public works


Public Housing is classically considered part of the Public Works budget cluster--even though the vast majority of the funds come directly from the federal government. DC's local public works functions have consumed less than 7% of DC's budget over the past 11 years ('87-'97), and some 6% of its total funded personnel. Its share of the budget has dropped from 7.7% in FY87 to 6.1% in FY97, but is due to rise again in the near future. Its approved personnel levels for FY 97 were about 1700 "FTE's". DC's Non-housing public works issues are discussed in a separate chapter on Public Works.

While failing publics works programs are a serious nuisance to District residents, the failure of the public housing programs generates urban blight--a problem central to most of DC's current troubles. This chapter deals with these problems and their consequences:

o the most recent (2002) analysis of HUD's most promising public housing demolition and renovation program raises some serious questions about HOPE VI results, but NARPAC believes the program has been very successful for DC and should be continued.

o Earlier analyses include:

  • DC's crumbling, crime-ridden housing projects were characterized as the "second worst in the United States" by the last Secretary of HUD, Henry Cisneros. The housing program has been in receivership since 1995. The problems of the Department of Housing and Community Development DHCD were laid out in a 1997 consultant's report and summarized by NARPAC, Inc.
  • However, by February, 1998, the Washington Post was able to provide the first in-depth report indicating progress in fixing DC's public housing . In fact, the progress in rebuilding DC's public housing has been nothing short of miraculous. NARPAC has followed their semi-annual progress reports, and awarded David Gilmore, the Authority's received its first Hat's Off Award. By the spring of 2000, Gilmore's job was almost done, and his final semi-annual report is summarized.
  • In 1999, more focus was then applied to the regional implications for affordable housing. In fact, it will not be possible for the inner city to have no more than its regional share of the poor, unless the impact of housing on poverty sharing is fully understood. By the spring of 2000, Prince George's County Executive Curry spoke openly on the regional nature of this problem, and so did the Executive Director of the Metro Washington Council of Governments.
  • Not all of DC's blighted areas are associated with public and subsidized housing. There are literally thousands of abandoned houses and apartments around the city, which serve as gathering places for the homeless, the drug trade, local gangs, and so forth. In addition, there are many slum landlords who have allowed their properties to become unfit for hum habitation. These came under scrutiny in the spring of 2000.
  • Furthermore, it has also become clear that the city's overall problems of "blight removal" apply not only to decrepid housing projects, but to the underutilized, often abandoned, commercial and industrial sites around the city, that could, if reclaimed, be turned to productive new economic uses. These "brownfields", as they are called, is the new thrust for 'anti-sprawl' activists (and the EPA!) who want to make sure that the central city is not simply allowed to atrophy.
  • In the past decade, Congress has funded virtually no net additions to the stock of federally subsidized developments, relying instead on "Section 8" certificates and vouchers to add to the total pool of federal housing assistance. These vouchers have also been used to compensate people removed from razed public housing projects.It is administered by local housing agencies under federal contract, and is intended to enable them to choose moderately priced housing at locations of their choice. A recent (1999) Urban Institute Report assesses the (limited?) success of the Section 8 program in providing mobility for its recipients--and hence the "deconcentration" of blighted residential areas.
  • In the first half of 2000, the Urban Institute has worked with the Metro Washington Council of Governments to develop plans for regional cooperation in the better use of Section 8 vouchers. NARPAC, Inc. strongly believes that DC presents some special case problems that will require special case solutions.
  • For those interested in learning more details of the US programs in low income housing, NARPAC suggests you visit the extremely informative web site of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.


Since its inception in the late '90s, NARPAC has been a great proponent of improving public housing, of which DC has way more than its share. In our view, the federal HOPE VI program has been a substantial success. Without any question, it has been changing the landscape of DC for the better, and although we cannot claim to have an ear close to the ground, we have not been aware of any substantial negative outcomes.

However, HUD's HOPE VI program is up for re-authorization in 2003, and NARPAC has belatedly become aware of an apparently authoritative report claiming that it has seriously missed the mark, and should be changed significantly if continued. This "FalseHOPE" report, published in June 2002, was prepared by several different groups, led by the National Housing Law Project, and all advocates for public housing, apparently very low income public housing. Because of it's importance, the full text of its summary, and an informative "epilogue", are available by clicking here.

The report makes three troublesome assertions which NARPAC cannot ignore: that HOPE VI has worsened the availability of acute affordable housing needs and destroyed more units than necessary; that it has excluded a substantial share of public housing families from participation in the new units; and that HUD has not gathered sufficient data on its "effectiveness" to justify its continuation. It makes five primary recommendations concerning:

o a clearer (tighter?) definition of what constitutes "severely distressed sites" (which are then eligible for demolition);

o one-for-one replacement of demolished units, presumably for the identical candidate pool;

o stronger "enforceable rights" for all current residents, pre-existing, if you will;

o guarantees that current residents have a right to occupy replacement units; and

o availability of all HOPE VI program documents.

There is no way NARPAC can claim insight into the original intent of the HOPE VI legislation in 1992. The summary states that the Commission that led to its enactment set forth "a National Action Plan to address the human services and modernization needs of the severely distressed housing sites". While that may be an overly brief summary, it appears to refer to the resolving the problem of "severe distress in the public housing" and seems quite clearly related to the most distressed units among the total stock of public housing, not the most severely distressed occupants. Yet the desires of the group generating this report seems to focus on the occupants.

After due deliberation, and some informal contacts with persons both in neighborhoods and DC's Housing Authority, NARPAC concludes that the evident advantages that HOPE VI has brought to DC (and we have no experience outside DC) fully justify not meeting some of the criteria apparently preferred by the National Housing Law Project. Perhaps this is because we believe that the objective of public housing should not be simply to warehouse or perpetuate the economic distress of DC poorest, but wherever possible to stimulate the ambition and capabilities of its occupants to improve their lot, work towards becoming home owners, and eventually shed dependence on government subsidies. Completed projects such as Wheeler Creek in DC's severely distressed Ward 8 appears to be well on the way towards this objective.

It is difficult to address some of these issues without appearing uncaring. But the analytical world tends to curtail compassion in the quest for objectivity and must risk being judged hardhearted . Three oversimplified axioms would appear to apply to any public housing system devoted to trying to push its occupants "up and out" into mainstream America rather than to simply house them:

1. The Bad Apple Theory is almost certainly applicable. Many situations exist, from school rooms to military units (!), where perhaps not one, but a few bad apples, can eventually spoil the barrel. In the interests of saving a majority, it may be necessary to sacrifice, or at least isolate a few. 'Triage' in the public housing community should be as real as it is in the Emergency Room or the battlefield hospital. We therefore encourage public housing to weed out, or segregate, those who would seek to drag down the rest through crime, drug use, poor sanitation, promiscuity, or whatever.

2. There is (or should also be) a Bad Barrel Theory which espouses that if the barrel is grungy enough, it can spoil any apples put in it. Surely there are environmental limits, be they physical or sociological, that lead to despair. Beyond doubt, some resident families that might make the grade under a more benign environment may well be overwhelmed by surroundings with which they simply cannot cope. The definition of 'severely distressed' should be broadly based and include the judgment of a broad cross section of local authorities.

3. There must also be a Better Apple Theory endorsed by agronomists that justifies the addition of (mild) nutrients and (safe) pesticides in order to produce better apples. In the case of public housing, such nutrients could well involve exposure to residents who have already worked their way towards partial economic independence and from whom they can learn valuable lessons if they choose to. Public housing 'pesticides' could involve the intentional separation of the poor from the worse, not unlike hospital quarantines and maximum security wings in prisons.

NARPAC was initially 'shocked' by the notion that a significant number of displaced public housing residents may become "lost" to the system, or transferred to other existing housing sites rather than enjoying the redevelopment of their past quarters. But any of the three axioms above would justify such separation. While one's first reaction may be to worry that some prior residents become literally homeless, it seems far more likely that they have either moved away, or moved in with others, perhaps family members that can support them. There is no bulletproof argument in favor of one-for-one replacement of public housing units, and certainly not for one-for-one accommodation of past occupants.

The second surprising statement in the FalseHOPE report is the assertion that there is no evidence that creating a community of "diverse" incomes (albeit all of them low) has beneficial effects. Again, NARPAC finds this difficult to believe, but apparently, then, there is also no evidence that it causes any harm. If it did no more than keep a former distressed community from rapidly declining again to its former condition (as has happened to some housing projects), it would be worthwhile. If it eventually enables some of the more fortunate residents to "graduate" from public housing, that would also be a significant benefit.

Wheeler Creek appears to an outside observer to be a good example of positive change. The original 300-odd units of "Valley Green" and "Skytown" have been replaced by some 314 brand new units of three types. Only 130-odd residents remained in these severely distressed sites, and some 80 have returned. The rest are (apparently) still "wards of the DC public housing system" with their location known. One hundred of the new units (apartments) are for seniors with very low income and mostly living alone. Some of these residents are in fact transfers ('displacees'?) from other housing projects being redeveloped. Another 74 or so units are permanently for renters, and are primarily occupied by very low income single moms with kids.

