What Comes after They Dynamite the Public Housing?

WASHINGTON — Washington -- April and May have been -- literally -- the most explosive months in the history of public housing in America.

At 9 a.m. on April 30, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros and Philadelphia city officials pushed a ceremonial plunger igniting 660 pounds of dynamite to implode five towers of the 41-year-old Raymond Rosen Homes in North Philadelphia.


Good riddance, wrote the Philadelphia Inquirer's Acel Moore, of a project which for 30 years has "been an island -- a black township -- where crime, violence and drugs flourished."

Until the towers were vacated in 1992, wrote Mr. Moore, he'd visited Raymond Rosen Homes each year as a reminder of a fearful, other Philadelphia "filled with trash, garbage and dead rodents that rotted in hallways and stairways."


A day later, May 1, the nation's chief landlord was in St. Louis. This day, Mr. Cisneros began demolition of the beaten and broken George Vaughn public housing complex -- nine desolate brick-and-steel buildings on the north side of downtown.

By the end of this month, Atlanta officials will begin to take down the decayed and degenerated 1,081-unit Techwood Clark-Howell Homes -- vintage 1935, America's oldest public housing project.

Before this spring demolition derby, units were being reduced to rubble at Columbus Homes in Newark, North Lincoln Park in Denver, Father Panek in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Chicago's Washington Park. More razings are set for this summer in Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, San Antonio and Houston.

By this autumn and the end of the government's fiscal year, 32 developments, encompassing thousands of units, will have fallen.

In one sense, the dramatic demolitions are less than meets the eye. They affect just a tiny fraction of the nation's stockpile of 1.4 million public housing units -- many are small developments that blend into their neighborhoods. Forty percent of all public housing is reserved for the elderly,

The removal of blighted projects does, however, signal a vital turn -- proof that Americans have "had it" with those public housing projects that have turned into hellholes of gunshots, drugs, crime and stench.

No national administration, Republican or Democratic, could continue to condone a flow of federal "modernization" dollars into these projects.

The Clinton administration's HUD, to its credit, has sought to move full-bore on public housing -- starting with pressure to take down the worst units.


On top of that, Cisneros & Co. have been demanding stem-to-stern reorganization and introduction of professional management in the country's 94 "troubled" public housing authorities -- 16 of them in major cities.

In Philadelphia, Mayor Edward Rendell and City Council President John Street were persuaded to take personal control of the city's scandal-racked agency. Court-ordered receivers are now in place around the country, most recently to take control of the shockingly mismanaged Washington, D.C., authority.

In New Orleans, freshman Mayor Marc Morial invited in a HUD-designated recovery team, recruited a new housing chief from San Francisco through a competitive process involving residents, and instituted site-based management and community policing.

Now New Orleans will see a new separate, tenant-controlled public benefit corporation (free of civil-service personnel restraints) take ownership and management control of its projects -- among them Desire and Florida, two of America's most deteriorated and crime-ravaged.

"We want to offer people choice," says Mayor Morial. "Instead of simply reconstructing old, outmoded, high-density, multi-unit public housing, we will save where possible, demolish where appropriate, and we will create town-style construction and single-family homes."

Could it be true? Could we look forward to remodeled housing that's low-rise, much less dense, perhaps even interspersed with new private-market housing at the heart of our inner cities?


That's precisely what developer Richard Baron hopes to construct on the site of St. Louis' desolate Vaughn project. He foresees green parks punctuating blocks with 402 two- and three-story town homes, 45 percent for moderate- and middle-income families.

Some critics say it can't be done. Cities lack population and therefore market demand. St. Louis, for example, is down from 856,000 residents in 1950 to 380,000 today. There's an unsavory history of missed mortgage payments and defaults on federally insured projects.

And any mix of public with private housing will require "layered financing" -- not just federal funds, presuming the Republican Congress leaves reasonable chunks of redevelopment money in place, but state housing-finance support and private-sector financing targeted into once dicey neighborhoods.

Still, Chicago, Cleveland, Louisville and Pittsburgh are just some of the cities where mixed-income developments have either been recently built or are in serious proposal stage.

Mixing publicly subsidized units with private housing has to be our society's best hope to restore healthy community norms and end the terrible stigmatization of public housing.

The boom of the detonations of '95 punctuate the message: It's time for a fresh start.


Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.