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.
The Plan vs. the Reality
University of South Florida professors Susan Greenbaum and Cheryl Rodriguez are currently studying this phenomenon in Tampa. Greenbaum is an applied anthropologist and Rodriguez's focus is Africana Studies. Though their investigation is still ongoing and no formal conclusions have been reached, Greenbaum says she and her colleagues are drawing some preliminary conclusions.
In her experience, says Greenbaum, many former housing project residents are ending up in homes that aren't much better than the ones they had in the projects. They're still run down, and they're still located in the least desirable parts of town. Greenbaum has mapped the areas that the relocated residents have moved to and has found that many who accepted Section 8 vouchers are concentrated in Sulphur Springs and the area near the University of South Florida's Tampa campus called Suitcase City, for the transient nature of its residents. A large number of residents who opted not to take Section 8 vouchers were moved to other housing projects, she said, primarily Central Park, which may get its own date with the wrecking ball.
Initially, McDanieal thought she would be one of the lucky ones. It is possible to find a nice apartment with a Section 8 voucher, though how probable it is can be debated. She was persistent in her search for a new apartment. She looked in Sulphur Springs and in the area around Fletcher Avenue.
She filed for an extension on the 30-day time limit Section 8 gives voucher recipients to find a place to rent and got another 30 days.
Then she looked in Brandon before returning to the area around Fletcher. Finally she found Oak Forest. Situated on Fletcher Avenue just off 22nd Street, the beige stucco buildings sit behind Domino's Pizza in an area that's more commercial than residential. Oak Forest is far from the upscale complexes that offer amenities like swimming pools and hot tubs; it doesn't even have laundry facilities on the premises. But Oak Forest takes Section 8 vouchers, and McDaniel was proud of her first apartment outside public housing.
After the initial euphoria of freedom from public housing projects fades, reality tends to set in, says Greenbaum. Residents no longer have family as neighbors or a community where they know who's always good for a cup of sugar or a few minutes of babysitting.
And there are more serious problems. "Getting to work may be a challenge, getting children taken care of might be an impossible feat, and then making sure you don't lose that job you just got causes an enormous amount of stress," says Greenbaum.
McDanieal can vouch for that. Just months after securing a job with Burger King, McDanieal had to quit because it was impossible to find someone to care for her children, then trek across town to get to work on time.
This jibes with the data that Greenbaum and Rodriguez are collecting. Their research focuses primarily on the residents' experiences with HOPE VI. Their views can differ sharply from those at HUD. In the course of their research, Greenbaum and Rodriguez have compiled data, created maps and conducted one-on-one interviews with residents. Residents who agree to be interviewed are paid a small amount for allowing interviewers into their homes to ask questions about an experience that is personal and sometimes painful.
Ryans and other THA staff have criticized Greenbaum and Rodriguez, noting that the two declined to discuss their findings and methodology with the housing authority and that the number of residents they interviewed is too low to come up with reliable conclusions. The residents who are more likely to speak out are those who have had negative experiences, says Ryans, and it's inevitable that some have had a hard time in a process that is not perfect.
"You have to take the time to understand what the HOPE VI program is all about," says Ryans. And he would have liked to help educate the researchers about the process from the perspective of the housing authority.
Ryans' concerns are valid. HOPE VI is a program of mind-boggling complexity and indeed, only about 24 individuals out of 1,100 families have been interviewed. The research calls for approximately 20 more interviews, bringing the total to about 44 residents.
However, at a recent presentation of the HOPE VI researchers' preliminary findings, Ben Stevenson, director of Tampa's HOPE VI program, acknowledged that the statistical data was right on the money, and those numbers tell a story as well as any resident could. More significantly, Greenbaum and Rodriguez's preliminary findings echo the concerns of the Urban Institute, a not-for-profit agency that studies social policies, including public housing policy.
In a symposium on Section 8 convened last year by the Urban Institute, the problems identified with the program are nearly identical to the problems described by Greenbaum and Rodriguez. In the transcripts of the symposium, the facilitator acknowledges that finding housing with a Section 8 voucher is becoming increasingly difficult as housing markets heat up. The facilitator also states, "... the philosophy of free choice about where is the right place to live with your voucher may not be operating fully in reality. There may be geographic clustering with pockets of poverty forming in some communities."
In a tight housing market like Tampa's, landlords in areas with a low rate of poverty can take their pick of residents who can afford to pay rent without assistance. And accepting Section 8 vouchers involves the worst kind of bureaucracy — the kind that's managed by the government. If landlords can keep their units filled with middle-class tenants who pay their own rent, why bother?
According to Section 8 manager Clarence Brown, there are landlords with units that are not in poor areas who accept Section 8, but accepting the voucher is only part of the equation. While housing projects provide accommodations to those who meet the housing authority's relatively low criteria, independent landlords set the rules for Section 8 recipients. Some want renters without a criminal record; some require that they have a good credit rating or be employed. Some may even have a minimum income standard.
These standards can make finding a decent place even more difficult, and they can make the search so frustrating that people give up and return to housing projects.
