Like a lot of other residents, 22-year-old Ebbony McDanieal thought it was just talk when the Tampa Housing Authority started telling residents that the College Hill and Ponce de Leon housing projects would be razed to make room for a new housing development. Soon enough though, it became clear that talk of change was more than just talk this time.
"I hated to see Ponce go," she says.
She had moved in with the grandmother of her two daughters in Ponce de Leon, eventually getting an apartment of her own in the same housing project. She liked it there with her friends and family around, she says, but she knew that moving was inevitable. When offered a choice between a new unit in another public housing project or a Section 8 voucher that would subsidize her rent for an apartment in the private sector, she chose the voucher and decided to make the best of it. Making the best of it would turn out to be harder than she thought.
The Great Housing HOPE
Many of the changes occurring now in public housing started in 1992 with the creation of HOPE VI. This program offers federal grants to local housing authorities to tear down decaying housing projects and build anew. Section 8 vouchers are offered to residents so they can live in the private sector after their old homes are demolished, a situation that's not necessarily intended to be temporary. To decrease the high concentrations of poverty that existed before, the new housing developments usually accept fewer very poor residents and more low- and middle-income residents.
In Tampa, the College Hill and Ponce de Leon housing projects were razed with a $32.5-million HOPE VI grant and, if approved, Riverview Terrace and the Tom Dyer homes will be next. In St. Petersburg, the 55-year-old Jordan Park housing development is getting the HOPE VI treatment. Bradenton and Sarasota Housing Authorities have applied for grants this year as well.
It's no surprise that housing authorities are lining up to demolish their oldest public housing projects. In subtropical Tampa, some public housing projects don't have air conditioning or screens on the windows. The kitchens are tiny, with exposed cinderblock walls, and the rooms have no carpeting. Residents don't have access to outdoor water spigots, so watering what little grass there is requires a bucket and a lot of motivation. All this and the projects are in a perpetual state of disrepair.
"It's unconscionable to allow people to live in those conditions," says Tampa Housing Authority director Jerome Ryans about the projects formerly known as Ponce de Leon and College Hill. "I believe that public housing residents deserve the same amenities as anyone else."
Ryans' conscience is on its way to being cleared. Belmont Heights Estates is expected to rise from the ruins of the old projects sometime in 2003, and it will have amenities galore. Instead of the blight on the city's landscape that the old projects were, Belmont Heights will be a seamless community where it's impossible to tell the economic status of individuals based on where they live, says Ryans.
Middle-class citizens paying fair market rents would leave their well-kept townhouses on their way to work in the morning and retrieve their morning papers from their nicely maintained lawns. They would then perhaps look over at the townhouse next door and wave goodbye to the former public-housing-project residents who are paying significantly less to live in an identical townhouse. Everyone would smile and love their neighbors. The plans sound downright Utopian.
Although developing mixed-income communities is not a requirement for the grant, the chances of being awarded the grant increase if such communities are part of the plan. That's because the new thinking in public housing is that clustering large numbers of poor people in the same area is a bad idea. Concentrated poverty breeds crime, repels investment and generally just isn't pretty. Instead, housing officials want to disperse the poor throughout the community, primarily by providing them with Section 8 vouchers that allow them to rent from private landlords, with the federal government paying all or a portion of the rent.
HOPE VI and Section 8 are two different programs, but they dovetail in a way that's very important. In addition to giving housing authorities cash to accomplish HOPE VI's objectives, The Department of Housing and Urban Development, which administers the program, also allocates additional Section 8 vouchers to relocate residents. The idea is that they'll use the vouchers to move into areas that aren't as poverty stricken as the ones they left. It would be a neat plan if only it actually worked out that way. In cities like Tampa, it looks like HOPE VI actually accomplishes the very thing it seeks to eliminate — concentrations of poverty — by moving public-housing residents into areas that are already quite poor. The reason for this unintended consequence may lie in the inextricable link between HOPE VI and Section 8.