The remaining 140 or so Wheeler Creek units are all 3-bedroom stand-alone homes, some already purchased by their occupants and others building up the capital to buy theirs. Many are 'upgrading' their new homes by finishing their basements, improving their gardens, etc.: capitalism at work. Somewhat surprisingly, most of these families are also headed by "now-single moms". All have jobs which allow them to look forward to home ownership and eventually moving away from subsidized housing. Almost all appear to have cars to facilitate getting to work, which is consistent with another NARPAC axiom that most families that can (barely) afford cars buy them.

Finally, the Wheeler Creek demography produces a community where as many as 85% of the families have kids, generating way more kids than adults, even including the "non-family" seniors. The mean household income is guestimated by NARPAC not to exceed $26,000. By no measure is it a community that "pays its own way" in terms of taxes paid vs city services provided. It is by no means a source of housing for the mayor's goal of 100,000 new DC residents intended to assure DC's long-term fiscal viability. On the other hand, it is a HOPE VI success that strongly promises the opportunity to slowly reduce DC's disproportionate share of very low income households: the root cause of its "structural imbalance".

NARPAC strongly urges re-authorizing HUD's HOPE VI program, and modifying it only to require significantly more reporting on outcomes of its former and new residents, wherever they end up.

return to the top of the page


(Summarized from Price Waterhouse report of October 8, 1997)

The DC Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) is one of at least 15 separate DC government agencies involved in economic development activities, and its major function is to administer a variety of programs funded primarily through the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). DHCD'S budget for FY97 was $45.4 million, of which only $3.5 million came from DC appropriations. It has 164 employees.

HUD regularly monitors DHCD to ensure compliance with laws and regulations, and DHCD has a history of noncompliance resulting in disallowed expenditures and suspensions of programs. In brief, the consultant's report finds that "DHCD falls far short of its potential in satisfying the vast housing and community development needs of the District". It lacks a clear strategy, and has failed to incorporate many innovations in management and technology over the past 20 years. thereby falling behind the performance of similar US agencies elsewhere. Four key findings are enumerated:

1. DHCD is not organized to respond effectively to DC's housing and community development needs. It has a vague mission and strategy, and has no specific objectives or criteria on which to base its allocation of resources among its programs and target neighborhoods. Its efforts are not effectively coordinated with other DC agencies or private developers, and it does not measure the performance of its programs--or the needs of its communities. Its organization and staffing are not aligned with its current missions, there is an overabundance of clerical staff, and no privatization of staff functions.

2. DHCD management practices and systems are not effective in turning strategy into operational realities. Citizens and community organizations are not sufficiently involved, communications systems are ineffective, loan underwriting procedures are inconsistent, and the monitoring of grant recipients is often inadequate. Program managers lack on-the-spot authority, there is no effective staff accountability, and staff evaluation criteria are not aligned to agency objectives or individual responsibilities.

3. DHCD operations could be more efficient and effective. Its business processes, largely manual, are slow, cumbersome, and not customer-oriented; its technology base is still antiquated; and the staff does not effectively use what little technology they now have. Loan underwriting processes are duplicative, and at least some managers and staff lack appropriate skills and experience for their current positions.

4. Poor management practices, direction and operation results in substandard performance and missed opportunities. Many DHCD programs do not meet their objectives in terms of outputs or performance outcomes; the loan portfolio has a high default rate; and its staff has trouble keeping up with, and effectively using, its HUD entitlement grant funding. It risks losing some of its existing HUD funding, and its economic development program is currently suspended for non-compliance.

return to the top of the page PROGRESS IN SALVAGING DC'S PUBLIC HOUSING
(Ref: Washington Post, 2/16/98: "DC Housing Receiver is 'Chainging Communities and Changing Lives', by Loeb and Harris)

NARPAC, Inc. agrees with many professional urbanologists that many "inner city" problems flow from the failed public housing projects across the US. In fact, DC's public housing authority had been judged the second worst offender in the nation by USDHUD in 1995, earning a performance score of 22 (out of 100) for vacancies, modernization, etc. for its 11,000 unit, 24,000-tenant program. In February of 1998, 30 months after being placed in receivership by DC Superior Court, (which appointed receiver David Gilmore to his present post), the score is up to a "passing" 65. Many of the District's worst projects are showing signs of renewed (civilized) life: (e.g., Montana Terrace, Barry Farms, Edgewood Terrace, Greenleaf Gardens, etc.).

Gilmore, an experienced outsider from housing authorities in Seattle and Boston, has used techniques that appear to be widely applauded here and elsewhere. These include:

o solving administrative problems which had left an available backlog of $180 million in unspent federal funds ;

o tearing down the most dilapidated units;

o renovating better units for continued rental--using local labor where possible;

o rebuilding other units for sale as low-income town houses;

o leveraging private funds by working with private developers to rejuvenate entire neighborhoods , not just the public housing units themselves; and

o establishing a separate 105 man housing police force, which now patrols half of the 58 projects, and works with elements of the DC Police Dept (partly funded by the authority!);

But Gilmore has also gotten major assistance from federal agencies, originally coordinated through the little publicized OMB DC Task Force . The most important of these appears to have been what the Post refers to as "a massive federal undercover operation spearheaded eight months earlier by the Drug Enforcement Administration in conjunction with Gilmore" to systematically eliminate drug dealers from the developments. The net result of these activities has been a 13% reduction in serious crimes around public housing in 1997, including a 50% reduction in homicides from 95 in 1996 to 47 in 1997! Such progress can only improve the quality of life--and eventually, education--in these neighborhoods.

A recent report in the Washington Post (5/7/98) confirms the exceptional capabilities of David Gilmore, appointed by Superior Court Judge Steffen Graae in 1994 to run what was left of the DC Housing Authority, and its deplorably bad facilities. Gilmore clearly understands that his job is to fix neighborhoods and their residents and has reached out to both, offering job training to both the adults and the kids in the projects. He has even reached out to the broader metropolitan area to find help and cooperation through the Washington Area Housing Partnership Committee of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (see the special section on the MWCOG under NARPAC, Inc.'s chapter on regionalism .

While the Post article attests to his humanity, dedication, and vision, his own semi- annual progress reports attest to his accomplishments and plans, his own 271-page semi-annual report to the Superior Court of January, 1998 attests to the breadth and depth of his efforts to reconstruct the Authority, its facilities, and its occupants. He has established goals and sub-tasks for hundreds of specific actions, and is well along in accomplishing them. Issues range from client placement, public safety, and management information systems to finance, economic development and "risk management". He fully intends to finish his five year mandate on time, and return the agency to local control on Y2000 (another potential celebration for the city's bicentennial). With it, he expects to turn over a good management information system, a functioning security system, a housing management training program, and new admissions standards set to new federal regulations, but approved locally through public hearings.

He has worked with the AFL/CIO's Laborer's Apprenticeship Training Program to establish a program to provide training and employment to public housing residents, he is continuing to turn over property management to private concerns, he has opened four "family investment centers" at various projects--to encourage family self-sufficiency .and perhaps most important, he has instituted a well-structured preventative maintenance plan in the hopes of avoiding recurrence of the disastrous conditions he found.

He has repaired and "re-occupied" 1846 vacant units, many in terrible condition, and has implemented a rehabilitation program at 21 properties: work is finished at 14, and in progress at 11 more. Some of his most ambitious projects are still in planning: a major one is just beginning at the Frederick Douglass/Stanton Dwellings intended to achieve complete neighborhood revitalization through a separate community development corporation. In this project, school improvements are to be made in conjunction with the housing redevelopment--remarkably similar to the proposals contained in NARPAC, Inc.'s l April editorial . Unfortunately, there are as yet few indications that DC's school system will benefit from the enormous skills and energies of another David Gilmore.

Edgewood Terrace Re-opens; Tenant Assistance Program Closes

Good news continues to come from the DC Housing authority (in receivership). In October, 1998, the first 300 units of the dilapidated Edgewood Terrace complex were reopened after complete renovation by a non-profit organization based in neighboring Bethesda.

In a separate move, the end of DC's Tenant Assistance Program has been announced, with some 949 families moving from subsidized housing to other more affordable accommodations. NARPAC, Inc. believes that revitalization--and scaling back--of DC's run-down public housing remains absolutely fundamental to rejuvenating our nation's capital, and a precursor to making DC's schools more successful and its streets safer.

