Tuesday, October 18, 2011

No, It’s Because Of Economics

By Renee Lewis Glover

Yes, every American should be gladdened by the unveiling of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial. The vision statement for the memorial proudly proclaims ”America’s potential for freedom, opportunity, and justice.”

But in the years since the March on Washington, we must look hard at those aspirations. Do we see freedom when poor, elderly and minority citizens face increasing obstacles to voting? Do we see justice when America has the highest incarceration rate in the world? Do we see justice when we see the ever-widening wealth gap between white and black Americans? And is it the lack of opportunity among so many Americans that has led to despair and civic disengagement – a point underscored by the frightening increase in disparity among the wealthy and the working class, while the middle class evaporates?

For 16 years, the Atlanta Housing Authority has been trying to address those problems. Housing projects had become prisons of poverty. They were incubators of young men destined to prison and young women destined to more generations in concentrated, grinding poverty

At first, we changed the housing environment--relocating families using Section 8 housing choice vouchers and facilitating the development of vibrant mixed-income communities by private sector developers. Former residents of housing projects found homes in many of the newly developed communities, or else moved to homes of their own choice in mainstream neighborhoods. We raised expectations of personal responsibility to signal that we believed in the unlimited human potential and invested tens of millions of dollars coaching families for successful lives filled with opportunity. We validated the conventional wisdom that to have healthy mixed-income communities, they must have equally successful schools – and true reform has blossomed at schools AHA and its development partners have fostered at a time when many of Atlanta’s schools have faltered.

More needs to be done, however. Lonnie King, the great Atlanta civil rights leader and a founder of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), first put the idea in my mind – what he called the “Third Wave” of the civil rights movement. In Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement, University of Virginia law Professor Tomiko Brown-Nagin credits Lonnie King, and describes the “third wave of community activists,” who “expanded the pantheon of heroic figures in the struggle for racial justice far beyond civil rights lawyers and famed student activists. After students no longer were the leading edge of the civil rights movement, a new group of dissenters – the low-income community members that SNCC had viewed as its primary constituency – stepped into the void.”

That concept brought into tight focus what we’ve been laboring so hard to achieve. Those who have led the struggle have been, first, the legal activists of the mid-20th Century, followed by the students, and then by those African-Americans who understood in painfully clear terms that they had been systemically deprived of equity in this society. Dr. King bridged all three waves, and at the end of his life, he was firmly embedded in the belief that racial equality was intrinsically linked to economic opportunity for those who had been denied that opportunity for centuries. That passion has been the mission for AHA.

There is still another way to depict the “Third Wave” of civil rights. I view the Civil War as the “First Wave,” the struggle that smashed the concept that any human being could be “property.” But, emancipation did not equate with legal equality. To achieve that required a “Second Wave,” the end to Jim Crow. That wave was capped with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights laws, school desegregation, and the end to the sophistry that separate could ever be equal.

Still, the fight hasn’t been won yet. Shirley Sherrod, who last year was forced to resign from the U.S. Department of Agriculture after an inflammatory and decidedly false charge of reverse racism was leveled at her, wrote in the March issue of The American Prospect: “[W]e watched with dismay as some of the president’s political opponents expressed their rage at the prospect of a non-white national leader with cartoons reminiscent of the days when Jim Crow laws and white-robed Klansmen ruled. Not even Obama’s masterful speech on racism in Philadelphia, his inspiring campaign, and a national democratic vote could banish hatred.”

Indeed, many in America are dismayed at the return of such overt racism, and as a society we must ask, “Why?” One answer, I suggest, is that when such great economic disparity exists between the races, the simple-minded who don’t know or understand history will conclude it’s because of race.

No, it’s because of economics.

Today – 150 years since the start of the Civil War and 48 years since MLK’s “I have a dream” speech – blacks in America on average have about 10 percent of the net worth of whites. And, as long as we allowed the horror of the concentrated poverty and low expectations of public housing to continue, we were fooling ourselves if we thought that equation would change significantly, in this city or in the nation.

That’s the importance of this “Third Wave”: investing people deprived of wealth with the opportunity to fully participate in and benefit from our great society. That is the mission that drives our work.

AHA’s contribution to this “Third Wave” is to provide structural access to opportunity through economically integrated living environments, high expectations and globally competitive public education opportunities. If we succeed in that, we will ensure that poor people, especially African-Americans, finally begin to achieve economic equity in America.

Renee Lewis Glover is the President and CEO of the Atlanta Housing Authority.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

So-called "Hard to House" face Multiple Obstacles

Let's say you're building a house. First, you must nail some boards together. In your tool box you have wrenches, saws, screwdrivers, pliers and hammers. What tool do you select to pound the nails? Right, a hammer.

Now you move on to installing some plumbing. You decide that since the hammer worked just fine for the nails, you'll also use it on the plumbing. That's not such a great idea. Pounding pipes together with a hammer doesn't work well. But, heck, the hammer worked so well at the beginning, you've thrown out all the rest of your tools.

Then it's on to painting the house. Again, you try spreading paint on the house with the hammer. Hmmm, it makes a mess of the job.

Turns out, different jobs require different tools. Painting requires brushes, plumbing needs wrenches. You might say that's obvious. But not if you're Congress or a federal government agency trying to address vastly different categories of need by people for whom housing is an issue. One tool fits all missions – that is all some folks think you should find in Uncle Sam's tool chest.

More than 70 years ago – in the midst of the Great Depression – an Atlanta developer named Charles Palmer devised a "tool" for solving the crisis in housing. About a third of the nation was, as President Franklin Roosevelt said at the time, "ill-housed." FDR adopted Palmer's concept – what we now call public housing. Some of FDR's and Palmer's principles are worth recalling: It was to give working families of modest means safe, sanitary and quality housing so that they could build their lives.