Brown would not say that taking the voucher is a gamble, but that's just semantics. He does say, "Section 8 is a rental-assistance program. Some people will be successful in finding housing and some will not."
He says that the industrious will find housing. But unless the former public-housing resident is earning considerably more than minimum wage and has a AAA credit rating, finding acceptable housing is far from a sure thing — even with a lot of effort. Still, whether it's in Suitcase City or in Palma Ceia, many do find housing with Section 8, just as McDanieal did. Then they have to work on staying there. The bureaucracy that most of us try to avoid is a fact of life with Section 8. The housing authority inspects Section 8 apartments before residents move in, and the residents must pass an annual inspection as well. Most people just throw a rug over that reddish blotch caused by an up-ended glass of wine, but that blotch can be a black mark for public-housing residents. Stains on the carpet and any other signs of wear and tear are just some of the reasons vouchers can be revoked, leaving people to either pay the full rent or lose the roof over their heads.
And then there's the paperwork. Forgetting to fill out a form can wreak havoc on already precarious finances. Shortly after moving into her new place, McDanieal neglected to inform the Section 8 office that she was no longer working at Burger King, and they continued to expect her to pay her share of the rent, $115. By the time she realized her error, the back rent had reached $435 and she started getting eviction notices. Her mother had to pay her back rent.
Most voucher holders have to pay 30 percent of their income in rent while Section 8 picks up the rest. Unlike the projects, where there are utility subsidies, voucher-holders generally have to take on those expenses themselves. A public-housing resident who might have relied on a neighbor's phone to make calls, now must have her own installed. Overall, housing can be more expensive on Section 8, says a HUD spokesman, especially for the very poor.
The Rocky Road to Self-sufficiency
With most social programs, including Section 8 and public housing, the overriding problem is poverty. It doesn't really matter where the poor get shuffled to if they always remain poor. HOPE VI does have a self-sufficiency component, but the program doesn't put its money where its good intentions are. Of the nearly $58-million that will be spent to tear down and rebuild College Hill and Ponce de Leon, only $400,000 has been allocated for services for the residents so far. The plan is to spend about $1.2-million over the course of four years. The Tampa-Hillsborough Urban League has a contract with THA to track HOPE VI residents and to provide them with services.
"Our ultimate goal is to have each resident become self-sufficient," says service manager Jackie Reynolds. That's a lofty goal with so little cash to accomplish it.
What the Urban League is primarily able to do is to provide referrals to other agencies that offer tangible services. They can refer residents to programs that will help with things like day care, and getting a GED or technical education. They also provide free bus passes.
These are all much-needed services, but they aren't enough to lift many to self-sufficiency. Of the 1,100 families who moved from College Hill and Ponce de Leon, so far only about 600 have gone to the Urban League for assistance. Connie Burton is a resident of the Robles Park public housing project and a longtime community activist. She hosts Straight Talk, a talk-radio show on WMNF-88.5 FM on Sunday morning, and is often critical of the Tampa Housing Authority. But back in 1997, when the HOPE VI grant for College Hill and Ponce de Leon was just an application, she was anything but critical. She wrote a letter supporting HOPE VI that was included in the grant application to show that the project had community support. The letter, addressed to then-THA director Arthur Milligan Jr., states, "The efforts to enable public-housing residents the opportunity to become economically self-sufficient and to prevent unnecessary institutionalization address the concerns that we had at the time of applying for our designation."
Burton goes on to say, "... we will be affected but we will benefit from the Move to Work Demonstration Program and the approval of the HOPE VI Grant if Tampa Housing Authority plans to submit an Application."
Now four years later, she says, "I was duped."
At the time that she wrote the letter of support, says Burton, she was under the impression that the grant would benefit the public-housing residents who were currently living in College Hill and Ponce de Leon. However, over time, the concept of who would benefit became clearer. Residents who initially thought that they would be able to move back to their old neighborhood once it was new and improved found that there were now new requirements. One of the requirements is something many of the residents don't have: a job. All residents in the new community must either be employed or be enrolled in a work program that will get them employed in short order. With about 80 percent of public-housing residents reporting income from public assistance, according to HUD, this ensures that almost no old resident will be invited back to the new community.
"Off the backs of poor people they get all of this money, using the statistics and misery of the poor," says Burton. "They tell the poor that this is going to be a benefit for you, but really their intention is to build a housing stock for middle-class people."
While residents weren't clear on the details of what would be required of them if they wanted to move back into the new community, says Burton, the big picture looked good. "They do a great motivational pitch," she says. "You know, get-up-on-your-feet kind of sermons."
But it takes more than a sermon to get people on their feet. Ryans concedes that one of the biggest problems in public housing is drugs. While the housing authority can kick residents out for drug- or alcohol-related problems, neither THA nor the Urban League can do much to help people kick the habit. There is also little help for some of the psychological effects of poverty, like depression or anxiety. Ditto for problems like spouse abuse.