According to several reports in early November, 1998, progress continues apace in rebuilding DC's run-down public housing projects, the centerpiece of many of DC's "blighted" areas, and the essential first step in "re-cycling" (reclaiming, if you prefer) wasted neighborhoods:

o The Ellen Wilson Dwellings are under complete renovation by the Ellen Wilson Community Development Corporation, working under HUD grants to reverse the "terrible ghettoization of people" caused by past public housing.. Even the names have been changed to avoid the memories, and the Townhomes of Capitol Hill are emerging as an attractive-looking mixed-income community of brick town houses. Former residents of the old project have priority in buying membership in the cooperative, of buying their units outright. But only about half of those applying are eligible under the new rules which require proof of financial stability and a crime-free record.

o Howard University is embarking on a major multi-million dollar effort to redevelop the neighborhood around its Northwest Washington campus, trying to reverse what has been a "terrible relationship between the community and the neighborhood for years". The project is to include turning the nearby fenced-off reservoir into a park, attracting new businesses and African American cultural centers and museums; renovating 28 boarded up houses and 17 vacant lots (with preferential financial assistance for DC public workers such as police and firefighters); and upgrading facilities around the Shaw Metro station. The university has already committed to rehabilitating its hospital emergency facilities, and is converting a local liquor store into a police substation! In typical Washington style, local neighborhood activists are finding fault with various parts of the plan, and will no doubt delay the effort and divide its supporters. NARPAC, Inc. commends the effort, but has suggested to Howard University's president that attention needs to be given to incorporating new public education facilities into the plan (See letter to President Swygert ).

o Public Receiver Gilmore is making progress in getting the US Marine Corps to take over the completely run-down high-rise Arthur Capper Dwellings tract. It is adjacent to their historic Marine Corps Barracks at 8th and I Street, SE and also reaches to the Navy Yard, also now under major renovation. Local activists complained that they were not sufficiently involved, that public hearings had not been held, that a few remaining hold-out residents would be displaced from what is clearly a ghetto; and that the Marines should buy the 13-acre property instead of taking it as a gift. Many of these problems appear now to be solved, after months of negotiations, and the Marines are making plans to build new barracks, an open parade/drill grounds, and develop a lighted baseball field to share with the community. Such involvement by local military units in the affairs of their neighborhood is strongly supported by NARPAC, Inc. as indicated by correspondence with the Marine Commandant in March.

By February of 1999, the transaction was underway to sell the 13-acre Capper property to the Marine Corps for $500,000, and the activists are in full cry trying to get more money for this blighted site, so they can build new low income town houses--presumably to get back the former low income residents who have already left . Gilmore believes such an investment would be better elsewhere. Besides, he says:

"I wonder how folks can say I'm pushing around poor people when there were 200 families living at Arthur Capper in the worst, degrading, unsafe conditions imaginable at the tolerance and sufferance of city officials in charge of the same neighborhood. Where were they all the time?

o In a closely related effort, development planning has begun on the site of Camp Simms, a former National Guard base in Ward 8 along the border with Maryland. This large site with difficult terrain has remained one of DC's largest undeveloped tracts, and abuts one of DC's most blighted areas. Federal funds are now becoming available to grade the site and thereby greatly enhance its potential development into a large entertainment/shopping center to serve a revitalized area around it. While not yet a sure thing, it is clearly some of the best economic news that Ward 8 residents have had in some years.

In December, 1998, the first of the 95 apartments to be renovated in the Montana Terrace Complex re-opened to residents. One of 14 major projects funded with $250M in federal funds, this complex is losing 60 units, primarily by razing, a few by enlarging others. One third of the new units will be sold, and all are receiving a "suburban new look".

In the summer of of 1998, Gilmore's Receiver's update, contained a significant paragraph on the changing profile of public housing units:

.....the recovery strategy will result in a significant shift in the profile of housing units available to low and very low income households. Conversion of units at Frontiers, Capitol View, and 'Scattered Sites' to home ownership will reduce the number of rental units from the Authority's inventory. Similarly, implementation of income-fixing initiatives in conjunction with the redevelopment of Valley Green, Frederick Douglass, Stanton Dwellings, and Ellen Wilson will reduce the inventory. In other cases such as Sheridan Terrace, Western Mews, and individual units at a small number of developments, demolition has or will reduce the stock further. In total, the inventory of 'hard units' will reduce by 2007. At the same time, we have added 3137 Section 8 certificates and vouchers to the Authority's portfolio since the beginning of receivership....(hence the minimum) number of units available to low and very low income households will increase by 1130 from a pre-receivership 19,097 to at least 20,227. In addition, occupancy will remain at 98% or higher, as opposed to 79% pre-receivership. The combination of additional housing units and higher occupancy will mean that nearly 3500 more households will have access to deeply subsidized housing in DC than at the start of the receivership.

NARPAC, Inc. has deep reservations about the perpetuation of so large a number of public housing units in so small a jurisdiction as DC. By comparison, the immediately surrounding jurisdictions have only a few hundred such units in toto, and those are only for the aged (in PG County). But unless and until the metro area comes closer to accepting its responsibilities in "poverty-sharing" across the board, then DC is obliged to assure that its housing projects are no longer the source of debilitating--and nationally embarrassing--urban blight, with all its inevitable neighborhood consequences.

. Light at the End of the Public Housing Tunnel

By the beginning of 1999, Gilmore was becoming confident that he could see light at the end of his tunnel. Here are excerpts from his January 1999 Receiver's update:

Three years and two months ago, a straightforward, perhaps understated assertion I said that 'the city's public housing is in deplorable shape'. I characterized its administration as 'top heavy' and its workforce as 'lacking work plans, performance objectives, and minimum standards', 'dangerously uninformed', 'poorly organized, ill-equipped, inadequately skilled, and badly supervised', and 'fundamentally incapable of measurable production'. None of these characterizations apply today.

Redevelopment and comprehensive modernization plans have either been set or are actually underway at an impressive number of locations (and units), including Ellen Wilson (134), Valley Green (312), Stanton Dwellings (348), Frederick Douglass (302), Montana Terrace (155), Frontiers (54), Capital View Townhouses (320), Judiciary House (271), Carroll Apartments (60), East Capitol Dwellings (577), and other scattered sites (310). Sheridan Terrace (183), once the nation's most notorious symbol of failed public housing, was demolished.The face of public housing, indeed its basic profile, is changing all over the city. (units added by NARPAC from '94-'96 'DC Indicies')

Rehabilitation, and the eradication of a mountain of deferred maintenance, is more than 60% complete and has resulted in some very dramatic changes in the condition and curb appeal of many developments.....With a crew that regularly numbers more than 700 of which 200-300 are residents of public housing,we are systematically moving from one end of the development to the other, and from development to development, restoring them to nearly their original condition.

Maintenance and management reform measures are nearly fully in place...Our police force continues to grow and now, by virtue of legislation enacted by the City Council in November, 1998, has citywide authority along with the Metropolitan Police Department. Rent collection is reaching new highs....routine vacancies....are down to less than two percent, and the number of uncompleted work orders, as well as the time it takes to respond to maintenance calls, are tumbling.

In terms of completion of the receivership's objectives, we're entering the home stretch....On November 15, 1998, we submitted our annual Public Housing Management Assessment Program performance report with an overall grade of 77.92%. In November, 1999, baring some dramatic, but highly unlikely, drop in performance, we expect to submit a second consecutive score of 70% or higher. Under the Pearson order, that triggers a six-month period of transition back to local control following which, the receivership is terminated.

Before the receivership successfully ends,.....the agency's status as an independent authority must be strengthened so as to assure that functional improvements will be maintained.....An important step in the establishment of the authority as an independent agency was taken by the City Council in 1994 with the passage of the District of Columbia Housing Authority Act of 1994. However, a number of critical amendments and augmentations are needed if this important objective is to be achieved.

"The city is about to enter one of the most exciting and critical periods in its history. A reform mood abounds and the potential is real for our nation's capitol to rise to its rightful place as the preeminent community in the land. So too, can it be said about the Washington DC public housing program. We are extremely well positioned to help catapult the city to that lofty height, and to set an example of leadership among our public housing peers." D. Gilmore, 1/15/99

The seventh semi-annual update (July, 1999) continued Mr. Gilmore's upbeat appraisal of progress at DCHA, though he agrees with Yogi Berra that "it ain't over til it's over":

We continue to make progress in the effort to right this listing ship. Before the next regular semi-annual report to the Court is due (Jan 2000), we will have completed Occupied Unit Rehabilitation, restoring more than 8000 units and most of our conventional developments to a decent, acceptable condition not present for years. By then, we will have completed the renovation and reoccupancy of the remaining vacant units not otherwise scheduled for reconstruction or demolition.

The former Ellen Wilson, now known as the Town Homes on Capitol Hill, is nearing completion and is already serving as home to a growing number of families.....The first disposition of 'scattered site buildings' has occurred, with the disposition of the remainder of 170 units to be completed by the end of the year. The degradation they reign on the communities which host them will come to an end and they will become new homes for many first-time buyers, including some who are currently residents of public housing.

The unconscionable backlog of unspent modernization money, which coexisted with desperate need for physical renewal, has been eliminated....

...(Our) results can be seen not only in the obvious physical change which has occurred, but also in the rebirth of human spirit that is so evident around our communities.

Mr. Gilmore goes on to make the case for new DC Council legislation that would assure that DCHA would be "authorized, governed, and organized in much the same way as the preponderance of its 3400 sister authorities around the nation....The most successful of those public housing programs are those that operate in harmony with, but independent of, municipal government." Such legislation has so far had one public hearing and remains "in committee".

In December '99, right on schedule, David Gilmore appointed his successor, New Orleans' Housing Authority Director Michael P. Kelly to take over as this key agency comes out of receivership. It should be noted, however, that the DC Council has yet to give final approval to his requested legislation that would keep DCHA independent of much local political tinkering.

In another victory for Gilmore, the Catholic Archdiocese has agreed to provide substantial funding to build 130 subsidized housing units to replace those razed at Ft. DuPont Park on land donated by DCHA. This is yet another step in reducing DC's direct involvement in public housing, and shifting towards private home ownership.

