The Brookings Institution, which houses Washington’s leading urban-issues think tank program, hosted a discussion on Tuesday afternoon at the National Press Club with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan and former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros. The event was pegged to the release of a book, From Despair to Hope: Hope VI and the New Promise of Public Housing in America’s Cities, by Brookings Press, that examines the record of HOPE VI, the Clinton-era program that tore down housing projects and dispersed the residents.
Unsurprisingly, since Cisneros worked under Clinton, the general consensus was that HOPE VI was a success, although Cisneros was forthright in acknowledging legitimate critiques of it, such as the possibility that residents ended up in new concentrations of poverty. HOPE VI was, in many ways, an early leader among federal programs that recognize the insights of new urbanism. Cisneros painted a dystopian image of high-rise housing projects that in the early 1990s were essentially run by criminals. As Cisneros noted, the problem was not the quality of the units themselves, but the strength of the community and wider opportunities, or lack thereof, fostered by high-rises on super blocks that are isolated from middle-class neighbors and economic and educational opportunities.
HOPE VI, applying lessons from Robert Putnam to Jane Jacobs to William H. Whyte about “eyes on the street,” and pedestrian vitality, provided federal funds for tearing down notorious projects like Chicago’s Cabrini Green. The block is then reintegrated into the street grid, the new affordable housing units are lower to the ground and face the street and, when possible, are relocated closer to economic and educational hubs. Donovan pledged that this same approach would characterize HUD’s approach to low-income housing in the Obama administration. “The fact is, the majority of families reached by HOPE VI live in safer, healthier neighborhoods today,” said Donovan. “For some, opportunity came in the form of greater mobility – of moving to another neighborhood with better jobs, schools, and counseling to help them succeed. For others, it was a revitalized community – of porches on the street, a regular street grid, and shared public space. Of the smaller structures on a human scale.”
Donovan says that the way to build on the success of HOPE VI is to work on the neighborhoods that surround the affordable housing through a new program called Choice Neighborhoods. “A Hope VI development that is surrounded by disinvestment, by failing schools or by other distressed housing has virtually no chance of truly succeeding,” declared Donovan. “That’s what Choice Neighborhoods is all about. It would expand on the legacy of HOPE VI by expanding the range of activities eligible for funding and capitalize on the full range of stakeholders we know are needed and want to be involved – from local governments and non-profits to private firms and public housing agencies.”
That’s a good idea. But it’s remarkable to a political reporter to discover what small sums we are talking about by the standards of the federal government. Choice Neighborhoods, according to Donovan, will have $250 million this year, twice as much as HOPE VI. In the Department of Defense that would be a rounding error. Even a relatively urban-oriented administration, such as Obama’s, is spending a fraction of what it spend on weapons acquisition on addressing the most desperate urban neighborhoods.
Ben Adler is a journalist in New York. He is a former reporter for Grist, The Nation, Newsweek and Politico, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian and The New Republic.