Further, Palmer's vision was always one in which the private sector played a major role. He knew that if public housing became a government monopoly, there would be little incentive to create programs that transitioned tenants to society's mainstream. Indeed, the reverse would be true, and Palmer feared the creation of self-perpetuating bureaucracies that grew by holding people captive in housing projects.

In the early years, public housing worked. One statistic we have from the early days of the nation's very first housing project, Atlanta's Techwood Homes: The employment rate among tenant families in 1940 was 102 percent. That meant virtually every family had one member working, and many had two. These were families on their way to achieving the American Dream.

But, sadly, the success of those early years evaporated in succeeding decades. Public housing became an entirely government enterprise. It lost its vision of being a stepping stone to success. Rather than providing housing for those eager for work and education, the projects became the turf for many who refused to work.

But, since it had shown such spectacular success at solving one problem – housing for working families – it became an article of faith that the same "tool" would work for all housing issues. In other words, the federal government was doing the equivalent of painting a house by using a hammer.

It hasn't worked. In this column, I want to address some of the people for whom the original concept of public housing has failed catastrophically. The policy "wonks" often lump several widely divergent groups under the moniker "hard to house." Perhaps the best definition of this is provided by Urban Institute researchers Mary Cunningham, Susan Popkin and Martha Burt, who wrote in 2005 that "'hard-to-house' tenants [are] public housing residents who are at risk of losing their housing for reasons that go beyond affordability" (their emphasis). Some specific categories include physically, mentally and emotionally disabled people; elderly households and "grandfamilies" (where children are being reared by grandparents); very large families; and drug abusers, alcoholics and people who are coming out of prison. Many families and individuals have "multiple obstacles" – they fall into several of the hard-to-house definitions. The Urban Institute found that between 37 percent and 62 percent of the residents at various housing projects in Chicago fell into the hard-to-house categories.

Put another way, the hard to house often suffer from some form of social stigma – whether caused by disability or behavior. Also, they often have physical needs and specific service needs that require specialized housing.

The picture gains definition when you examine housing project populations. The Urban Institute, for example, this year made an analysis that classified residents as:

"Striving," the group for which public housing was originally intended – those wanting to move up in life, and with the willingness and basic skills to do so.

"Aging and distressed," people with both age and illness challenges, and often including people with drug and alcohol dependencies.

"High risk," people who are vulnerable because they typically have low education, often are single mothers and may have health impairments.

When compared to the "striving" group, those classified as "aging and distressed" and "high risk" have far greater problems with obesity, chronic illness and mental health problems. Predictably, employment among the "striving" is about 60 percent while it is less than 20 percent for the "high risk" group and less than 10 percent for those who are "aging and distressed."

So, to what do all of those facts add up?

As I said, if you're the federal government, the solution to the needs of those dramatically divergent groups is a single tool: public housing. Since the 1960s, the nation has watched as the housing projects deteriorated into the new ghettoes – concentrations of poverty isolated from society's mainstream. There is no one involved in housing policy who isn't aware of the awful blight of the projects and the near total breakdown of human spirit and achievement for those confined to public housing.

It is extremely significant that this failure of public housing accompanied demands that the projects become the destinations for an ever increasing number of problem populations. The resulting bitter failure is proof that one tool doesn't work for all jobs.

Yet, many urge that we keep doing the same things and expect different outcomes – keep trying to make one solution fit situations as different as an elderly couple with modest means, a teenage mom without a high school diploma, and a drug-dependent ex-convict. That "one size fits all" approach contrasts sharply with the philosophy behind the HOPE VI program adopted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in the 1990s, and adapted by the Atlanta Housing Authority, that recognized the essential failure of public housing and sought to find innovative alternatives. In Atlanta, our solution included the demolition of all of the large family housing projects and, in their place, wonderful mixed-use, mixed -income communities were created by public-private partnerships, leveraging the know-how and innovation of savvy private sector developers. On a simultaneous track, the human potential of affected public housing residents is being leveraged through strategic investments of family-based human development counseling by professional firms.

Put in policy terms, many in Washington oppose any further demolition of public housing. Others propose more flexibility in addressing their communities' needs, and I urge an expansion of such flexibility throughout the nation.

Supporting what you might call the "traditionalists" are academics such as Dr. Edward Goetz of the University of Minnesota. He declared last year in testimony before a Congressional panel that HOPE VI "has shown no effect on health, on the educational experiences of children, or on the economic security and self-sufficiency of families. In fact…there is some evidence that forced mobility increases economic insecurity. There is some consensus among researchers that the relocation of public housing residents often disrupts social support systems and creates new difficulties to overcome. This is a disappointing record of individual-level benefits."

I disagree with Dr. Goetz on many points. There is strong evidence, some of it provided at the same hearing by Georgia Tech economist Dr. Thomas D. Boston, that Atlanta's application of HOPE VI has had great and positive impacts on children's education and on economic self-sufficiency of families. But it's the second part of Dr. Goetz's statement that implicitly refers to the hard to house. I strongly dispute the assumption that substantial networks of support systems are available to distressed project residents – the hard to house. That was certainly not the case in Atlanta when I took over AHA 16 years ago, and it is not the case in most large cities today. Housing authorities are only funded to provide housing – in the projects that means sub-standard housing – but they have neither the funds nor the mandate to offer high levels of supportive services. The strategic investment in human development and other services was an outgrowth of the genius of U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland), the author of the HOPE VI Program, who fundamentally believes that in order to unleash the unlimited human potential of America's low income families, we must invest in counseling, job training, early childhood development and education.