Other than the relatively straightforward turnaround of the city's finances, NARPAC, Inc. believes that the reconstitution of DC's public housing is the most important accomplishment to date in restoring pride to America's capital, as indicated in its August, 1999, Editorial, and the basis for the bestowing of NARPAC's first "Hat's Off Award.

Razing Frederick Douglass and Stanton Dwellings

In September, 1999, HUD announced a $30M grant to DC to help eliminate urban blight in the last of DC's dilapidated Southeast public housing projects, and to assist residents with occupational training. 448 badly deteriorated housing units (333 still occupied) will be demolished, and replaced with 105 public housing units, 120 low/moderate-income units to be privately owned with the help of the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, and 173 market-rate and affordable homes for sale. The grant will also fund the upgrading of neighborhood recreation facilities, and install a computer education center at a local school, according to the Post article.

This grant is part of the new HUD philosophy to "change the physical shape of public housing" by demolishing the high-rise and barrack-style apartments with garden-style apartments and town houses more compatible with surrounding neighborhoods. It is part of the HOPE VI program in which DCHA Receiver David Gilmore has been deeply involved. But more important is HUD Secretary Cuomo's stated objective:

"We are making public housing a launching pad to opportunity, jobs, and self-sufficiency, instead of a warehouse trapping people in poverty and long-term dependence".

NARPAC, Inc. fully subscribes to this approach as necessary, albeit not sufficient. The next problem that needs addressing is the vast imbalance in housing assistance between inner cities such as DC, and their relatively uncooperative suburbs.

. Picking a Successor

return to the top of the page DCHA RECEIVERSHIP DRAWING TO A CLOSE

In January, 2000, Mr. Gilmore produced the last of his required regular semi-annual progress reports, in which he notes with pride his several accomplishments. Excerpts are provided below:

I have a vivid memory of my first meeting with Judge Steffen Graae which led to my appointment as receiver. We could only guess then about how it would be. As it's turned out, Judge Graae launched me on the most exciting adventure of my professional career, one which I've been privileged to share with him and a pretty sizable band of hearty souls, throughout the Authority who have been at my side through most of it. None of the achievements which comprise the successful reclamation of public housing in DC would have been possible without all of them.

Public housing in the District bears little resemblance to what it was in 1995. Vacancies are down to a handful of units....occupancy levels have been consistently above 98%, a rate which represents normal turnover. Virtually all of the conventional stock has been renovated under the Occupied Units Rehabilitation Program, and the backlog of unspent modernization funds has been completely eliminated. Rent collection is consistently at 95%of the rent roll or better every month. DCHA police patrol developments across the city and crime has been reduced dramatically. It's not perfect, and probably never will be, but life in public housing is exponentially better than it was.

....First a brief review:

The Pearson v. Kelly order with placed the Authority (then the Department of Public and Assisted Housing) under court provision provides that the receivership will end following a six-month transition period which commences once a score of 70 or better on the national public housing performance test...has been achieved for two successive years. That threshold standard was achieved in FY98 and FY99.....(as shown below):

  • FY1994: 33.3
  • FY1995: 37.8
  • FY1996: 42.4
  • FY1997: 66.8
  • FY1998: 79.3
  • FY1999: 81.3

(60 is a passing score)

Many things must be in place if a large public agency such as this is to thrive. Most notable among them are well-crafted enabling legislation; a capable and committed governing board; visionary executive leadership; and partnership with an enlightened city government. We are well on our way to locking in all of these critical factors:

We have talked extensively about the need for new local legislation to solidify the Authority's position as an independent housing authority with broader powers than those ascribed to it predecessors, commensurate with those exercised by most large public housing authorities across the nation. Thanks to DC Council President Linda Cropp,....Council member Sharon Ambrose,...and others, enabling legislation has been enacted by the City Council, and is well on its way to final approval, that will accomplish exactly what we sought. (xxxxx): The legislation provides for a 9-member Board of Commissioners, including three residents of public housing (a greater resident representation than any other public housing authority in the nation).... The process of identifying candidates (for the Mayor to appoint) has already begun. Elections to select the three resident representatives are scheduled for March 11 (and were held). .......

A new Chief Executive Officer has been named. Michael Kelly, Executive Director of the New Orleans Housing Authority assumes this post on February 6, 2000...(he did).

Finally, I must acknowledge the consistent, unreserved cooperation of Mayor Williams and the members of his administration who have worked closely with us throughout this process and can rightfully claim some credit for this agency's dramatic improvement. The mayor has made it clear that public housing is a critical service in DC, that he respects the work of the receivership, and that he intends to contribute to the Authority's well-being in the future.

NARPAC, Inc. applauds a key job well done,and is proud to have awarded him our first Hats Off Award

return to the top of the page HOUSING IMPACT ON POVERTY SHARING

The ability of the region to share the burdens of poverty depends in considerable measure on the availability of public and subsidized housing throughout the metro area. It is clear, at least to NARPAC, that the large concentration of public housing in DC , and the relative absence of such housing elsewhere, makes it very difficult to "level the playing field" in regional income mix. This has come to light again in a recent OpEd concerning a difference of philosophy between DC and Prince George's County.

HOPE VI Housing Program

The HOPE VI Housing Program begun under the Clinton Administration provides a remarkably new and different way of looking at public housing, and takes a significant step back towards making public housing a transitional convenience (on the way to a better life), rather than establishing a permanent dependency on federal largesse. The program is aimed at ridding the country of its 100,000 severely distressed housing units (out of a total of 1.4 million units), many of them in the big, cold, apartment house projects of earlier times.

HUD has now given out 124 grants ranging up to $35M to eliminate old housing, and replace only a portion of it. (Many of the dismantled units are already empty). What's different is that the grants have very few strings attached and are encouraging the states to transform not only public housing, but the people now using it. This permits funds to be spent on job training and placement, and can even be used to enhance opportunity for kids from the projects to get a higher education. In addition, new design standards are being used to prevent early obsolescence--assisted in part by the Congress for the New Urbanism.

The new units will involve many opportunities to achieve home ownership, and to transform projects from low-/no-income only to mixed income neighborhoods with a far more positive collective outlook. In yet another move in this direction, the grants are offered in such a way as to invite participation by private builders and investors into the vicinity of these projects. Current leverage is reported to be $2.28 private for every $1.00 HUD. This program may well turn out to be a very effective mechanism for eliminating some of the nation's most blighted urban areas--and DC is now among the beneficiaries, along with many other troubled American cities.

The Negative Impact of Renters and Rent Controls

A recent letter to the Post (10/18/99) from Derek K. Yonai of Fairfax, VA, described quite succinctly the impact of rent controls on affordable housing availability. In part, he says that "housing 'shortages' are typically created by the government through rent ceilings. By artificially holding rents down, the government promotes an increase in housing demand while at the same time decreasing the housing supply. This happens because at a lower price, more people want housing, while those who supply it might not want to rent at artificially low price. Rent ceilings also encourage landlords to devolve into slum lords. If landlords can charge only artificially low rent, what incentives do they have to maintain their apartments?"

Soon thereafter (10/31/99), Nathaniel Tassler wrote to the Post that most US cities do not have rent controls, and DC only has them on older buildings, not new construction. He, in turn, asserts that "the real reason why little affordable housing is built is that rents or sales prices that would be affordable to poorer families are not sufficient to cover the land, construction, and administrative costs." He suggests that this can be solved by providing them increased income or Section 8 vouchers.

In February, 2000 Roberta Colton wrote to the Post that "owners of rental properties in DC are not onlyrestricted in the rents they can charge, but must also grant tenants almost a lifelong lease on their apartments". Her problems were compounded when a 20-year tenant became disabled, was obliged to move to a more expensive ground-floor apartment. She could not charge the tenant more due to the Fasir Housing Act which requires the landlord to provide equal opportunity for handicapped persons. In this case, the landlord also became obliged to subsidize the rent of that handicapped tenant--clearly an instance of unintended consequences.

It might also be noted that neighborhoods in which the most politically active residents are renters (and not their landlords), the motivations will be to keep property values down, and hence rents down as well, even if there are no rent controls. On the other, communities of home owners quite assiduously look for political opportunities to enhance property values to increase the value of their investment. Renters thereby skew the urban landscape towards less valuable neighborhoods. Mayor Williams stated objective to make DC a city of home owners is certainly a noble goal. As suggested elsewhere, NARPAC would also support any move by the mayor to eliminate rent controls. In fact, DC's rent control law will expire at the end of Y2000. DC is one of the few cities left with such a law, and all have unusually low home ownership rates. The Council would be well advised to let it expire.

Wayne Curry Love:Too Tough?

An August, 1999 OpEd in the Washington Post sounds a warning of sorts about possibly excessive zeal in controlling poverty in Prince George's (PG) County. Written by Becky Sherblom, the executive director of the Maryland Center for Community Development, a nonprofit organization working for affordable housing, it accuses PG's County Executive Wayne Curry of disdain not only for rental properties per se, but for the people that need them. She claims that PG's policy of not rehabilitating rental housing, and reducing older buildings by 30% "mocks the needs of thousands of PG residents."

PG County's considerable number of low income residents--next door to DC--is the major reason why the new Brookings Study claims the metro area's socioeconomic problems are not limited to the central city. The county is suffering increasing difficulties with "urban poverty", particularly on DC's fringes "within the Beltway".

