S.
Starting in the 1990s, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) encouraged the demolition of 100,000 units. Since then, local authorities across the country have destroyed at least 78,015 public housing apartments under HOPE VI, with another 10,354 planned for demolition, according to HUD data, Linda Couch, deputy director of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, told IPS.
There are currently about 1.2 million public housing units in the U.S., HUD spokesperson Donna White told IPS.
Couch estimates the HOPE VI demolitions are only half of the total demolitions so far.
Under that program, public housing communities were torn down and replaced with “mixed-income communities.” However, the mixed-income communities often include high-priced houses, luxury condos, upscale shopping and very few housing units affordable to low-income families.
For instance, in 2002 in New Orleans, after the St. Thomas project was demolished, only 9 percent of the units in the redevelopment were affordable to the people who used to live there, even though the community was originally promised that half the new units would be affordable, according to a report by Brod Bagert Jr., the son of a prominent New Orleans lawyer and politician who wrote his master’s thesis for the London School of Economics on the issue.
The campaign to tear down public housing communities has employed an argument that came out of social science, called the “concentration of poverty.” Officials argue that having too many poor people living in close proximity to each other was the cause of unemployment, low school achievement and neighborhood crime.
However, residents and advocates say it was the deliberate under-funding and mismanagement of public housing which allowed it to get run down. They say the real reason for the demolitions is to help private investors make money off the properties, to destroy the welfare state, and to leave no alternative to the private rental market.
In 1998, Congress did away with the one-to-one replacement rule, Couch said, which required rebuilding one unit for each unit torn down.
“Demolishing the most severely distressed – that was their goal in 1996,” Couch said.
Now, under a new program, “Section 18” or demolition/ disposition, “They have the ability to demolish or sell off their housing by completing a simple application form. They don’t have to seek a grant. They have to say this is what we think is best for our agency,” Couch said.
In Atlanta, the housing authorities are pursuing a plan that would destroy all low-income housing in the city, including high-rise apartments for the disabled and senior citizens.
“Atlanta now wants to get rid of all of its public housing,” she said. “Atlanta definitely represents an extreme. We also think there is a lack of will on behalf of some communities to figure out ways to replace those units,” Couch said.
While Atlanta plans to offer vouchers to the residents they would displace, many serious problems with the vouchers have arisen.
First, the vouchers have to be renewed by the U.S. Congress every year. Between 2004 and 2006, the Republican-led Congress de-funded 150,000 vouchers. And with the welfare state on the Congressional chopping block, it may be politically easier to quietly de-fund vouchers than to tear down public housing and send people into the street all at once.
Local housing authorities also terminate people’s vouchers for dozens of reasons. One whistleblower who worked for the Atlanta Housing Authority (AHA) told IPS that the agency attempts to terminate as many vouchers as possible.
For example, AHA terminates vouchers if people don’t pay their electricity bills but does not provide the utility subsidies required by HUD, another AHA whistleblower said.
Atlanta is also disqualifying many public housing residents for vouchers even before tearing down their homes. Atlanta won’t issue vouchers to residents with poor credit histories. And it is telling residents it allowed in years ago that they can’t get a voucher because of some item on their criminal background check, two local attorneys told IPS.
Landlords don’t have to accept vouchers. The vouchers only cover low-income housing, often leading to new concentrations of poverty. AHA has steered residents into site-based vouchers, which prevent residents from moving again if they want to keep their voucher. Residents also have to re-certify every year, another barrier.
One untold consequence of the U.S. mortgage crisis is that many families with vouchers have been evicted because their landlords have not been paying their mortgages, even though the tenants have been paying their rent. AHA has reportedly been neglectful in responding to these emergencies.
Resident leaders Diane Wright and Shirley Hightower in Atlanta say they have not been consulted regarding AHA’s demolition plans. Section 18 requires resident leaders’ signatures on AHA’s application, and it remains to be seen whether they will be able to stop the demolitions.
Wright and Hightower recently filed a civil rights complaint with HUD, alleging that AHA’s actions violate the Fair Housing Act by discriminating against African Americans, who are the majority of public housing tenants in Atlanta.
People of color make up the majority of low-income renters in Atlanta too, so they will end up paying higher rent as public housing is destroyed and they must compete in the low-income housing market.
After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, residents complained that officials with Housing Authority of New Orleans used the calamity as an excuse to destroy public housing in the city.
“Following Katrina, although this brought untold suffering, the majority of the elite saw this as an opportunity, the silver lining to cleanse New Orleans of the poor, change racial and class demographics, privatize everything,” said Dr. Jay Arena, a community activist in New Orleans.
“Most of the public housing was closed. Iberville was reopened because of the agitation we had done before the hurricane and after. Four major developments remain closed: St. Bernard; the Lafitte, which barely got any water; the B.W. Cooper – only a few of those are open; and C.J. Peete,” Arena said.
“But there’s been a lot of struggle. We’ve marched and been arrested and protested and denounced what has happened,” he told IPS.
“We broke in; we led people back into their homes. We broke through the police lines. We highlighted the contradictions of what the government was saying. People had a right to return, and the government was blocking people’s right to return.
“HANO [Housing Authority of New Orleans] put fences around the developments. At Lafitte, they spent millions of dollars putting these steel doors on there. A group of us from C3, people from Common Ground, we occupied. We went into the second story through a ladder. We knocked down the steel door from the inside. The cops came and they arrested nine of us, the Lafitte 9,” Arena said.
In June, advocates from public housing communities across the country met at the U.S. Social Forum in Atlanta to begin coordinating a national movement. Last week, the groups met again in New Orleans for the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina to formalize their plans.
“In America, it’s urban and economic cleansing. [HUD Secretary] Alphonso Jackson should be tried for crimes against humanity. Is it not a crime to destroy the only tool to deal with homelessness?” asked J.R. Fleming of the Chicago-based Coalition to Protect Public Housing.
“What’s going to happen to these other cities? They’re gonna fall as we fall? Right now we think we have a better chance fighting together than fighting as individuals,” Fleming said.