It seems when residents fall down, either because of a mistake they made or because of circumstances beyond their control, the system that is set up to help tends to push them further over the edge. Although McDanieal was proud when she first moved into her new apartment, she soon noticed that it was rarely a beautiful day in the Oak Forest neighborhood. The landlord who seemed "cool" in the beginning got hot when McDanieal filled her children's pool outside, she says. He was equally unhappy when she gave her daughter a birthday party outdoors.
McDanieal, a friendly woman used to the camaraderie of her Ponce de Leon community, befriended other Section 8 mothers in the complex. Soon she and her new friends would bring their children outside to play while they chatted and got to know each other. What some would call community, her landlord called loitering.
McDanieal says she also did a lot of "loitering" in the rental office, trying to get management to fix the ceiling in her bathroom, which she said was about to fall in on her and her children, among other things. It was never fixed.
When Section 8 did their annual inspection, her apartment failed, and the program stopped paying her rent. She says that she was unaware that her Section 8 had been canceled until she started getting eviction notices about two months later. By then it was too late. Her rent was in arrears, and her landlord charged her with damaging the apartment. He assessed more than $2,000 in fines.
When McDanieal went to see her THA caseworker in a panic, she was told that nothing could be done. She was referred to the Urban League, she says, but she failed to see what they could do for her and declined the offer. She cried and pleaded but still got no help, she says. She finally left her apartment and moved in with a relative in Robles Park.
"I just gave up practically when I moved over here," she says.
Connie Burton saw her around and asked what happened to her new apartment. After hearing her story, Burton took her to see Section 8 manager Clarence Brown. A review of McDanieal's file shows she was cut off in error, and her voucher was reinstated.
Now her biggest problem is that in the time between moving from Ponce de Leon and ending up in Robles Park, McDanieal gave birth to a son. Landlords are reluctant to rent a two-bedroom apartment to a woman with three children. She needs a three-bedroom voucher, and so far the housing authority won't give her one.
"They said HOPE VI was going to do this and going to do that, but who'd it help?" she asks.
She would be happy with an apartment in Robles Park, she says, but THA won't give her that either, even though she is left without a home of her own, due to HOPE VI relocation.
While Brown does not dispute that McDanieal's Section 8 voucher was revoked or that he helped her to get reinstated, he notes that not all of her story is accurate. Not all of the issues were the landlord's, he says. "I don't want to get too specific into her case," he says. "There were issues on the client's side that needed to be resolved."
Of McDanieal's inability to find an apartment with her voucher he says, "Our policy is just that; it's ours. We can't dictate what the landlord's policy would be." Based on the housing authority's policy, McDanieal's two girls could share a bedroom and she and her infant son could share another. She would not be eligible for another bedroom until her son is age 4. Brown has since moved to reduce that requirement to age 2.
The HOPE VI relocation basically gave McDanieal the option for Section 8 or for placement in another public housing project. Once that choice is made, it can't be undone, says Brown, although McDanieal can sign up for the public housing project's waiting list.
"She needs to continue her search and I would encourage her to get in touch with the Urban League," says Brown.
The Urban League is another point of disagreement between Brown and McDanieal. She says that the first time she heard of the Urban League was when her caseworker said she couldn't help her and suggested she call the League. Prior to that day, she says, she did not receive a phone call, visit or piece of mail from the agency. Brown says that both the Urban League and THA have sent mass mailings to residents at least twice and he's skeptical of residents who say they're unaware that the agency offers assistance.
Whether she got a flier from the Urban League or not, once she was cut off from Section 8 they couldn't have done much to help her, says Urban League service manager Reynolds. Had McDanieal come to her office rather than to Burton, all Reynolds could have done was try to get her temporary emergency housing. The Urban League can't reinstate a canceled Section 8 voucher or negotiate with the housing authority. They can't force landlords to take McDanieal's voucher for a two-bedroom apartment or move her up the public housing waiting list.
Just before press time, McDanieal found a new apartment. While riding her bike through a Tampa Heights neighborhood, she saw a For Rent sign and jotted down the number. She contacted the landlord and arranged to take a look. "I fell in love with it," she says.
Having been without a permanent home since June, she needed to move in quickly, and Brown arranged for her to do just that, she says. Her new place has three bedrooms and plenty of space for her three children. Though she still misses the Ponce de Leon community, she says she's happy where she is.
While still in her temporary Robles Park digs, McDanieal found a job at McDonald's. The store is not what many would consider to be within walking distance of her new place, but she walks just the same. Her boss' girlfriend watches her kids until her shift is over and her boss drives her home at night.
It may be overly optimistic to use the word "happy" to describe the end of McDanieal's story of housing woes. The fact remains that HUD programs like Section 8 and HOPE VI shift the poor around without creating any real mechanisms to help those who are struggling or making mistakes. Brown can't personally help every voucher-holder through the process, and without better funding the Urban League can't offer much for those who need more than a GED, a babysitter and a bus pass to become self-sufficient.
Wendy Hathaway is a graduate student working on Greenbaum's HOPE VI research. She also works at a Sulphur Springs community center where many of the kids of relocated residents hang out. She sums up the program this way: "It's a business plan, it's a real estate plan, but it's never a plan about people."
Contact Staff Writer Rochelle Renford at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 163.