The OpEd piece contends that the policy of eliminating old properties, and not replacing them, is evidence that Curry simply "wants them to move elsewhere". It cautions that affordable housing should not be mistaken for substandard housing, and that substandard housing can be avoided by proper code enforcement and providing loans for property owners to modernize aging housing stock. Montgomery County is credited with a successful 20-year effort to integrate affordable housing into communities, thereby avoiding the pockets of blight and neglect prevalent inside the Beltway in PG--and NARPAC would add within those sections of DC adjacent to PG as well. NARPAC also suspects that the Montgomery County policy (and Fairfax, and others as well) has in fact encouraged certain impoverished elements to look elsewhere in the region for accommodations.

Sherblom characterizes those who need affordable rental housing as day-care workers, nurses aides, service-sector employees and county workers who are paid below a living wage, plus old people, young people, and families experiencing divorces and job changes. Whether this correctly portrays all such tenants (or only, say, 70% of them) NARPAC has no idea. Whether rental and occupancy laws make it impossible for some landlords to maintain their properties is not clear either. How many are populated--or owned, for that matter--by persons living on the wrong side of our justice system is germane. It is surely clear, however, that DC has not solved its problem by letting rental properties stand until they collapse of their own dilapidation. A variety of mechanisms--ultimately including obligatory elimination of the offending properties--seems clearly warranted.

Emigration to Prince George's Provides a Wake-up Call

The lack of availability of affordable housing was the subject of several Washington Post articles during March, 2000. In Fairfax County, the good economy and very low unemployment are driving up real estate prices. Rentals have climbed to the point where many low income persons have become homeless. Most of the accomodations that are supposed to accept Section 8 Vouchers are no longer willing to do so. In prince George's County, County Executive Wayne Curry is reacting to the outflow of poor people from DC (mostly East of the Anacostia) who are bringing Section 8 Vouchers with them. Says he: "I want money to take care of relocated people. I want the other communities around Washington to do their fair share."

The cause for this concern is a significant increase in DC families receiving Section 8 vouchers using them to rent in PG. This amounts to some 600 families in the past four years, and the fear that this year will bring even higher numbers as demolition continues on some of DC's largest public housing complexes East of the Anacostia. It should be noted that Mr. Curry did not request that DC pay these costs, but rather that the costs be shared with "other communities around Washington". It looks to NARPAC as if Mr. Curry has discovered "poverty sharing" and the importance of regional solutions to regional problems!

The Metro Washingtion Council of Governments Weighs in:

The following letter from the COG's Executive Director appeared in the Washington Post on April 24th:

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) applauds DC Mayor Anthony Williams and Prince George's County Executive Wayne Curry for calling for a regional approach to the issue of affordable housing (METRO, 3/29).

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recently released a study documenting the area's growing affordable housing crisis. HUD estimates that more than 54,000 households here have "worst-case" needs for rental housing. The agency defines "worst case" as households with incomes below 50 percent of the area median income who pay more than half their income for rent or who live in severely inadequate housing and are not assisted by federal, state, or local housing programs. Sixty percent of the worst-case households are minorities, and 86 percent have adequate, uncrowded housing yet struggle with excessive rent burdens.

COG and the Urban Institute collaborated last year on a study examining Section 8 (rental housing assistance) mobility. The study, funded by the Fannie Mae Foundation, found that while Section 8 housing assistance enables many recipients to move to neighborhoods with less poverty, few recipients move far from their original locations. COG and the Urban Institute concluded that housing agencies need to do a better job of informing Section 8 recipients about their options and of assisting them in searching for housing.

In addition, the study found many landlords unwilling to participate in the Section 8 program, especially during the strong regional economy that has caused rents to rise and limited the supply of low-cost housing.

COG and its affiliated Washington Area Housing Partnership propose to build on principles embraced by area local governments--including the interrelated nature of our housing market, the equitable distribution of affordable housing resources and availability in all jurisdictions, and the need for workers to be able to live near their jobs. The challenge is to turn these principles into public policy.

Executive Director


On the same day (March 10th, 2000) that some 7000 eligble Public Housing residents were to vote for their three seats on the post-receivership DCHA Public Housing Commission--signalling the end of the public housing crisis in DC--the Director of DC's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs began craking down on DC's notorious slum landlords. Director Jordan condemned four apartment buildings in the Columbia Heights/Shaw area on Northwest DC as unfit for human habitation"--all within walking distance of the new Columbia Heights Metro Station. These squalid, rat- and insect-infested slums, many with non- functioning plumbing, falling plaster, gas leaks, flaking lead-based paint, and holes in floors have plagued DC (and other inner cities) for years. Owners of two of these four units owe more than $700,000 in back water/sewer bills and have been fined more than $130,000 in the last six months for housing code violations. One has had 26 "major violations" since 1984. It seems incredible to NARPAC, Inc. that such conditions could exist for so long, particularly in a neighborhood known for its outspoken liberal activists.

. About 50 more complexes were to follow, causing eviction of thousands of disadvantaged tenants, most of them low income Latinos, blacks, and Asians with at best temporary work permits. 22 of the 32 apartment buildings are in the same area of Ward 1 in Northwest DC, by far the city's richest quadrant. With great humanitarian zeal, most of the initial public reaction has been to side with the tenants and decry the threat of 'gentrification' which could permanently displace these poor souls, many recent (often illegal) immigrants with poor language skills, and no qualifications for housing assistance.

Emergency Legislation

Almost immediately, Ward 1's Council member Graham introduced emergency legislation to make it harder for landlords to convert properties closed by the city into luxury residences and then raise rents or sell the buildings to other developers. It would also suspend rent payments and eviction proceedings, allow tenants to sue landlords as a group, and give the city the power to charge landlords for the cost of closing a building and relocating tenants. Although that bill was turned down by the Council, a somewhat watered down version passed two weeks later that would "preserve tenants rights" for two years after the city condemns a property". Although tenants can still be evicted, property owners will have to follow the legal process that protects tenants from being summarily thrown out on the street.

Some of the worst offenders among the landlords were subsequently arrested and charged with hundreds of misdemeanor housing code violations by the new DC Corporation Counsel, working in consort with the City's new Deputy Mayor for Economic Development. These landlords, most of whom do not live within DC, have entered 'not guilty' pleas. Many of these issues reflect the basic conflict between a freely operating market economy, and those abberant socioeconomic factors introduced through elaborate rent controls and tenants' rights constraints designed to keep market place pressures from hurting those least able to resist them.

"Faith Institutions" Play their Race Card

Those being dispossessed, meanwhile, took to the streets in a series of protests against eviction, gentrification, and so forth. To liven things up further, Rev. H. Beecher Hicks of "one of DC's most influential African American churches" warned that the approaching long, hot summer could produce cultural conflicts between whites and blacks in our communities. Other influential blacks claimed Hicks is essentially venting sour grapes as a result of his own unsuccessful battles with local neighborhoods over church parking and a new school site. These defeats have led him to move his church to Prince George's County--where about half of his 7000 member flock now live. The Mayor responded to what appeared to be Hicks' veiled threats by noting that "the conflict between our citizens and some 'faith institutions' reflects that our city is shifting demographically", thus producing "some big challenges." He might also have mentioned that in some of the most impoverished parts of the city, East of the Anacostia, gentrification is becoming an accepted way of life--particularly when black developers are upgrading black residences.

Derelict Properties:

Another source of troublesome blight is the presence of thousands of deserted homes and properties, many of which have become infested with druggies, the homeless, and other neighborhood threats and nuisances. The mayor's FY2001 capital budget includes funds to raze 1000 of these uninhabitable buildings, and to sell off another 1000 for private redevelopment over the next three years. NARPAC has no idea why it couldn't be done in three months.

NARPAC Commentary

NARPAC would like to believe that the city government is going to give the same "tough love" treatment to other blighted properties that Receiver Gilmore has given to public housing. That attention is belatedly being focused on these "toxic waste" sites is encouraging. Nonetheless, the effort seems somewhat half-hearted, and does not appear to be backed up by sufficiently stringent laws. For instance, if there were a toxic chemical spill of some sort in these properties, many fewer activists would be trying to protect the rights of poor to live amid such life- threatening squalor. If the landlords were involved in any way in drug trafficking, their properties could be confiscated. If they were branded as the moral equivalent of serial killers, they would receive daily media hype.

Public ambivalence about rent controls (even though they have been given up in most inner cities) results in pressures to coerce landlords into fixing up dilapidated buildings, but not enough to allow them to raise rents! Moreover, there is apparently great reluctance to name the offending landlords, and hence the mayor's public release on March 14th fingering 32 properties gives only their addresses, but not the names of the individuals or businesses that own them or, for instance, their tax status. NARPAC's request for such information is met with the still customary silence and unreturned phone calls.

Furthermore, there seems to be precious little penalty for landlords not paying their utility bills for months--or years--on end. Why isn't the failure to pay for city services treated the same way as the failure to pay taxes? All-in-all, city expenditures for blight removal remain a tiny fraction of the sums spent to control blight consequences (crime, uneducable kids, unemployment, poor health, etc.

