August has been noted for being a month devoid of real holidays, and essentially useless. According to some, that’s why it serves as a repository for some of our phoniest national days of observance. A quick glance at holidays in August is revealing. We have: National Ice Cream Sandwich Day, National Clown Week, Potato Day, etc.
It initially seems that, in that same spirit, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development has dubbed the first week of August Neighborhood Networks Week, with last Thursday being “Know Your Neighbors Day.” What a way for HUD to unintentionally highlight the inherent difficulties of executing its mandate. How exactly can a massive federal bureaucracy make your community feel more communal? Friendly? Neighborly? But Neighborhood Networks week, in fact, is a week for raising public awareness about HUD’s 15 year-old Neighborhood Networks workforce development initiative, which provides technology access and job training to residents of HUD subsidized or public housing.
Neighborhood Networks week is all about Special Event Days. Tuesday, August 3 was Do It for You Day. According to the press release, “This Special Event Day focuses on how centers are helping residents achieve greater self-sufficiency. Past center-hosted Do It for You Day events have included job fairs, resume-writing workshops, and graduation ceremonies.” Wednesday was Get Connected Day. On Get Connected Day, “centers are encouraged to host events that highlight the many ways they deliver technology access and enhance residents’ technological skills, as well as showcase the critical role technology plays in today’s society.”
The final Special Event Day — the one that ties it all together — was Know Your Neighbors Day on Thursday, August 5th. Writes HUD, “Strong communities begin with neighbors knowing each other and looking out for one another’s well-being. Know Your Neighbors day focuses on building the bonds of neighbors to build stronger communities. To observe this day, centers may choose to host community events, such as block parties, potlucks, barbecues, festivals, or open houses.”
My experience — living as I do, quite close to lots of public housing — is that knowing one’s neighbors is not exactly the problem with life in poor neighborhoods. Street life here in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn is quite lively, in that Jane Jacobs way. Walk through affluent Park Slope during one of the dog days of August and you won’t see fire hydrants cranked open with kids playing in the spray, or impromptu stoop barbecues, or late night, Presidente-fueled games of dominoes on the sidewalk. But that’s the scene almost every night in Bushwick and Bed-Stuy.
The obvious question is, does this lively street culture come, perhaps, from a high unemployment rate? And, is there an inverse relationship between employment rates and knowing one’s neighbors? If so, what does that say? Either way, before we overthink Know Your Neighbors Day, let’s take a step back and realize this may just be an excuse for a party. Yes, even Washington bureaucrats know how to have fun.
But what Neighborhood Networks week does highlight, maybe unintentionally, is the lack of workforce development initiatives built into public housing. In a certain way, living in a housing project provides a disincentive for seeking better employment. In New York, residents pay 30% of their adjusted gross income in rent to NYCHA, the New York City Housing Authority. The most a family of three — ideally a mother, father and child — can earn and stay in NYC public housing is $55,300 a year. Earning $50,000 per year, a family of three would have to pay NYCHA $1250 a month to live — hopefully — in a two-bedroom apartment in a housing project. In a neighborhood like Bed-Stuy and other poorer neighborhoods, a family could afford to find a market-rate apartment for about that price, but maybe not for long.
The incentives are confusing, in this way. Earn more and you pay more rent. Earn too much, and you no longer qualify for housing assistance. Or, earn just the right amount, and pay roughly the market rate for housing that ought to be below market. While, to some, getting out of a housing project might be incentive enough to find better work, that may not necessarily be the case for everyone. While these incentives are system-wide, the Neighborhood Networks program is not.
Incentives aside, just consider how daunting it might be to look for a job in 2010 without a computer or an internet connection. Perhaps, since HUD is working on a new way forward for public housing, workforce development could be a more integral part of public housing, maybe even attracting much-needed private dollars in the process. In the meantime, why not introduce yourself to your neighbors this week? I’m sure they won’t mind.