Moreover, the concentrated poverty of the projects actually makes educational success largely unachievable, and deters the social, cultural and retail amenities that are necessary for effective support systems.

Although not usually described as such, the hard to house are the critical divide between the two groups in the policy dialogue. The traditional public housing supporters insist that public housing can meet the needs of groups with widely varying problems. This argument has included demands that ex-offenders be housed in the projects – facilities generally dominated by single women and children. A good idea? I don't think so, any more than I think you can paint a house with a hammer.

There is no doubt that as a society we need to address the problems of the hard to house. But the solution isn't to dump people into public housing. When as a matter of national and state policy, for example, the emotionally and mentally handicapped were released from state-run hospitals and treatment centers and sent into the larger society, they had few resources. The solution advocated by the traditionalists: Send the emotionally and mentally challenged to public housing. But those of us managing housing authorities were not authorized to provide the appropriate housing settings required by this population, which, in most cases require special attention and care. Nor did the officials who insisted we house persons with special needs provide us with funding to offer counseling and supportive programs needed to live independently.

Drug addicts and abusers present an even more disturbing problem – housing authorities are not drug treatment centers, nor in anyone's wildest dreams should it be a good idea to put addicts and dealers in proximity to children or the elderly.

Between 40 percent and 65 percent of housing authority- assisted families have the wherewithal to become mainstream – provided they can exit the housing projects and are provided with coaching to help them succeed. The remaining people fall into one or more of the hard-to-house categories.

For those with the ability to achieve their God-given potential, housing projects are the road to failure. Concentrated poverty doesn't work. For the other groups, those with special needs, society must develop effective solutions – and dumping them into the awful pits of obsolete housing projects shouldn't be considered a suitable alternative. The disabled, the elderly and, yes, those whose personal failures with drugs and crime have made them outcasts, are part of society and we must address their needs. But not by compromising, and in some cases, ruining the lives of so many others whose only problem is a lack of material resources.

Let's find hammers for the nails, wrenches for the pipes and brushes for the paint.

Monday, January 17, 2011

When is "Community" Not "Community"?

First of a three-part series

The word "community" is inevitably used – and frequently misused – in discussions about government owned and managed public housing. What is "community"? How do you build "community"? When is "community" not "community"?

Those questions touch on much of the work we do at the Atlanta Housing Authority. What I'll address in this article is our philosophy of "building community." And, in two subsequent articles I'll deal with subjects that directly impact "community" – people who fall into a category housing specialists call the "hard to house," and finally Atlanta's homeless population. In these three articles, my goal is two-fold: to explain what we are doing in Atlanta, and to dispel some myths associated with our work.

When we began demolishing Atlanta's obsolete housing projects in 1994, we heard from self-appointed advocates for the residents that we were destroying communities. That sort of phrasing is a conversation-stopper. Who in the world would want to destroy communities? Certainly, not me.

That's the wrong question, of course. It doesn't stand up to reason when you define "community." The so-called community in housing projects was the offshoot of failed public policies. From transitional housing for people looking to rebuild their lives, public housing projects devolved into housing of last resort, inescapable prisons of concentrated poverty. The ills that accompany such poisonous levels of poverty and devastatingly low expectations undermined any civility and any real community in the projects. Community is not achievable when your life and your children's lives are in danger on a daily basis. You cannot retain a sense of hopefulness when you know your child is attending schools at the bottom of achievement rankings. You cannot maintain respect when the expectations are so low that virtually any behavior is tolerated. You cannot have community when there are no quality grocery stores and retailers within a reasonable distance. You cannot build community when the strain and stress of the living conditions in the projects means a disproportionately large number of the residents will have more illnesses, more mental problems and earlier deaths than the larger population.

So, what we began in 1994 and continue today – the replacement of the toxic environments of the housing projects with a new model – was definitely not destroying what advocates romantically call "community." It cannot be disputed that strong, long-standing social and familial bonds existed in these "war" zones, but not once in the last 16 years, has a former resident of a former housing project come to me and told me that they missed the good old days in Techwood or Bowen or Capitol homes, or any of the other projects. What is often said is: "Thank you for helping me and my family get out;" "My children can now go out and play;" or "My children are safer and are getting a better education."

What, then, is the community we've been building? First, our underlying premise is that all people have unlimited God-given human potential. Public housing over the years, in a well-meaning but often wrong-minded quest to have it address every social ill, diminished and destroyed that potential, especially the potential of children. In a direct response to reverse this unfolding tragedy, we sought to build a model that was "children-centered" and designed to capitalize on and celebrate human potential. The essential ingredients, as I've written in previous "Lessons Learned," are ending concentrated poverty, raising expectations and standards and creating healthy mixed-income and mixed-use communities built and operated by private-public partnerships.

Why these ingredients?

Concentrated poverty is synonymous with crime, drugs, hopelessness, economic wastelands and poor or no services. All of the research says you cannot overcome it and results are always dire. So we said: We must not concentrate poverty.

Low expectations and standards are insidious and destructive. They result in multi-generational problems. Again, all of the research says you cannot overcome it and the results are always dire. So we said: We must raise the expectations and standards.

Mixed-income is necessary because all investment and services (public and private) follow disposable income. The healthiest communities are ones where people of all incomes, races, cultures and occupations are involved – sharing and contributing to a vibrant and desirable neighborhood, with great schools, great amenities and quality living. When public housing-assisted residents have moved into mixed-income communities – either the ones built on the sites of the former housing projects or, with the aid of housing assistance vouchers, neighborhoods throughout the city – we have seen and documented that the assisted residents are soon indistinguishable from the mainstream, all striving to achieve the American dream. In every major U.S. city, the projects are identifiable when you pass them by. You know – by the stigma associated with the public housing program – these places are unsafe. So you keep moving.