The forces mustered to block eviction of the disadvantaged from slums considered uninhabitable seems to be far stronger than the pressures to remedy the underlying causes. People seem to think in terms of forcing the landlords to do what they don't want to do, but little equivalent attention falls on DC's legislature, which has the latent power to help solve, rather than perpetuate the problems. Finally, the notion that poverty-sharing should be a regional problem (as recently--and somewhat awkwardly--espoused by Prince George's County Executive Curry) seems to meet with little serious support within the DC Government, the Council of Governments, the Board of Trade, or any other organization with regional responsibilities.

return to the top of the page THE ANTI-SPRAWL MOVEMENT AND "BROWNFIELDS"--A Potential Godsend for DC

The growing public recognition of the limitations of suburban sprawl has produced a backlash which is almost certain to provide a very substantial bonus for DC. Throughout various metro areas, it is becoming obvious that the central cities--and now the inner suburbs as well--cannot be allowed to atrophy, decline, and eventually be abandoned as the successful majority of the population migrates outward to newer, greener pastures. Attention is now focusing on those relatively large, grossly underutilized--if not abandoned--tracts of land nearer the center, many of which are, by current environmental standards, in some way "polluted". Substantial federal funds are now becoming available to help local governments remediate these so-called "brownfield" sites and make them fully acceptable for redevelopment for new uses. New laws free future owners of these cleaned-up sites from any residual liabilities for past pollution. It is also significant that current owners of these sites may be federal or local government, as well as private commercial, and that the clean-up may be the precursor to changing ownership.

There seems to be some disagreement amongst various local officials as to whether candidate sites must be demonstrably polluted, or only suspected of not meeting current federal standards. Both Virginia and Maryland appear to be accepting the broader interpretation as they identify sites for redevelopment--virtually all of which are already blessed with existing, if outdated, infrastructure of transportation, water and sewer, and power. But while the outer suburbs may debate the relative merits of "greenfield" development vs "brownfield" reclamation, the decision is far easier closer to the metro's core. In Loudon County, for instance, development has yet to reach 80% of the county, while Montgomery County estimates that its land is about 90% developed and therefore becoming a scarce commodity.

There are literally hundreds of acres within the District which are eligible for remediation, and a goodly number (over 500 acres) have already been identified by DC's planners, with encouragement from the EPA. Many are along DC's neglected (but potentially lucrative) Anacostia and Potomac River waterfronts, and others border DC's railroad rights of way. They include portions of the Navy Yard and Southeast Federal Center next door; Washington Gas and Electric plants (no longer locally producing electric power); the abandoned 240-acre DC Village; the run-down Poplar Point and Buzzard's Point areas; DC's potentially most valuable site East of the Anacostia, the 330-acre, now largely vacant, St. Elizabeth's mental hospital site with a commanding view of downtown DC. and several dumps, storage and truck depots.Many other federally- owned, essentially non-productive lands could eventually be added to this list.

One major advantage of such brownfield sites is that they are not currently occupied by local residents ready to resist modernization. Hence there is a better chance of being to put common metro area interests ahead of personal interests. Although there is some wistful talk of preserving some of St. Elizabeth's archaic asylum wards as historic sites for posterity, it would be inconceivable to keep the predominance of this site from redevelopment.

In NARPAC's view, the new brownfield initiatives provide for government- and commercially-owned sites the same opportunity for reincarnation as is being offered to public housing projects by the new HOPE VI program. Together they offer the best opportunities--and stimuli--for blight removal. There seems to be little doubt that DC will avail itself of these renewal opportunities under the current administration. What is still unclear, however, is the extent of DC's long-range vision to make our national capital America's outstanding metro area. The choices of new uses for these sites--some to be decided in 2000--will be a powerful indication of just how determined the city is to remake itself.

A New Report from the Urban Institute

In April, 2000, the Urban Institute published the results of its October '99 symposium on "Section 8 Mobility and Neighborhood Health--Emerging Issues and Policy Challenges" and it has received high marks from senior government officials. The 34-page report summarizes the Section 8 voucher program as follows:

Over the past decade, the Section 8 tenant-based assistance program has grown in both size and importance as a component of federal housing policy for poor renters. Unlike the public housing program, which subsidizes the construction and operation of housing developments for the poor, the Section 8 tenant-based program supplements what very low income families and individuals can afford to pay for housing in the private market. Thus tenant-based assistance enables recipients to choose moderately priced housing of the type and in the location that best fits their needs. The Section 8 program is administered by local and state housing agencies under contract to the federal government. Participants generally contribute 30 percent of their monthly income towards housing costs, with the Section 8 program making up the difference--up to a locally defined "payment standard". Today, about 1.4 million households nationwide participate in the Section 8 program.

".....National analysis of neighborhood characteristics for participants in different federal housing programs has found that Section 8 certificates and vouchers "reduce the probability that families live in the most economically and socially distressed areas". Specifically, only 14.8% of certificate and voucher recipients live in high-poverty neighborhoods (i.e., more than 30% poor), compared with 53.6 percent of public housing residents. Thus Section 8 tenant-based assistance effectively addresses some of the most serious shortcomings of traditional, project-based housing programs.

"....In recent years, Congress has funded virtually no net additions to the stock of federally subsidized developments, relying instead on Section 8....Moreover, the demolition of severely distressed public housing projects and the expiration of subsidy contracts with private developers are shifting substantial numbers of poor families from project-based to tenant-based assistance. Thus the effectiveness of federal efforts to help low-income families and individuals meet their housing needs increasingly hinges on Section 8 policies and program implementation."

Problems in finding housing are now arising because of the strong economy and housing boom, and the housing that is available tends to be clustered in neighborhoods that now risk the "stability and health" undermined. But of greatest concern is the particular case of "dispersal" from and "deconcentration" of long-term public housing tenants from their substandard living conditions.

The symposium report divides its results into three categories: the impact of Section 8 on receiving neighborhoods, the causes for geographic clustering among Section 8 recipients; and the relocation of tenants from public housing demolition. It finds "challenges" in each of the three areas:

Receiving neighborhoods:

In receiving neighborhoods there are issues of problem behavior by the Section 8 recipients (and undercurrents of racial biases), as well as problem behavior on the part of "unscrupulous" property owners, as well as the unintended perverse incentives which make Section 8 recipients more valuable to lower-value neighborhoods, and less desirable to higher-value neighborhoods. In NARPAC's view, the blandness of some of the policy recommendations pays tribute to the difficulty of these problems in "social engineering":

Regarding problem tenants, polices are needed to:

  • screen out potential problem tenants;
  • educate landlords about the obligations to screen tenants;
  • respond to landlord complaints and help remove problem tenants;
  • provide more extensive supportive services to participants;
  • monitor and respond to community complaints;
  • reach out to community organizations to help resolve disputes; and
  • dispel stereotypes about Section 8 participants.

Regarding problem landlords, policies are needed to:
  • monitor location of Section 8 recipients and respond to complaints;
  • strengthen "rent reasonableness" procedures;
  • provide high-quality information and training for participating landlords;
  • impose sanctions on landlords abusing the Section 8 program; and
  • establish partnerships among Section 8 and other local programs.

Geographic Clustering:

In parts f the US where subsidized housing is widely scattered anyway, the presence of a few subsidized households appears to present little problem. However, in areas with larger numbers of poor (to include the Washington area), "clustering" results, and "there are reasons to suspect that overconcentration of Section 8 households may cause problems, including opposition from receiving communities, even if there is no disruptive behavior by individual recipients". The report focuses on two aspects of this problem. On the supply side, "rental housing units tend to be concentrated in the central cities, older suburbs, and less-affluent neighborhoods...this effectively excluding Section 8 recipients from some desirable areas...". On the demand side, many recipients "prefer to remain close to their family and social networks", "fear living in the suburbs", or more simply "don't have a car".

On the supply side, recommendations include:

  • monitor the location of Section 8 recipients;
  • strengthen program administration to avoid delays, red tape;
  • offer landlord incentives;
  • greater outreach to new landlords;
  • adjust payment standards to gain access to more desirable communities;
  • raise "fair market rents" nationally;
  • allow participants to contribute a larger share of their income toward rent;
  • inform participants of their rights under the Fair Housing Act;
  • initiate agency complaints against landlords violating income discrimination;
  • reduce barriers to portability across local jurisdictions;
  • administer Section 8 program at state or regional level--vice local;
  • expand the stock of moderate-cost rental housing;

On the demand side, suggestions include:

  • improve Section 8 briefings and informational materials;
  • assemble/maintain info on community amenities, services, and transportation;
  • simplify portability practices in moving between jurisdictions;
  • hands on counseling/assistance with housing search;
  • provide transportation during the housing search process;
  • explore "second move" counseling (to upgrade gradually);
  • provide federal funds for mobility counseling, regional cooperation; and
  • emphasize locational outcomes in Management Assessment Program.

Relocation from Public Housing

Most problematic (and damning) are the ugly truths about long-time residents of public housing projects:

A significant share of long-time residents of distressed public housing may have serious personal problems that make it difficult for them to succeed in the private rental market. Many of these housing developments are mired in poverty, with very high rates of welfare dependency and chronic unemployment. In some, gangs and drug dealers have come to dominate the social world, making it difficult if not impossible for residents to avoid becoming enmeshed in the underground economy, and many households include one or more members with a criminal record. Moreover, because of the gangs and the ubiquitous drug trade, life in these developments is extremely dangerous, potentially causing lasting trauma for both adults and children.

