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The Puzzle of Public Housing Reform

By Gebe Martinez
The Los Angeles Times, May 29, 1997

Thousands of public housing projects across the country--21 of them in Los Angeles alone--stand as ugly monuments to the Depression era.

Many of them are dilapidated and infested with rats, roaches and crime; and most of the projects nationwide are densely populated with unemployed residents who are reluctant to find work, lest their rent payments increase. Not having a job guarantees a lower rent under current federal rules.

The guidelines were written 60 years ago when Congress passed the United States Housing Act, which was intended to give temporary housing to workers who had lost their jobs during the Depression.

But public housing of today is not what President Franklin D. Roosevelt envisioned then.

One look at a poverty-laden public housing complex tells the story--even those in Boyle Heights or South-Central Los Angeles, which are managed by the top-rated Housing Authority of the city of Los Angeles. For the last three years, the local housing agency has received the federal government's good housekeeping seal of approval--a distinction not shared by many other urban agencies. But nonetheless, the city's projects cannot fully escape the problems facing public housing nationwide--particularly the lack of funds for adequate repairs and improvements.

One proposed cure for the ills facing federally funded ghettos is a sweeping reform measure recently approved by the House.

The House-passed bill would essentially throw out the New Deal-era legislation and replace it with rules that pressure residents to find work. Unemployed tenants--excluding the elderly and disabled--would be forced to do at least eight hours of community service each month or face eviction.

Another controversial provision would require local housing agencies to reduce the number of "very poor" residents--currently about 75% of the nation's public housing population--and replace them with higher-income "working poor."

Backers of the House bill argue that such changes would make the average public housing resident more self-sufficient and less dependent on the federal government. That, in turn, would lead to an overall improvement in the quality of public housing, they believe.

The bill is a mixed bag for housing officials in Los Angeles, who have been demanding reform legislation for years. They lean in favor of the House proposal because it would give public housing managers the flexibility to set higher rents as federal subsidies decline in coming years.

"We know the [federal budget] cuts are coming, we know welfare [reform] is here," said Ed Griffin, the planning officer for Los Angeles' housing authority, which gets 95% of its money from Washington. "And still, here we are, sitting with the same old rules. We need a bill. . . . We welcome the flexibility."

The House's version is not perfect, Griffin concedes. In fact, he and the agency's director, Donald J. Smith, share some concerns about parts of the bill, including the community service requirement, and a provision that would allow federal housing dollars to be funneled through City Hall before reaching housing agencies.

That idea "confounds us a little bit," said Smith, who argues that housing authorities were created to keep local politics out of housing and to ensure that the federal money directly benefits residents.

Still, after watching Congress fight over public housing reform for at least two years, Los Angeles officials hope compromise will rule the day and result in a bill President Clinton will sign.

Compromise? In Washington?

Right now, the public housing debate looks more like gridlock.

The Senate, which will take up its own version of the housing legislation in early June, is not embracing the bill out of the Republican-controlled House. In fact, the Senate, also under Republican leadership, seems more in line with plans backed by the Clinton administration.

The biggest conflict involves the House's proposal to tilt public housing more toward sheltering the working poor and away from housing the poorest families. If the current House provisions end up in the final bill, the president will veto the measure, administration officials say.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo argues that the House version has two major failings: It would cut all new federal housing assistance, so that not a single new unit would be created, and it would go "too far" in requiring a higher-income mix among residents.

More than 5 million families across the country now qualify for public housing, but only 1.2 million public housing units are available, Cuomo said. (In Los Angeles, there are 8,500 units and 10,000 families on the waiting list.)

"There is one simple question this bill can't answer: Where can the poor live, if not in public housing?" Cuomo asked.

But even if the House bill were to become law, the reality in Los Angeles is that 70% of the current residents are on some form of public assistance and it would take at least 10 years before a greater income mix could be brought into public housing, officials said.

"It's going to take a long time, given the current status of our developments--in terms of their marketability--it's going to take some time to attract significant numbers of people who have higher incomes," Griffin said.

"This is not a case where the housing authority would be evicting people," he said.

Los Angeles--just one of thousands of housing agencies scattered across the country--has a $750-million backlog of unfunded public housing improvements.

Unless Congress is willing to back up its goals with some cash to upgrade the housing, then the House leadership's idea of making public housing more attractive to people who can actually pay rent may be just another political dream. And so far, the costs of upgrading housing projects are bills Congress is reluctant to pay.

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