When all of Atlanta's large family housing projects were operational, the residents lived in five ZIP Codes. Not surprising, those ZIP Codes were among the poorest in the city, with average household incomes as low as about $13,000. Since razing the projects, those families now live in 24 ZIP Codes around the city (plus a small number who have moved to other counties and states). What our studies show is that the residents now live in neighborhoods that, on average, are 27 percent more affluent than when they lived in the projects.

That incredible improvement in environment – which assures better schools, better retailers, and more social, cultural and recreational amenities – is the difference between what is euphemistically called "community," but isn't, and a truly healthy community.

Two other ingredients are also necessary for community. Mixed-use means the amenities and services that make a community great – globally competitive neighborhood public schools, excellent early childhood learning centers, upscale retailers and so on. And, private-public partnerships are essential because the new healthy communities must be built and marketed by great private sector developers. No one aspires to live in government-operated housing projects. AHA invests its land and public funds, but the value creation, innovation and market competitiveness are driven by the entrepreneurial spirit of the private developer. Because the private funds (and the market risks that accompany them) represent a majority of the investments made – the private players have a huge stake in insuring the long-term success of the community.

If you visit Atlanta's revitalized neighborhoods, what you will see are communities in the finest sense of the word. Residents from all walks of life (including those who receive public housing assistance) are living, working, playing, learning and thriving in great children-centered destination places. Throughout Atlanta in recent years, as a direct result of demolishing the projects and creating healthy mixed-use, mixed-income communities, the surrounding neighborhoods have dramatically improved by every measure. For the first time in decades, people are eagerly moving back into Atlanta. Mixed-use, mixed-income development flourishes throughout the city – and most of that new enterprise would not have happened if the housing projects still were standing.

So, our belief from the beginning is that community is more than just an address. It is a place where, above all, children will flourish and families will find the resources and amenities to build successful lives. That did not exist, regardless of the romantic wishes, in the housing projects. It does exist today in the communities we've helped developed throughout Atlanta.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Looking Back After 15 Years

By Renee Lewis Glover

One of the greatest challenges facing large American cities is affordable housing: How do you encourage prosperity in a city, often called gentrification, while still maintaining a sufficient base of affordable housing?

For Atlanta, a historic milestone has been achieved in overcoming some aspects of this conundrum. Many Atlantans have noticed the impact of this achievement – lower crime rates, healthy neighborhoods and substantially better outcomes for low-income families. Somewhat less apparent, students who a few years ago would have struggled in school are now achieving success in school and thereafter. And, almost invisible to the casual observer has been the increased availability of quality affordable homes to tens of thousands of our neighbors – families who in the past would have been consigned to the most blighted housing in the city.

The root of these changes is the strategic change in direction in the Atlanta Housing Authority's mission to close the affordability gap for housing for low-income families. At the end of December 2009, the last families moved out of the distressed and crime-ridden public housing projects and demolition is underway. That's a remarkable and historic event for a city that in past decades had the highest percentage of its residents living in "the projects," and for the city that during the New Deal era built the nation's first public housing.

There is nothing counterintuitive about saying that by tearing down the projects, the availability and quality of affordable housing has actually benefitted. It's been part of a plan and evolving process that many call the "Atlanta Model," and that model is being adopted and adapted by many large cities across the nation.

In the mid-1990s, Atlanta faced a multifaceted crisis. Most obvious, the city was slated to host the Olympic Games in 1996. That was great news, but on view for the world would be the awful blight of housing projects such as Techwood/Clark Howell Homes, with its hard-to-miss location directly adjacent to the Olympic Village. But far more important in the long term was the issue of what should replace public housing – more of the same or something new. The question the city faced was what kind of affordable housing should we build? Was it a good idea to put another coat of paint on distressed public housing projects? Or were their other alternatives?

The key to the answer was not the condition of the buildings – although it was clearly evident that no amount of money and work could transform the projects into decent housing. Rather, what I faced when I became CEO of the Atlanta Housing Authority in 1994 were two much more profound questions: Do we understand that everyone has unlimited human potential, and do we as a society value it?

It was clear that the greatest victims of public housing projects were the children: the next generation to be snared in the cycle of poverty. As many, many scholars have attested, when schools are packed with poor children (regardless of the child's race), unrelenting failure is the outcome. That was exactly the condition at the elementary schools that were embedded in housing projects, and the failure that started there impacted the middle and high schools up the education pipeline.

Added to that is the destructive impact on education. Dating back to the 1960s, education experts have concluded that "the most powerful predictors of educational success or failure are family income and parents' educational attainment," according to David Rusk, a leading urban issues researcher. Rusk's studies in cities across the nation have repeatedly shown the same race-neutral trend: a healthy income mix of students produces the best outcomes for all students.

Beyond schooling, the very premise of what public housing had become is one that is bound to destroy families. When expectations and standards are low – and currently they are – the ultimate victims of well-intentioned but misplaced social policies are the children. Go into any large housing project in any major American city and what you see are overwhelmingly single women and children largely cut loose from the socializing influence of strong families.

Housing projects were ground zero for soaring crime rates in cities. It's not that the residents are more likely to be criminals than any group of citizens. Indeed, they are the first victims of crime. Research shows overwhelmingly concentrated poverty begets crime, disinvestment and social malaise. The concentrated poverty of Atlanta's projects provided an unintended yet perfect environment for society's predators. Violent gangs claimed the turf, drug pushers prowled the perimeter, pimps snatched away children with promises of easy money.

