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United States: Hope Remains For Public Housing

Prague, 12 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Travelers approaching Chicago from the south pass serene farms and green corn fields, a tranquillity that changes abruptly when they reach the city where rows of identical dilapidated and abandoned buildings tower in front of the city's famous skyline.

The monolithic expanse is Robert Taylor Homes -- the nation's largest and most dangerous public housing complex. Named after Robert Taylor, a public housing advocate and former director of the Chicago Housing Authority in the 1940's, the complex has become a symbol of U.S. public housing gone wrong.

But something is changing at Robert Taylor. Bulldozers, cranes and heavy machinery are clearing up debris where three apartment buildings once stood. Residents called those buildings "The Hole" -- crime infested centers where members of Chicago's leading gangs used to buy and sell drugs. And just west of the city, construction workers are putting the last coats of paint on new rows of low-rise townhouses with front- and backyards. From San Francisco to Boston, low-rises are replacing towers of crime and degradation that gave public housing a bad name.

The change has come gradually.

Since 1993, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has joined state housing authorities and local architects to overhaul the ailing public housing system. They've decided the way to create a future for public housing residents is to start from the ground up.

Money for new housing starts at the federal level. HUD has committed $2.4 billion for a program called HOPE 6 aimed at revitalizing public housing. Since 1993, HUD has awarded grants to housing authorities in 26 states. Housing authorities use the grants to build new housing, demolish old housing or restore units that are salvageable. But HUD mandates that recipients of the grants must match federal funds with local funds.

For example, if the total cost of rebuilding public housing in Indianapolis costs $100 million and the HOPE 6 grant provides a quarter of the total cost, Indianapolis must come up with the rest of the money through community programs, low-income tax funds or other sources of income.

Not every city applying for a grant receives one. HUD makes the process competitive and many cities must wait several years or show sufficient need to get a grant. Deborah Vincent, assistant secretary for public housing at HUD, told RFE/RL that cities which don't get grants aren't ruled out of the competition for federal funds.

"If they did compete for HOPE 6 and were not successful, we spend a lot of time with those agencies and help them improve their plan so they can be successful in future years."

Newark, New Jersey was one of the first HOPE 6 recipients in 1994. The grant helped Newark, which once had one of the worst public housing systems on the East Coast, tear down 3000 units and build 2400 low-rise complexes.

Harold Lucas, executive director of the Newark housing authority, told RFE/RL that the reduction in housing units does not leave families displaced or homeless. In fact, Lucas says many of the old buildings are abandoned and families remaining are simply relocated.

"We built some buildings first and we took people from the buildings and put them in new units. And then we knocked the buildings down. We built first before we knocked them down."

HUD has granted Chicago $118.3 million for demolishing, replacing or renovating high-rises like Robert Taylor. But many residents say new housing isn't going up fast enough to house thousands of displaced families. Others say building new low-rise units where high-rises used to be is like replacing one ghetto with another. Vincent says there's no 100 percent guarantee the transition will be smooth, but says HUD helps through other programs: "In some cases families are provided with Section 8 vouchers or certificates. That's a program that allows them to go into the private sector and receive rent subsidies. In other cases, once the temporary relocation is done they will move back into newly constructed property or renovated property"

Despite the problems of moving thousands of people from one location to another, cities are already seeing the payoff. One benefit: HUD no longer issues rigid housing plans to cities. Local architects design replacement housing with public housing residents who help with details. Similar to the housing reform effort in Germany's East Berlin, residents meet with planners to discuss their needs. Residents are in charge of picking paint colors, security systems and plants for landscaping.

They also help with the overall design of the new units. Blair Kamin, a housing expert who writes about architecture at the Chicago Tribune, told RFE/RL that this innovative form of architecture is called "New Urbanism." New Urbanism, Kamin explains, involves blending public housing into neighborhoods: "It really goes back to the old way of building cities with small blocks with houses that have a clear front and a clear back. Houses that have gables - gables are the triangular roofs that asserts or symbolizes the individuality of the houses, almost like a temple front."

Cities are also bringing back green space to new neighborhoods. Chicago public housing resident Esther Davis, told RFE/RL that living in high rises meant her children couldn't play safely outside: "There's no playground. There's nothing for them to play on. There's nothing but concrete where they fall and hurt themselves. The mothers can't take their children out because as you can see, there are cars all around."

But Davis and her neighbors now come down to keep their "eyes on the street." New Urbanism's 'eyes-on-the-street' concept calls for porches, windows and yard space where junkyards and mud were once the norm. Porches allow parents to supervise children at play, deterring potential criminals from robbing or recruiting children into gangs.

Kamin says the concept gives everyone a little bit of turf they can control both in front of their house and in the back. The layers of space -- the sidewalk, the front yard, the private realm of the house -- are called "defensible space."

Besides design changes, housing authorities are re-shaping neighborhoods by putting new units in mixed-income areas of the city. In Chicago, a small percentage of new units are left for higher-income families, changing the socio-economic makeup of the units.

Preliminary results of the overhaul have been positive. Crime rates have fallen as public housing residents move farther away from crime-infested buildings. The crime rate in Newark, for example, has fallen 40 percent since residents started making the move to new housing. Nationwide, HOPE 6 grants have funded the demolition of 45,000 units of unsafe housing and built 30,000 new units.

The biggest difference is residents' new outlook on life. In Chicago, residents are taking an active role in keeping neighborhoods clean, safe and graffiti-free. And in an ironic twist, Newark residents not eligible for public housing now demand space in the new units.

Vincent, the federal housing official, says revitalizing public housing takes patience and time, but HUD is proud of its progress so far. She says the U.S. isn't a shining example of how housing for the masses should work, but the country's successes and failures serve as building blocks for the future and as examples for Eastern Europe and the rest of the world facing similar challenges: "I think that the secret here is that you're not just looking at bricks and mortar, but you're looking at a holistic approach and recognizing that public housing is a part of the community and needs all the service that a community can provide and not just a roof over a family's head."

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