Housing That Breaks the Cycle of Poverty


No one can deny that our public housing developments are deeply troubled places. Isolated in the poorest sections of RTC Baltimore with few decent employment opportunities, residents of public housing find it hard to travel up the ladder of success. The provision of services in these communities has taken precedence over providing opportunity. It is a disempowering policy that turns public-housing residents into consumers, not producers.

This policy perpetuates dependency and creates the expectation that generation after generation of public-housing residents will live in abject poverty in subsidized housing that has served to contain the poor, particularly the African-American poor.

Policy decisions of the past 40 years have contributed to our dilemma. Historic documents reveal that decisions were intentionally made to confine the African-American population to designated areas of the city. A 1945 Housing Authority document, entitled "Effects of the Post-War Program on Negro Housing," states that public housing will arrest "racial and group movements within the city . . . removing one of the important causes of blight."

Fear of community opposition motivated city officials to adopt the restrictive racial policies of 1945, and in 1995 fear of community opposition denies public-housing residents the choice to move to stable neighborhoods in the city and surrounding counties.

The Citizens Planning and Housing Association believes that public-housing policies must promote decent housing and treat residents as productive citizens. Fear and discrimination can no longer govern public policy. We must take actions that break the cycle of poverty. That means not just providing housing but putting it in places that give opportunities for people to find jobs and for their children to attend good schools. They cannot do so today, because during the past 20 years, manufacturing and other blue-collar jobs have moved out of the city to suburban areas.

The Housing Authority's plans to redevelop public housing in Baltimore provide an occasion to provide housing choices for families. We must start with subsidizing opportunities, not poverty, by:

* Reducing the density of public-housing developments and revitalizing these communities.

* Developing mixed-income housing in communities where there low poverty throughout the region.

* Using Section 8 mobility certificates and vouchers to replace demolished public housing.

Section 8 certificates and vouchers provide people with low incomes the best opportunity to move out of high-poverty areas to economically stable communities. The certificates are vouchers that an eligible person can take to a private landlord to rent an apartment anywhere in the metropolitan region, and in some cases anywhere in the country. Thirty percent of the renter's income is paid to the landlord, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development subsidizes the difference between what the renter pays and what the landlord charges, up to the Fair Market Rent for that area.

For mobility certificates to truly offer opportunity, counseling and support must be provided so participants can learn more about neighborhoods outside their community and outside the city. Counseling can link people with job training and service networks that can make their transition to a new community successful.

The mobility counseling strategy has proved successful. Studies Chicago's Gautreaux Program clearly document that families who have moved from urban poverty areas to middle-class suburbs have higher rates of employment and educational achievement. This counseling also serves to prevent new pockets of poverty from being created by finding landlords and apartment buildings that will accept Section 8 vouchers in a number of communities.

Residents of public housing want to move out of high-poverty areas. They want well maintained communities with good schools, safe streets and accessible jobs. The Housing Authority of Baltimore surveyed the residents of Lafayette Courts, a public-housing development slated to be demolished and redeveloped. More than 50 percent said they wanted opportunities to move out of the community, many preferring Section 8 certificates.

Over the past several months, the CPHA has convened discussion groups to explore ways to support fair housing opportunities. We have been heartened by citizen response. Public-housing residents and community leaders from the city and Baltimore County support the de-concentration of poverty and offer their assistance to ensure that the housing is used to develop opportunities for self-sufficiency and to sustain vibrant communities.

Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton in their book "American Apartheid," argue that people's life chances are inextricably linked to where they live. It is time to give residents of public housing real opportunities to improve their life chances. The decisions made today about our public housing will affect poor people and our region for decades. Let's not miss the chance to provide housing opportunities, not more poverty housing.

Joyce H. Knox is president of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association.

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