It would be foolish to suggest that Atlanta's public housing didn't serve a purpose at one time. When the projects were first built right after the Great Depression, and Atlanta led the nation, they were remarkably effective stepping stones for low-income families into the American Dream. But with the steady erosion of expectations and standards, and with changes in social conditions over the decades, the transitional housing envisioned for low-income working families became permanent enclaves of perpetual poverty.

As we have found in repeated surveys, when asked if they want to leave the housing projects, more than 90 percent of the residents replied with a resounding "yes."

Mixed-income is a model that works in Atlanta and many other cities. We have independent proof of successful outcomes from the work of the last decade and a half. Equally important, we have the extraordinarily positive response from the former residents of public housing to the new model.

In Atlanta, the housing authority serves thousands more people today than it did before it razed all of its projects (other than 11 senior buildings and two small family properties). And all of the families receiving housing assistance live in better physical and social conditions than those found in the now-demolished public housing projects. In part, that is made possible because private investment now leverages the federal funds allocated to the authority. Thus, instead of being barely able to keep up with critical repairs to the decrepit projects, the infusion of private investment has made possible the creation of livable, affordable and quality neighborhoods.

Also, with greater deregulation provided by the federal government, the authority provides long-term counseling and coaching to families as they move into mainstream neighborhoods, resulting in an easier and more realistic transition to the mainstream for affected families. That same flexibility has allowed the authority to attract landlords from throughout the city and not just the poorer areas, facilitating real choices for housing and amenities for people leaving the projects.

Another ingredient to a successful housing program is high expectations. When you have low or no expectations, you'll get human failure. If you set your sights high, you'll get success. In Atlanta, we have a work requirement for all non-elderly, non-disabled adults receiving housing assistance. The result? The employment rate among our client families is indistinguishable from the mainstream population.

In summary, there are four things that happened as Atlanta changed its business model and embarked on a mixed-income model for affordable housing:

1. The city eliminated the cancers that destroyed lives and destroyed the fabric of the community. A significant percent of the city's population once written off now finds the doors opened to much better, more successful lives.

2. Children no longer are trapped in those environments where their future potential was strangled.

3. There has been a significant and enduring reduction in crime throughout the city.

4. Neighborhoods throughout the city that were abandoned are now thriving.

That's a success story about which all of us can be proud.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Road to Restoring Human Dignity

For decades, our society has struggled with the social issues surrounding poverty. Some believe that people are poor because they were born into the wrong family, race or culture, while others believe poverty is a matter of being unlucky, unwilling or incapable. Sound reasoning shows us that there is no single reason why, at any given time, an individual has fewer resources. Yet, public policies are often based on such generalities or assumptions, and that's wrong.

However, while we know stereotypes and generalities lead to inaccurate conclusions, we can be certain that many expectations often become reality. That is, if we expect people to fail – based on the judgment that somehow they are inherently incapable – then often they will fail. On the other hand, if we expect people will succeed – and that it is mostly external forces that have impeded their success – then when nurtured, prepared and afforded access to opportunities, people will travel a path to success.

We also know that the public housing program started out as temporary housing assistance for working poor families. The vision was clear and the expectations and standards were high. Even with clarity of vision, the program was conceived and developed during a period of racial segregation and conflict. Notwithstanding that historical context, the expectation was that both white and black families were preparing themselves to live independent, successful lives, albeit in racially segregated communities. Over the years, as society changed and the government faced new and very difficult challenges, numerous (and often conflicting) rules and regulations were crafted to address these challenges. Many of these rules and regulations were reactive rather than strategic. And, in many cases, the rules and regulations were developed based on the historical and political context of the times, political expediency and, in some cases, priorities that trumped decent and safe affordable housing, e.g. urban renewal or highway expansion.

As a consequence of these complexities, the public housing program lost its vision and mission and became positioned to be all things to all people and to address all of society's social problems. To accommodate this very complicated (and some would say impossible) mission, the rules and regulations drove the expectations and standards down to a level where there no longer were any meaningful expectations and standards.

Most of the politicians and administrators charged with overseeing the public housing program assumed that all people who received housing assistance in public housing were helpless and incapable of being successful in the mainstream. I refuse to accept this premise. In fact, in 1994, when I decided to take on the challenges at the Atlanta Housing Authority, I knew that the only way to address the myriad problems was to call on my faith and follow my belief that all people are children of God, with unlimited human potential.

I firmly believe that when our lives and our work are not guided by our faith and by high moral and ethical standards emanating from our faith, our vision becomes distorted and we lose our way. When we fail to apply high expectations and standards to ourselves and to the people we serve, we get outcomes that fall far short of what is possible. I further believe our faith requires us to advance the notion that each individual, because of his God-given potential, is responsible for his or her own life and that each individual is capable of success regardless of family, race, creed, culture or financial circumstance.

~ ~ ~

I know that when discussing public policy, it's not popular to talk about faith because it makes people uncomfortable. Let's not forget that while America's Founding Fathers insisted on the separation of church and state, they were mostly men guided by their own strong faith-derived values. That combination of secular government shaped by strong values has created discomfort throughout our nation's history, and with this writing, I also intend to make the reader uncomfortable. I will start by describing the bleak, on-the-ground reality faced by Atlanta in the 1990s, and by many other large cities today.

Because of failed public policies and low expectations, the public housing program in Atlanta became a system that created an institutionalized culture of poverty for people who were temporarily down on their luck. Temporary became permanent for most, recycling itself to fit generations of families.

