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.

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