Friday, March 12

From hope to choice in federal housing

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
Back in July of 2009, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan announced the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative, which the Obama administration considers the next stage after HOPE VI in the evolution of public housing rehabilitation. Much like the Sustainable Communities program that has been generating lots of positive press, Choice Neighborhoods is intended to create a bridge across federal agencies that had previously been rather insulated - this time also drawing the Department of Education into cooperation with the housing administration. To cite the language of the draft bill itself, the purpose is to:
"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:
  1. 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.
  2. Education reform, and early childhood education in particular, are being incorporated into the program.
  3. 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.)
As of now, the expanded scope of the program has not been matched by an expanded budget request. HOPE VI began in the 90's with a $300 to $500 million a year and climbed steadily into the latter years of the decade. If Obama gets what he wants, Choice Neighborhoods will start off with approximately half of this.

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.


Eric Orozco said...

I can tell you that the impact of HOPE VI on the quality and effectiveness of development that my city's housing authority has been able to accomplish with this program has been enormous.

One challenge to integrating educational components is the lag in the departmental silos for accepting innovative development types. My latest involvement in a HOPE VI project made that clear to me. We fought hard to create our "educational village"...but it hasn't been easy winning goodwill among your much needed partners. The biggest challenge is getting these folks, who are very effective at getting things done in their own silos, willing to take a risk and share a common vision. You really do need people who are not just willing to think outside the box, but who actually have the resources and money to do so.

A perfect example is how difficult it was to integrate our K-8 school into our 40 acre site because of the suburban template we were given. It wasn't that our school system wasn't willing to explore an urban village school model, they simply didn't have the money to be experimental. They could only implement plans "off the shelf".

So, what I'm hoping the Choice Neighborhoods program can do is incentivize local experimentation with traditional development types and help spur and innovate more sophisticated interagency approaches to urban development. We need help breaking out of our silos. Probably the biggest challenge our local housing authority deals withon a day to day basis is just getting the schools, the DOT, the developer, the city planning department, the state and so forth willing to be agreeable enough with one another to share a common vision.

Daniel Nairn said...

That's really interesting, Eric. I suppose it makes sense that a school board with a limited budget sees that it needs to stay focused on the task of instructing students. They are not really rewarded for straying outside of this mission or taking risks on new ideas. I like the idea of empowering local experimentation and cooperation.

LH said...

Daniel, thanks for this information. On this note, my firm did a national study on the economic impact of these HOPE VI style developments and found them far more value-enhancing than the older "housing projects" of the 70's and 80's (surprise, surprise).

Nice to see that design matters, and that it can combat against people's innate tendency to not want to live near people poorer than themselves. And nice to see the Obama Administration trying desperately to work across silos, hard as I'm sure it is to do so, as nothing will work if it is approached in a single-silo manner.

Btw, I believe that in addition to the deleterious effect of concentrating/segregating poverty, the deterioration in the older style housing developments is also due to the federal government's arrangement with local governments to heavily subsidize upfront construction and leave ongoing maintenance to the locals. It is not surprising that what resulted was the erection of cookie-cutter developments that were subsequently neglected to the point of disrepair.

Anonymous said...

Federal Housing Administration (FHA) goal is to improve housing standards and conditions; to provide an adequate home financing system through insurance of mortgage loans; and to stabilize the mortgage market.

Rocky Hayes