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Public housing's new face

CALLING IT "one of the last bastions of socialism in the world," Sen. Robert Dole, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, in late April suggested ending public housing in America.

He was embarrassed when Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros quickly noted that the substitute Mr. Dole suggested -- housing vouchers for the poor -- had been proposed by the Clinton administration but rejected out of hand by the senator's own Republican Congress.

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Housing vouchers have existed for years. Presidents Reagan and Bush backed them. Ironically, the Republican Congress for the first time in 20 years refused to expand them.

But there's a bigger story right now: It's the array of public-housing reforms that President Clinton and Secretary Cisneros have already inaugurated.

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First, there are the demolitions. By next January, 24,000 units of the nation's most fetid, crime-ridden, unlivable public housing will have been torn down -- an all-time record for any presidential term.

Among those leveled will be all or part of Baltimore's Lafayette Courts and Lexington Terrace, Atlanta's Techwood (vintage 1936 -- America's oldest), Denver's North Lincoln Park, Detroit's Parkside Homes, the Richard Allen and Raymond Rosen projects in Philadelphia, and Chicago's Cabrini Green and Henry Horner. (Horner was the site of Alex Kotlowitz's shocking book, "There Are No Children Here.")

Second, the Housing Department has forced what it calls "recovery partnerships" (but in Chicago, outright federal takeover) on the large public-housing authorities most beset by poor maintenance, uncollected rents, vacant units and crime. Among them: New Orleans, Philadelphia, Detroit, Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Washington. Dramatic management improvements are already reported.

Third, to replace the failed and demolished projects, the department is working with cities to rebuild the areas as mixed-income communities, public-housing tenants included. Instead of high-rises, the new developments have town homes, garden apartments and good design.

Victorian design

A strikingly original Victorian town-house design is planned for the site of the Ellen Wilson Dwellings, a dismal, boarded-up public-housing project on Capitol Hill in Washington. A day-care facility, a community center and small park will be included.

The new model, says Atlanta Housing Authority chief Renee Glover, should be economically integrated projects, managed by the private sector, with public-housing subsidies "de-stigmatized."

Working as a partner with private developers, Atlanta is rebuilding five projects, including Techwood, directly adjacent to the Olympic Village in downtown Atlanta. In each complex 40 percent of tenants would be eligible for public housing, 20 percent for tax-credit subsidized housing, and 40 percent paying close to full market rates.

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To assure its market attractiveness, the redone Techwood is to include 900 dishwasher-equipped and carpeted apartments, a new magnet elementary school, a "world-class" YMCA facility, a historically renovated public library and a police station. Apartments will be wired for state-of-the-art computer communications.

Atlanta, along with Denver and Hartford, are among the first cities to receive "Campuses of Learning" designation, so that youth and adults can have computer-based learning and job training on-site.

The primary subsidy comes from a $1.4 billion "HOPE VI" program, which grants up to $50 million to remake an entire development -- not just bricks and mortar, but also complementary services.

Strain on limited funds

Will developments that attract working- and middle-class families as well as the poor actually dry up the pool of funds for very low-income people? Some Legal Aid lawyers think so. In the short run, with severely limited government funds for housing assistance, they may be right.

But many demolished projects, Mr. Cisneros notes, were so dangerous and repulsive that they had been largely vacant for years. He hopes to make up for lost units with housing vouchers and certificates.

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Will middle-class people be attracted to the new developments? Locations closest to downtowns, or to job-rich sites like hospitals, may do best. Isolated projects will likely have a tougher time. Other factors: how well projects are designed, whether the city provides community policing and other services and whether public-housing residents are carefully screened.

But if the mixed-income experiments succeed, the payoff could be breathtaking: a start at dispersing America's volatile concentrations of the very poor. We know what they've produced: living hellholes of drugs, crime and grinding poverty that have made many of America's inner-city neighborhoods the most degraded and fearsome places in the civilized world.

The Clinton administration was also right to issue its new "one-strike-and-you're-out" rule to evict (after appropriate hearings) any public-housing families that tolerate drug dealers and criminals in their units. With subsidized housing in short supply, it ought to be reserved for law-abiding families.

Instead of calling public housing bad names, the issue is how to remake it. We need to create growth opportunities for citizens and safer, more humane cities. That's what the presidential campaign ought to focus on.

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

Pub Date: 5/13/96


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