To make matters worse, many of these unfortunate people have little understanding of anything like a "Section 8" program--or its "rules". They have little means to search for such new housing, and they often have large families (including "dangerous" teenagers) requiring more bedrooms than normally available in the rental market. And they are frequently seen as clearly undesirable tenants. These difficulties seem almost insurmountable, particularly in the relatively short times available between the decision to demolish a housing project (or unhabitable slum property) and the date of eviction. The recommendations seem almost trivial:

  • provide residents adequate, understandable info about their housing choices;
  • provide better relocation planning;
  • provide counseling and case management re rental customs (i.e., dealing with landlords, paying for utilities, etc.; and
  • followup services and support should be part of relocation.

Research Topics:

In the Urban Institute report, each of these five sets of recommendations is accompanied by a seemingly endless set of research topics, which indicate areas in which knowledge is (and probably always will be) inadequate. They also can be used to delay actions on existing recommendations while further fact-finding is pursued. A sampling of these proposed research topics include:

  • indicators that predict problem behavior;
  • impact of recipients on neighborhood quality of life and property values;
  • mismatch between real and perceived clustering and neighborhood effects;
  • availability of rental units below payment standards;
  • barriers to landlord participation; and
  • effectiveness of second-move counseling.

Summary of Recommendations

With only one exception, the litany of recommendations and research proposals is not prioritized. That important recommendation is excerpted below:

Participants in the 1999 symposium also discussed more far-reaching changes to the administration of Section 8 that could enhance location choices and help avoid adverse neighborhood effects. Local housing authorities often lack the capacity, resources, or authority to address such challenges as: neighborhood decline; housing code enforcement; racial and ethnic discrimination; support services for vulnerable families; or the availability of affordable housing regionwide.... many of the complex challenges confronting Section 8 in urban areas might be more effectively addressed if administration of the program was reassigned to an agency with a larger mission and more resources. For example, if a state or regional agency assumed responsibility for the program, it might be better able to recruit landlords from suburban as well as central-city neighborhoods; encourage families to search beyond their immediate neighborhoods; and expand the supply of affordable housing in nontraditional neighborhoods.... discussion repeatedly returned to the fact that local agencies, many of which are preoccupied with the management of public housing developments, may not be well equipped to effectively address the full range of challenges posed by the Section 8 program today.

NARPAC Commentary

NARPAC, Inc. has no special knowledge of the intricacies of providing housing for the poor, but recognizes the overriding necessity to "deconcentrate" the (primarily urban) pockets of poverty which spawn blight, despair, and countercultural behavior of all sorts. We also realize that this report is a record of the happenings at the symposium--it is not intended to firm up or prioritize particular solutions. Nevertheless, the litany of recommendations--and the implied failures (the obverse of those suggestions)--is informative.

To NARPAC, the most important inferences drawn from this report are:

o The necessity to disperse large clusters of poverty by offering alternative housing environments seems indisputable;

o Such relocations will require regional, not local, administration, and will require some sort of "poverty-sharing" between regional jurisdictions;

o The underlying causes of poverty are not eliminated by simply uprooting a household and plopping it down somewhere else--in unfamiliar territory;

o Poverty alleviation will require system solutions reaching well beyond housing into other areas such as adult education, health facilities, social services, and public transportation;

o In many cases, dispersal should be approached as a "multi-step process" (not just a two-step process);

o The problems of exploring and choosing alternative places to live (and then solving the voucher transferral problems) are by themselves daunting; and

o The special requirements for traumatized, long-term public housing residents present a particularly difficult challenge.

The most unrealistic implications of the symposium seem to be that:

* The inherent stigmas on households associated with poverty and the need for housing assistance can be eliminated by "education" of the better off, and "public relations" efforts with the landlords;

* The entrepreneurial marketplace for profit-making landlords in lower cost housing is an appropriate domain for achieving serious, multi-faceted poverty-alleviation;

* Households requiring housing assistance should expect to live wherever other more successful and affluent families choose to live;

* Households that are obliged by circumstances to rent will have the same motivations towards community preservation as those who own their homes;

* Desires to stay with old friends, family, existing "social/ethnic networks", and others who share the common experiences of poverty can be readily overcome;

Finally, the symposium apparently did not address some other fundamental issues at all:

x The increasing number of very poor immigrants with little or no understanding of either the American language or the American culture;

x The potential need to differentiate between the "temporarily poor" who by dint of circumstances find themselves without the resources for housing, and the "regularly poor" who have been part of some more or less permanent underclass either in the US or elsewhere;

x The need to relate the location of affordable housing to entry-level and minimum wage jobs;

x The need to consider the availability of transportation both for work, schooling, health treatment, and shopping;

x The need to provide training and/or familiarization concerning American work standards, social morays, living habits, etc.;

x The need to progress from renting and hand-to-mouth subsidized living, to better jobs, home ownership, saving, investment, banking, and so forth; and

x The seemingly impossible conundrum of the valid need to screen out potentially disruptive tenants, but of having no alternative solution as to what should happen to them.

In short, attempts to relieve poverty purely through subsidized moves to better neighborhoods are unlikely to succeed unless they are part of a broader--and unified--program to bring the poor and the newly arrived into the American way of life and self-reliance. It is interesting to note that the Small Business Administration is better organized--and funded--to teach strangers the American ways of doing business than any other single organization is to teach strangers the American way of living. And, as discussed elsewhere on this web site, national efforts to remediate areas poisoned by chemical spills appear far better organized--and funded--than efforts to remediate pockets of wasted human--American--lives.


Regional interest in Section 8-induced mobility is clearly growing. A new study inspired by the Metro Washington Council of Governments (COG) and conducted by the Urban Institute (UI) was published in February, 2000 and used as the focus of the COG's first Regional Housing Forum held in May, 2000. The output of that forum will be a policy paper for consideration at a November Regional Housing Policy Conference--hopefully with COG Board action to follow. The major points in the UI report ("Section 8 Families in the Washington Region: Neighborhood Choices and Constraints") include the following:

Demographic/Geographic Analysis

The study looked separately at four categories of Section 8 recipients: those who voluntarily sought rent assistance within DC; those required to seek Section 8 assistance in DC as a result of displacement from public housing; those seeking housing help in the inner suburbs; and those in the outer suburbs. As might be expected within this metro area, the fraction of black recipients declines from near-100% inside to DC, to about 60% in the outer suburbs. The reported total income of over $15,000 rises from 20% to 40%, while income from child support and welfare drops from over 30% to under 10% and family size tends to drop slightly (though composition is not described).

The level of poverty in the recipients' original neighborhoods is vastly higher inside DC (70-90% of inside DC neighborhoods have more than 20% poor households, but essentially all neighborhoods are below 10% poor outside DC), as is the percent blacks (90+% of those original neighborhoods inside DC are over 50% black, whereas 80% of the original neighborhoods ouside DC have less than 10% black residents). And the distance moved is less than 5 miles for 67-77% of those moving inside DC, but more than 5 miles for about half of those outside DC. Finally, inside DC, Section 8 recipients tend to move to neighborhoods both less poor and less black (closely related phenomena, unfortunately), while those outside DC move from much less poverty-stricken areas to only slightly less poor neighborhoods, and towards neighborhoods a little bit "more black".

The Search for Better Housing

Interviewees confirm the difficulty of understanding the Section 8 choices, with the canned briefings often confusing and overwhelming. Most searched only close to their current locations, and many found the required time, security deposits, and application fees to be major barriers. And the housing authority staffs tend to be poorly informed and largely disinterested.

Landlord Reluctance

Interviews with landlords and agents confirmed earlier reports that there is substantial reluctance as well as dropping availability. They cite problems with administrative difficulties, fair market rents, and interestingly, a lack of screening applicants, born of negative perceptions--and negative experiences, particularly with difficulties of eviction.

Summary and Conclusions

This well-written UI/COG report presents four general conclusions:

1. Section 8 enables many recipients to move to neighborhoods with less poverty (particularly in DC), and many should be considered candidates for "second moves";
2. Few Section 8 recipients move very far from their original locations, there is little movement between jurisdictions, little movement towards job-rich areas, and therefore "Section 8 is not contributing to any substantial redistribution of poor households between neighborhoods and jurisdictions in the Washington Area";
3. Recipients do not receive the information or assistance they need, in that briefing materials need a "significant face-lift"; easier financing of deposits and fees needs to be arranged; and housing authority staffs need to provide better service--at more convenient times and with less administrative burden; and
4. Landlords do not find the Section 8 program attractive--if for no other reason that "they don't need Section 8 tenants". Various incentives are proposed to try to improve their interest.

Fallout from the COG Forum:

Among the many "key points" brought out at this forum, NARPAC singles out the following:

o COG should work with the jurisdictions and HUD to develop a model program (somewhat similar to the Fair Share program) and to fund the development of regional approaches to expanding and deconcentrating the region's affordable housing concentrations;

o There are many definitions of affordable housing and the region must be on the same page when it comes to defining the term; o COG and member jurisdictions should work together to a) coordinate and communicate regarding issues of portability between and among jurisdictions, and b) develop stronger Section 8 briefing, materials and mobility information/opportunities

o Affordable housing issues are inextricably linked to issues of employment, transportation, education, services, and social support networks;

o COG and member jurisdictions should investigate the development of a regional housing trust fund similar to those that have been implemented in a number of metropolitan regions throughout the US;

In summary, COG hopes that the region's housing and community development leaders will work with each other and COG to develop a set of regional strategies focused on addressing affordable housing issues. The desired result of this is to develop a regional approach to affordable housing, have that document passed by resolution of the COG board of directors, and to see the strategies identified put into use in the region's jurisdictions.

