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.