The program suffered from several fatal flaws, including:

  • A failed social design of concentrated poverty.
  • Very low expectations and standards.
  • No requirements for personal responsibility.
  • No support for personal transformation.
  • No opportunities for economic independence and upward mobility.
  • And, no access to quality education; all of the "captive" schools that served the public housing projects were failing.

The public housing program had become the "devil's bargain." That is, in exchange for a social, financial, and housing arrangement – with no or low standards and without personal accountability or responsibility – one could live in a compromised, dangerous and dysfunctional housing development. Because it was the only affordable option available to them, families needing assistance with paying their rent, found themselves in environments where, over time, they were exploited and destroyed by the chaos that resulted from concentrated poverty and low expectations and standards.

The unintended but predictable consequence of these environments was that society's criminals and predators were empowered, and the vulnerable, law-abiding, very low-income families who found themselves trapped in these no-win situations were imperiled.

After a few years of living in this social disorder, families that were only seeking rental assistance tended to become poorer and poorer, more dependent, distrustful and further stigmatized.

In due course, the law-abiding residents, in their hearts, questioned why a system was allowed to exist when it so overwhelmingly favored thugs and predators over children, mothers and the elderly. Ultimately all families learned they couldn't trust housing authority officials, elected officials, or government officials of any ilk because they had been compromised and entrapped by the system itself.

For sure, the issues of poverty are complex. And, we would be well-served to remember that there is a big difference between having little income and being institutionalized into a culture of poverty.

~ ~ ~

Given this background and context, in September 1994, when we started our public housing transformation in partnership with private sector developers, we understood that the old model of concentrated poverty and low expectations and standards had failed and must end. We knew our efforts would not be successful if we could not restore integrity and human dignity by pursuing strategies that insure great outcomes for the assisted families and the larger society, earn their trust and change the culture, minds and hearts of both the assisted families and the larger society.

One of AHA's strategic goals for mixed-use, mixed-income revitalization is to mainstream the families. In order to encourage, motivate, and facilitate better outcomes, we had to restore the human spirit and dignity by providing customized, long-term human development support, setting high expectations and standards, and requiring personal responsibility. Low expectations and standards only serve to break the human spirit and rob individuals of their dignity. Not only had this type of destructive thinking destroyed the public housing program, it has also systematically destroyed our public schools, child welfare system, publically subsidized healthcare, and most other social institutions and programs.

Because I believe that our faith must inform our work, I called on my faith to restore trust with the assisted families and to develop a rational system of thoughtful policies, expectations and standards.

I believe that bringing faith-informed levels of integrity and accountability to this work shaped my thought process in a completely different manner. Race, sex, cultural, religious and income differences are required to be eliminated as considerations. Now the same high level of expectations, standards and personal responsibility is demanded of everyone and for all situations. In a faith-informed context, the work becomes focused on building God's Kingdom, the place Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so beautifully refers to as the "Beloved Community." In this new context, mediocrity, low expectations and standards, segregation, discrimination and concentrated poverty are not tolerated.

All of us, without exception, are called upon to use our God-given gifts of unlimited human potential in building the Beloved Community. All of us are required to live with civility and respect for our fellow human beings. We are required to develop our strategies and policies and to take actions that create a kingdom that benefits everyone equally. Our mission is to strengthen the people we serve so that they are empowered, educated and enabled to tap into their own God-given human potential.

I further believe that high expectations and standards of personal responsibility are required of everyone. We are expected and required to educate and train ourselves and to support and encourage our fellow human beings so that we can all live a decent, full, and productive life. Failing to teach and train with excellence and integrity is not an option. Education is the language of life, civility and humanity.

So, what have these faith-informed expectations, standards and policies yielded?

AHA determined that as part of this restoration process, it needed to invest in each family impacted by AHA transformational activities by providing through professional counselors family-based human development services for a period of three to five years.

As a result of our new direction, the outcomes of assisted households have been stunning. More than 90 percent of the assisted, non-elderly, non-disabled households that reside in mixed-use, mixed-income communities are engaged in the work force.

When AHA adopted a work requirement for non-elderly and non-disabled households who resided in its traditional public housing developments not undergoing transformation in 2004, only 16 percent of those households had working members. As of June 30, 2009, more than 60 percent of the non-elderly and non-disabled households who lived in traditional public housing developments s or lived in housing made affordable through use of Section 8 vouchers were working and more than an additional 30 percent of those households were participating in education or training programs in preparation for work. I will never forget the power of the testimony of a woman, who having started working for the first time in her life, said: "Now that I am working, my children respect me and my pride has been restored," or of another woman, who had recently earned her GED, when she said that she " loves the joy in the faces of her children now that she can read to them."

Moreover, the families have been able to continue working (including finding new employment) during the current economic recession. Families are becoming homeowners, children are graduating from high school and going on to college, and individuals are becoming entrepreneurs.

Our work has demonstrated that if we are faithful, there is no obstacle which cannot be overcome.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Why Would Anyone Tolerate Poor Health And Early Death?

One of the most common criticisms I hear about our efforts to deconcentrate poverty by redeveloping public housing projects as mixed-income communities is that the revitalization process "destroys the existing community."

That refrain can be heard among well-intentioned elected and appointed officials as well as from so-called resident advocates (often self-appointed).

It is not, however, generally a mantra one hears from the majority of the residents who live in the public housing projects.

Surveys show that more than 97 percent of the families living in Atlanta's public housing projects wanted out, wanted a chance for a better life. What these survey respondents were saying – and what I'm saying – is that obsolete housing developments that foster social dysfunction are so awful, so toxic that the buildings should be razed and the public policies that prop them up should be abandoned.

Previously, I wrote about the corrosive influence concentrated poverty has on the education received by children living in the public housing projects. If there is one issue that goes even deeper than schools, it is health.

