| Boston's Maverick Gardens HOPE VI development. flickr: Urban Mechanic|
|The back incorporates defensible space principles. flickr: Urban Mechanic|
| Chicago's Henry Horner housing projects before demolition. source: Calthorpe Associates|
|It's HOPE VI redevelopment by Calthorpe Associates. source: Calthorpe Associates|
"transform neighborhoods of extreme poverty into sustainable, mixed-income neighborhoods with access to economic opportunities by revitalizing severely distressed housing, and investing and leveraging investments in well-functioning services, educational opportunities, public assets, public transportation, and improved access to jobs."That's ambitious. The president is asking for $250 million this year for Choice Neighborhoods, in addition to the $65 million that Congress allocated last year. All of this before the actual details of the grants program have been hammered out and passed through the necessary committees. Housing advocates are waiting in anticipation.
When HOPE VI was launched in 1992, the primary purpose was to integrate households of various income levels into one neighborhood, and from an urban design standpoint alone it represented a major paradigm shift in policy. Most conventional public housing had been notoriously unlikable. Modernist architects, unable to attract willing residents to living in Le Corbusier's vision of towers in the park, were allowed to experiment with people who had no other choice. Streets were demapped into superblocks and abundant common spaces attracted vandalism and crime. Even the Garden-style varieties almost universally turned inward as fortresses on the urban landscape. Without tying into their surroundings, they had a deadening effect on the neighborhood. As Jane Jacobs noted, it wasn't long before there was little adjacent urban fabric left for them to relate to.
To be fair, the lack of resources allocated to design was probably the greater problem. Back to the Housing Act of 1937, Congress put tight limits on per-unit budgets. What seemed to be a financially prudent move ended up being anything but, as the projects decimated property values of everything around them. In Secretary Donovan's words, they become "warehouses for the poor." The median income of residents dropped from 57% of the national median in 1950 to 20% by the time HOPE VI was announced. It was obvious that something had to be done.
Almost two decades into HOPE VI, most evaluations of its success have been positive. Fiscally speaking, it has leveraged about twice as much private investment as it spent. The innovative Main Street branch allows smaller towns to tie affordable housing into downtown revitalization. Most importantly, HOPE VI neighborhoods have shown a successful record in attracting middle-income residents, and evidence shows measurable improvements in the workforce participation and earnings of the original residents and surrounding neighbors. Less tangibly, the face of public housing has changed for the better. In a Brookings report:
"Soviet-style subsidized apartment blocks have been replaced by walkable, diverse, livable communities. Public housing that isolated the poorest of the poor has given way to places where low-wage workers and families transitioning off welfare literally live next door to teachers, police officers, and other professionals."The Housing Choice Initiative, as it's currently being presented, takes HOPE VI and expands it in at least three ways:
- HOPE VI was focused entirely on severely distressed public housing, but Choice Neighborhoods seeks to "broaden the scope of the program for broader impact" beyond public housing.
- Education reform, and early childhood education in particular, are being incorporated into the program.
- There is an explicit requirement for one-to-one replacement of existing subsidized housing stock. This addresses one salient criticism of HOPE VI, that it resulted in a net loss of subsidized units. (This is a fair point, but the loss in occupied units has been smaller. About a third of the severely distressed housing units were vacant.)
In the competition for design ideas, there is no doubt that healthy urbanism has won the day through the HOPE VI program, and it will likely translate seamlessly into the next phase of federal housing policy - however it's finally arranged.