The Outline of a COG Plan

The group plans to make the development of some kind of consolidated regional affordable housing plan "the backbone of their work in the coming months". Based on forum comments, the proposed plan should include:

  • a consolidated regional planning process
  • review/integration of existing plans
  • agreed definitions of key terms
  • survey of existing and/or unused implementation tools
  • statistical data and forecasts
  • projections of desired outcomes 10 years hence
  • strategies to enlist HUD support for regional programs
  • information/provisions for home ownership and/or assisted rentals
  • strategies to expand affordable housing availability in existing housing
NARPAC Commentary:

Much of the content of this section is consistent with the tenor of the previous section on Assessing the Status of Section 8 Mobility, and NARPAC's extensive commentary thereon (scroll up to the end of the prior section). But this report and this section, particular to the Washington metro area, brings to mind additional suggestions:

o Demographic dynamics appear to be largely overlooked, so that the conclusion that Section 8 recipients are moving to lower poverty neighborhoods seems somewhat disingenuous: they are, after all, making their prior neighborhood less poor, and their new neighborhood poorer. Furthermore, neighborhoods are continuously changing in their poverty status. According to another recent Urban Institute study on "Poverty in DC, Then and Now":

"the number of census tracts where poverty was 30% or greater increased from 18 to 34. In 1970, one third of these tracts were in Wards 6, 7, and 8. By 1990, 70% of these high poverty areas were located in these wards. While the overall poverty rate in DC might suggest that poverty levels have remained fairly constant over time, many pockets of poverty in DC became deeper."
The unstated conclusion is that these census tracts often become poorer not because more poor families moved in, or existing residents got poorer, but because the not-so-poor families moved out. Despite the best of intentions, the current Section 8 program within DC may simply be a matter of "rearranging the deck chairs" (on the Titanic).

o Recipient Profiles are lacking from the analysis, and it leaves both the casual observer and the policy-makers to conjure up their own vision of a needy family. For instance, from 32% to 45% of the recipient households inside DC consist of more than 3 people, while in the suburbs, it is only 18% to 24%. But there is almost certainly a substantial difference in the both the motivations of the recipient, and the perceptions of the potential landlords, based on whether, say (and these are NARPAC imaginary characterizations), the 4-member household is a 21-year old single mom with three small kids, or a middle-aged, long-married couple with one remaining kid at home plus a sickly parent. Based on the welter of statistics that NARPAC has rummaged through over time, we would conclude that the overriding socioeconomic problem inside DC is a large collection of almost destitute, poorly schooled, black, single moms (probably with single parents not much better off) who are eking out a minimal existence, with very little hope for their futures.

The notion that this cohort of SMASK households (single moms and several kids) has a burning desire to be uprooted from their similarly disadvantaged neighbors and plopped down, alone, in some prosperous neighborhood (black or white) with no familiar means of support seems very far-fetched--as does the notion that the more prosperous neighborhoods (with relatively few rental units) are anxious to receive them. The hope that a single federal program such as Section 8 can be equally beneficial to both of these extremes--and all in between--seems wan indeed.

o Perpetuated Poverty is another touchy but fundamental issue which is seldom aired but seems crucial to successful relocation and "deconcentration". As mentioned in the prior section, there is a world of perceived--and almost certainly real--attitudinal difference between those temporarily "down on their luck" and those who have been in the welfare system for two or three generations and become part of what looms as a "permanent, self-perpetuating, underclass" of primarily SMASK households.

o Home Ownership Distribution is also an indisputable indicator of neighborhood prosperity. The wealthier the neighborhood, the more likely are the single-family units to be owner-occupied and unavailable for rental, subsidized or not. It would not surprise NARPAC to learn that the more prosperous the neighborhood, and the more proximate it is to better-paying jobs, the less available and the less affordable are the rental units.

o Car Ownership is a potential "household characteristic" that should not be overlooked. NARPAC would hazard a guess that the suburban poor are far more likely to have operational--albeit not grand--wheels. This relates to yet another potential issue closely related to affordable housing--and that is affordable car ownership. NARPAC considers the prohibitively high car insurance rates inside DC (and other cities) to be a major poverty trap making it more difficult to escape the cycle of poverty--as well as enhancing the perceptions of poverty. The Urban Institute and COG would do well to look at the desirability of letting housing authorities underwrite part of the costs of auto insurance.

o Multi-household Half-way Homes of some sort may provide a far more realistic way of trying to pull SMASK households out of the self-perpetuating cycle of poverty. One suspects that there is some near-optimal grouping of SMASK households (pick a number, like 3-4 single moms and 8-10 kids) that can collectively operate as a self-reinforcing temporary unit bent not only on survival but escape. Some sort of seemingly far-fetched black urban kibbutz (BUK) comes to mind in which the adults share functions (one stays home, two work; one has a car, two don't; two baby sit while one attends a night class, etc.) Such a unit, would need some sort of "visiting house mother" (and perhaps more impotrant a "visiting house father) to assure self-improvement efforts. It should be within walking distance of both schools, shopping, jobs, health clinics and public transportation, rather than in isolated suburbs. The BUK could well become the human equivalent of a waste recycling (or product recall repair) center. The trick would appear to be placing such BUKs in places where there are visible incentives and opportunities to improve one's lot, but comprising a "critical mass" of mutual support and reinforcement within the group itself.

o Incentives for Success seem to be another seldom-aired issue in the quest for successful and permanent rehabilitation of the perennially poor. Who in fact stands to gain economically from solving this basic socio-economic problem? NARPAC has reluctantly concluded that government agencies are seldom motivated to work themselves out of their jobs: somewhere between 30% and 50% of all DC government jobs--and expenditures--relate to ministering to the poor and otherwise disadvantaged. This very high cost of poverty provides a very large source of relatively unskilled employment both inside the municipal government and among its many contract service providers. One could cynically claim that the perpetuation of poverty is a major objective for municipal employees, thereby contributing to the poverty traps.

It also seems unlikely that it will ever be possible to convince better-off residential communities to welcome BUKs and SMASKs (!) into their neighborhoods. Surely they cannot be considered community assets guaranteed to preserve or enhance local property values. The costs of trying to convince otherwise the happy homeowners, or the real estate businesses that support them, or--for that matter-- the incoming Section 8 recipients themselves, seems to likely be wasted.

Civic associations and charitable foundations, on the other hand, may be willing to participate in these deconcentration efforts out of human conscience and/or religious benevolence. However, they are unlikely to have sufficient resources available above and beyond current commitments to make major short-term inroads. But surely these groups should have a role, to the limit of their available capabilities.

NARPAC sees two very different sectors that under current economic conditions are in need of young, trainable (wo)manpower for the long haul. The more obvious, of course, is the business sector, already quite deeply involved in the national welfare-to-work programs to expand America's workforce. Firms above a certain size, or associations of smaller businesses (i.e., chambers of commerce, boards of trade, etc.) might be willing to sponsor the administrative and custodial costs of "multi-household half-way houses" (most likely built with government funds on government properties), and to underwrite the guidance services of local non-profit organizations. Their employees, and their families, could well become the source of additional extremely valuable volunteers. Appropriate tax incentives can be offered the businesses, and flow-down company benefits to their participating employees. Business developers, already obliged to provide various utilities and parking facilities, might someday be obliged to make room for one or more half-way homes on their business tracts. The same might apply to Metro properties surrounding their metro stops. And such facilities might also become a natural adjunct to reclaiming urban "brownfields"

The less obvious, and often ignored, sector is the US military establishment. The Services are thoroughly accustomed to civic awareness in and near their military bases, and has a near-impeccable record at the leading edge of social change. Further, they have potentially available post exchange stores, schools, and medical clinics and a large number of willing and able dependents. The Marine Corps cooperation in the redevelopment of the Ellen Wilson public housing tract is a current case in point, and the Navy Yard Redevelopment project is a potential but as yet untapped source. Both are surrounded by high-poverty neighborhoods. Other under-utilized military properties in the Washington area range from Andrews Air Force Base in the Metro Area's Southeast Quadrant, to large, minimally occupied tracts along the Anacostia and Potomac such as Bolling Air Force Base. Kids growing up on and around military bases may well decide to "join up". Meanwhile, there are many civilian jobs for the single moms on the bases themselves, to say nothing of unattached young men!

o Section 8.8? If policy-makers decide that solving the SMASK problem is a sufficiently unique subset of the "deconcentration" objective, then a separate program may be required that does not depend so completely on absorbing the Section 8 recipients directly into the private housing market. In essence, it could be a formalization of the evolving recognition that one-step (i.e., one-move) solutions may not work for the most important "hardcore" poverty victims.

This page was updated June 5, 2003

home issues status analyses email



© copyright 2007 NARPAC, Inc. All rights reserved