A study of a highly praised national program that has erased hundreds of public housing developments across the country, including a half-dozen in Baltimore, concludes that the initiative has vastly reduced housing opportunities for those most in need - families at the lowest income levels.
The report, prepared by the National Housing Law Project and three other housing advocacy groups, says that despite the highly favorable image, the 10-year-old program known as Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere, or HOPE VI, "increasingly appears to do more harm than good."
HOPE VI, the report states, "has directly resulted in the loss of tens of thousands" of housing units "for exactly those families suffering from a severe shortage of affordable housing."
Under HOPE VI, administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, hundreds of large public housing developments, many of them inner-city high-rises, have been imploded and replaced with lower-density, mixed-income developments, often including single-family homes.
In Baltimore, HOPE VI funding has brought the demolition and replacement of such projects as Lafayette Court and Lexington Terrace.
Cited in the report is the case of a Baltimore public housing tenant, Lawrence Campbell, who, despite repeated efforts, was barred from moving into the rebuilt Lexington Terrace complex. Campbell, like 49 percent of those displaced by HOPE VI projects across the country, was transferred to another public housing development.
"HOPE VI is doing little to improve the lives of most of the families it affects," the report says, adding that nationally about 11.4 percent of displaced public housing residents can return to the rebuilt developments.
The 41-page report entitled "False Hope," comes as Congress is facing a deadline to determine whether the program should be continued. Without congressional action, HOPE VI, which has strong ties to Maryland, could end in September.
U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the Maryland Democrat frequently credited as one of the creators of the program, says that HUD will have to provide more information on HOPE VI and come up with needed reforms before Congress will reauthorize the program. She said that thus far her requests for additional information have not been answered.
Calling some of the findings "shocking and unacceptable," Mikulski said the reforms must ensure that current public housing tenants are not "displaced, dispersed and dumped. Reauthorization must be coupled with reform."
A HUD spokesman did not respond directly to Mikulski's comments but said that the agency plans to announce "significant changes" in the HOPE VI program. He said those changes would "go a long way" toward satisfying the concerns about the program.
The national findings parallel a report published last year by The Sun, which showed that as a result of HOPE VI the number of public housing units available in the city for low-income families is projected to drop from 3,633 to 953, a 75 percent reduction. It also showed that the number of tenants returning to the rebuilt projects ranged from 13 percent to 26 percent.
Todd Espinosa, an attorney with the law project, said it appears likely that HOPE VI will be renewed, "but the real issue is how."
He said the report was prompted by the many complaints the housing group has heard and the renewal deadline. One problem, Espinosa said, is that HOPE VI "never has had a clear purpose."
The NHLP report, which was prepared with the assistance of Sherwood Research Associates of Maryland, questions one of the underlying premises of the HOPE VI program: that placing low-income families in a development with higher-income families will help the lower income families improve their lot.
"The basic validity of this model has never been established. Cast in the worst light," the report says. HOPE VI is "a social engineering scheme built on a number of inaccurate, irrelevant and harmful assumptions about low-income families and their neighborhoods."
Other highlights of the NHLP report include:
Many of the projects being redeveloped appear to have been selected not because they are blighted but because they are "most amenable to higher-income redevelopment."
A "disturbing" number of displaced public housing residents are "lost" by local housing authorities thus depriving them of further assistance.
An estimated 95 percent of those displaced by HOPE VI awards last year were families of color, 79 percent of whom are African-Americans.
Though the program has been in operation for a decade, HUD has not issued regulations governing the program.
Public housing residents are often deprived of the chance to participate in the implementation of the HOPE VI projects.
Housing authorities use new and stringent screening mechanisms to keep many former residents from returning to the new projects.
While HUD has frequently proclaimed HOPE VI a success, it has failed to make public detailed data on individual projects or the program as a whole.
The national report traces the history of HOPE VI back to 1989, when a Congress created a commission to examine "the severe distress in public housing." The commission's 1992 final report led Congress to create HOPE VI later that year.
But the report concludes that HUD has since changed the scope and direction of the program by stretching the definition of distressed housing. As a result, the study says, HUD is on a pace to demolish twice the number of public housing units envisioned by the commission.
The report recommends that if Congress is to extend HOPE VI, new standards should be established including a requirement that for any public housing unit demolished, a new unit must be established.
Law project officials say that some of the problems would be alleviated if Congress adopts amendments to the program proposed by U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat. The amendments would require that current public housing tenants be given priority for newly constructed units.
Mikulski says that while Baltimore's performance with HOPE VI projects has been "uneven," other cities such as Atlanta have done much better meeting the intended goals of the program.