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United States: Crime Stigma Plagues Public Housing

  • Elizabeth Weinstein

Prague, 12 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- While disrepair of panel-blocks in Prague has led to drab rows of patched-up high-rises, the same neglect in major cities of the United States has produced dangerous urban ghettos that are unfit for living.

The difference starts with the residents. In Eastern Europe, mixed-income families live in panel-block housing. In the United States, superblocks, or "the projects" as they're called in many cities, are home to the poorest of the poor.

The concentration of poverty has led to a marked increase in crime in the projects. Children often go to sleep at night to the sound of gunfire, drug dealers make transactions in dark hallways and gangs control entire buildings where residents live under gang rules.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) monitors criminal activity in housing authorities. It found in a 1997 survey of more than 1,500 housing authorities that more than 2,700 people were evicted from housing for criminal and drug activity. HUD also found that more than 47,000 people were banned from public housing because of drug and criminal activity.

On a smaller scale, a recent study by the Chicago Tribune shows that Chicago housing authority residents are twice as likely to be victims of a violent crime than other city residents.

That isn't what former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt envisioned in 1933 when he signed legislation to create public housing. Originally the multi-storey developments were intended for families of all races, who were in transition, or working at a low income. But architectural design, politics and land-use policies that followed Roosevelt's legislation eventually led to a downward spiral.

Among other factors, a 1969 law which set public housing rents at 25 percent of a tenant's income drove out many residents. Rents for working families soared under the legislation because the fixed prices took out too much family income. Blair Kamin, a housing expert who writes about architecture at the Chicago Tribune, told RFE/RL that federal pressure to keep costs low stigmatized the developments.

"Bureaucrats would drive around to these projects and say, 'Don't make them look nice,' because they didn't want taxpayers to think that poor people were living in too nice a place," he says. "So they almost went out of their way to make them look inexpensive which of course stigmatized them which meant that nobody but the poorest of the poor would want to live there."

As a result, the projects have become nightmarish concentrations of poverty and neglect in major urban areas like Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. And poverty has led to a gravitation of single races occupying the buildings -- often African-Americans and Latinos populate buildings most heavily.

According to HUD public housing spokesman, Stan Vosper, 50 housing authorities are listed as "troubled." That equals more than 85,000 units of the nation's 1.3 million housing units. The term means that units under the authorities are severely damaged and need both social and physical reconstruction.

But the list changes frequently. Recently HUD took both Washington, D.C. and Atlanta off the list. But Vosper says major challenges remain for cities even though they're no longer on the troubled list. And gradually, as housing improves, cities get greater flexibility from HUD. Vosper says that of the 3400 housing authorities nationwide, the majority of them are stable, secure places to live.

But the ones that aren't have earned worldwide notoriety. Like panel-block buildings in Eastern Europe and Russia, the projects in the US have major structural problems. In Chicago, many buildings have breezeways, or open-air hallways which connect one side of the building to another. The architect's intent was to create a solar heating effect, but the design did not work in most parts of the city. Kamin says the design has led to disaster: "The architects who designed these breezeways thought that mothers would rock their babies and walk outside. They never really envisioned that people would throw garbage off these breezeways, or that they would even throw other people off these breezeways, which is what has happened."

In high-rises in Newark, New Jersey, the elevator system breaks often as the more than 1200 residents in each 12-storey building go about their daily activities. Harold Lucas, executive director of the Newark Housing Authority, told RFE/RL that the logistics of 1200 people using limited elevators is unmanageable: "The elevators would ultimately break, and then it would have to be repaired and the repairs would take longer and the elevators would break more and the inconveniences of having to walk up 12 flights of stairs..."

At the Robert Taylor Homes in south Chicago, the location of elevators has created unsanitary conditions. Originally, architects wanted bathrooms on ground floors for children playing outside. But as Kamin explains, federal cost-cutting measures overshadowed good design. "There wouldn't be enough time for those kids to take an elevator all the way up to their apartments, " he says. "But bureaucrats who were interested in saving money stripped the bathrooms out and so in many cases kids would urinate in the elevators."

At Robert Taylor, lack of architectural and human respect for the inside living conditions of the projects has also extended outside. Abandoned lots, mud, cars and junkyards now stand where grass, trees and flowers once thrived. George Davis, a resident of Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes, told RFE/RL that the barren conditions have a direct impact on behavior and crime: "It's just unnatural. And when you're around and reacting to the environment around you, if the environment is unnatural, you tend to act in negative and unnatural ways."

The barren conditions make crime easier in the units. Abandoned high-rises are havens for drug dealers and gangs. Poor lighting and darkened stairwells leaves residents in cities like Wilmington, North Carolina and San Francisco vulnerable to attack.

In January, children at Robert Taylor were escorted to school by police, parents and ministers because of heavy gunfire from rival street gangs. The Chicago Police Department briefly considered bringing in the United States National Guard to protect the children. Fortunately gangs declared a last-minute cease-fire to help protect the children.

Who's to blame for turning inner-city block housing into crime-ridden urban squalor? Kamin says architects who designed housing from the 1940's to the 1960's never imagined so many political and socio-economic factors would doom their creations. They followed the innovative architectural designs of the time.

"They were trying really hard and in many ways it's unfair to blame them only. In other words the real architects of this disaster were not the people whose names were on the blueprints, they were the politicians who stuck these projects in all-black neighborhoods."

Instead of pointing fingers, the federal government and housing authorities across the nation are trying to change a dismal situation. Since 1993, HUD and local communities have joined forces to provide thousands of millions of dollars for rejuvenating, revitalizing and demolishing some of the worst housing in the country.

Crime rates are plunging near newly refurbished housing estates in cities like Newark and San Diego. Residents are taking pride in their homes -- both inside and outside -- and children are finding open, "defensible" space to play in and call their own.

The bleak picture is looking a little brighter. But what does this new housing look like? How is it being built? And who is paying for it? For residents living in the new units, this cooperative effort is removing the stigma from living in the projects and making public housing a place to call home.

This is part four of a five-part RFE/RL series on housing in Eastern Europe and the United States.