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.

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