There is an easily observed link between poverty and poor health. The Encyclopedia of Public Health bluntly states: "People with low incomes, particularly those who live in poverty, face particular challenges in maintaining their health. They are more likely than those with higher incomes to become ill, and to die at younger ages. They are also more likely to live in poor environmental situations with limited health care resources—factors that can compromise health status and access to care."

Those of us who work in the affordable housing arena know those facts all too well. We know that all of the primary characteristics of concentrated poverty – low educational attainment, low employment rates, lack of access to quality medical care, frequent proximity to environmental hazards such as waste dumps, the prevalence of criminal activities such as the drug trade, violence and prostitution – make it inevitable that residents of public housing projects are more likely to become ill, more likely to suffer from chronic ailments and more likely to die young.

You can add to that dismal picture this economic reality: If public housing projects equals poverty, and poverty equals lack of disposable income, then low-income mothers and their children have limited access to quality food stores.

Why is this so? Simply put, all commercial services, amenities and private investments follow "disposable income."

University of Georgia Professor Angela Fertig in 2006 co-authored a study that found: "[E]vidence suggests that residents of poor neighborhoods lack access to grocery stores that stock fresh fruits, vegetables, and other perishable goods critical for maintaining positive nutritional status."

Fertig's study also quoted a report by the Chicago Department of Public Health on residents of public housing projects that concluded "more than a quarter of the residents [of public housing projects] live half a mile or more from the nearest food store with fresh produce – and nearly 40 percent don't have cars to get there.... Access to fresh produce was even more limited [near another project] where there was one large food store for every 19,000 people."

A study in San Francisco showed residents in affluent areas could reach three different grocery stores within 10 minutes roundtrip, while those in low-income communities spent about an hour roundtrip traveling to the nearest supermarket.

It is no coincidence that neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty lack adequate grocery stores, restaurants and other commercial establishments. Businesses depend on the disposable income of their customer base to drive sales and, therefore, financial sustainability. No amount of government subsidy can overcome the lack of disposable income in an impoverished neighborhood.

Residents of the housing projects also tend to engage in less physical exercise (fear of crime is a major factor in deterring healthy outdoor activities). A Kansas City study found public housing developments to be severely lacking in physical activity resources.

There are plenty of fat-laden, fast-food joints in low-income neighborhoods. A 2006 Center for Disease Control (CDC) study indicates that obesity prevalence is higher among lower income individuals, minorities, women and persons with disabilities than among the general population. The American Journal of Public Health reported last year that in Boston more than 30 percent of residents of the public housing projects reported being diagnosed as obese as compared with 18 percent of the residents from the general population in the city.

Equally well documented are the impacts with regards to specific diseases. Consider:

1. "Poor adults, particularly those living in public housing, have higher asthma rates as a result of environmental factors as well as problems managing the disease once it has been diagnosed," according to the National Center for Health Care for Public Housing Residents. The center also reports that families living in public housing are about twice as likely to have a child with asthma as the general population.

2. A significantly higher percentage of residents of public housing are current smokers than non-residents of public housing, according to a study by Boston University, the Boston Housing Authority and other groups.

3. The Boston University / Boston Housing Authority study also found that residents of public housing are burdened with hypertension at levels that exceed those found among the general population.

4. According to the Boston University / Boston Housing Authority study, a significantly higher percentage of residents of public housing reported having been diagnosed with diabetes than non-public housing residents.

5. Mental health, too, is a factor. In an ongoing study since 1999, The Boston Public Health Commission reports approximately 1 in 5 residents of public housing experiences 15 or more days per month when their mental health is not good.

The facts are indisputable and I trust my point is obvious:

Why would a caring society want to condemn any family to so-called "communities" where the physical and mental health of the occupants is severely threatened and their lives are undoubtedly shortened?

In the final analysis, who would responsibly advocate raising a child in such unhealthy conditions?

We know from experience and from tomes of academic studies that a low-income child's chances of success improve dramatically when that child is enrolled in a middle-class school – it is not the funding or class size that makes a difference but the enrichments that almost always accompany a mix of income groups. We also know that when an unemployed/under employed person moves into a socially viable community and receives job training and education the chances are that person will enter the mainstream economy and become economically self-sufficient.

Most importantly, we know that one of the most urgent reasons to end the policies of concentrating low-income families in obsolete public housing projects is that the public housing projects are inherently unhealthy. That is something we cannot deny or tolerate.

Atlanta's low-income families are relocating from such housing projects to healthier communities. We are demolishing the obsolete, distressed housing projects and then redeveloping the vacant sites into healthy mixed-use, mixed-income communities. The families are living in substantially improved environments and are rewarded with the consequential health benefits.

No longer is "poor health and an early death" the only option for low-income people.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Children Face the Greatest Risk

Fifteen years ago, we knew that we must abandon the model of concentrating poverty in public housing projects and move in the direction of creating economically integrated, market rate quality, mixed-income communities. We knew that the concentrated poverty of traditional public housing projects was having an insidious and corrosive impact on the lives of the residents, the surrounding neighborhoods, and the entire Atlanta community. What we had not fully comprehended was the negative impact these concentrated poverty residential arrangements were having on the neighborhood public schools and the educational outcomes of the children who attended those schools.

As my dear friend Dr. Norman Johnson, a former professor at Georgia Tech, Carnegie Mellon and Florida A&M, and a former Atlanta public school board member, puts it, “If you concentrate poverty in the residential arrangement, you cannot help but concentrate poverty in the neighborhood school. And, if you concentrate poverty in the school, it doesn’t work.”

The nation for decades has been divided about education reform. Progressives are blamed for merely wanting to throw money at schools. Conservatives are accused of wanting to undermine public schools in favor of private education. What’s often missing in this debate is a clear strategy towards proven success. Those extremes aren’t the answer. A pragmatic approach that is based on proven, successful strategies is what is needed.

The educators, sociologists and economists who have extensively studied education issues have all concluded that concentrating low-income children as a sociological design in schools does not work. This is not a statement about the ability or capacity of low-income children to learn. It is, indeed, a statement about the sociological environment that is needed to facilitate learning and great educational outcomes for children. We all know that education is the language of life and civilization and education is the great equalizer.

While engaged in this debate, the world has changed and the educational challenges have become more urgent because we are now engaged in global competition. In order to sustain our globally competitive posture, we must resolve to better educate a larger percentage of our population.

David Rusk, the former mayor of Albuquerque and one of America’s foremost urban thinkers, has written a paper titled “Housing Policy Is Education Policy." This paper should be a primer for everyone engaged in national housing and education discussions. As the title implies, it makes little sense to talk about housing policy unless you factor in education or to talk about education policy unless you factor in housing policy.

Rusk’s central thesis is that if you deconcentrate poverty among school populations, the success rate goes up. However, deconcentrating poverty in neighborhood public schools has proved to be difficult and many large urban public school systems are broken and troubled. Policies that favor concentrating families in public housing projects only exacerbate the problem of poverty-dominated schools. Sadly, academic failure under these conditions has been almost a certainty.

By contrast, in schools with a mix of income groups, we know that average test scores go up as the percentage of middle-class students increases. Ah, you say, that’s only because if you put low-income children in a middle-class school the blended rate of success, such as test scores, is likely to be higher than the average test scores at a predominantly low-income school. Not the case!

Rusk found a stunning trend in his research:

o In an Albuquerque study of 1,108 students, the average pupil from a public housing household showed a 0.22 percent increase in a basic skills test for every one percent increase in middle-class classmates.

o In Baltimore, the average basic skills test scores for low-income students went up 0.18 percent for every one percent increase in the middle-class classmates.

o A study of 186 Texas school districts showed that for every one percent increase in the number of middle-class students in a school, low-income students improved their chances of passing state exams by 0.27 percent.

Rusk also cited two schools in Buffalo, NY, to illustrate his thesis. The school with the smallest class size and greatest per-pupil expenditures was not the school with the highest achievement rate. Why? As Rusk explained, the more successful school, with larger classes and lower funding, had a poverty rate of only 7 percent of its students. The less successful school, even with its class-size and monetary advantages, had a poverty rate of 81 percent.

Put another way, in those studies the average scores of poor children attending a predominantly middle-class school will show a double-digit percentage improvement over the average scores of a poor child relegated to a largely low-income school.

“When there are significant socio-economic disparities, the effects of poverty and low parental education just wipe out other factors,” Rusk reported.

That opinion is echoed throughout academic research. A 2004 Rand Corp. study found the “most critical factors associated with the educational achievement of children … appear to be socio-economic ones. These factors include parental education levels, neighborhood poverty, parental occupation status and family income.”

The impact of socio-economic background of schoolchildren’s families on academic outcomes was first documented in 1966 by renowned sociologist James S. Coleman in “Equality of Educational Opportunity.” He studied American schools in depth and here are several of his major findings:

· “The educational resources that a child’s classmates bring to school are more important than the educational resources that the school board provides. … [T]he social composition of the student body is more highly related to achievement, independent of the student’s own social background, than is any school factor.”

· “Poor children learn best when surrounded by middle-class classmates.”

In Atlanta, we have studies that mirror these findings. Poor children who move from schools embedded in, or captive to, public housing projects to mainstream schools do much better because of the improved socio-economic environment. Georgia Tech’s Dr. Thomas D. Boston, in a 2005 paper, “Environment Matters,” found that “children who live in high-poverty communities do not receive proper educational guidance, and miss out on important early childhood learning experiences, recreational and after school activities, and/or other enrichment programs which help their development and lay the ‘foundation for success or failure in school’ and in life.”

As administrators of housing programs, real estate developers or professionals in related fields, we know that concentrating poverty in public housing projects or other residential arrangements leads to terrible human failure. We must never forget that a huge percentage of the people living in public housing projects are children. Thus, the toxic impact of concentrated poverty has had a disproportionate impact on our children, setting the stage for generational devastation.

When we began reshaping Atlanta’s housing policies 15 years ago, we knew that if we overburdened schools with children of poor families, the failure would spread. So, the goal was blending children of all economic backgrounds in schools where the positive sociology would support every child.

The results of achieving that goal were clear. At Techwood Homes, one of Atlanta’s worst projects, Boston found that in 1995 just 10 percent of the students at the neighborhood elementary school passed a basic writing skills test. By 2002, there was a new mixed-income community, Centennial Place, with a new neighborhood school, Centennial Place Elementary. Boston found that 62 percent of the neighborhood children passed the basic writing skills test – a level that was about 50 percent higher than all elementary schools in the Atlanta system.

With the studies of Rusk, Coleman, Boston and many others, we realize what works best: schools with a healthy mix of income groups, which optimally means that low-income students account for no more than 20 percent of the pupils.

Achieving goals for schools is a matter of sensible policymaking. By adopting and implementing policies that result in the creation of economically integrated communities, we can embrace a strategy and a sociological design for the schools that has a proven track record. With this improved sociological design (coupled with progressive school reform), our nation’s public schools have a substantially improved prognosis.

As the studies have shown, deconcentrating poverty in housing and schools is a great idea and even better public policy.

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