What public housing needs

What public housing needs

December 17th, 2012 in Opinion Times

Founders of the new CityWide Resident Council here say their purpose is to band together residents of public housing and those with Section 8 vouchers to advocate for support of public housing, and to keep abreast of future plans to demolish aging housing projects - the council's main concern.

That's a fair goal. Scarcity of affordable housing is a rising issue. Public funding at the federal and state levels for new public housing projects has declined markedly over the past decade, and public awareness and participation in CHA policies could prove pivotal in future housing decisions.

Still, the premise for forming the council is somewhat narrow and duplicative. The CHA, following federal HUD rules, already offers plenty of opportunity for resident advocacy, and actively urges residents' participation. It has a standing Residents Advisory Board, with members elected by public housing residents, and it encourages creation or maintenance of similar boards at each housing project. Indeed, if the latter are done under HUD guidelines, these boards can get $25 a year per unit to nurture community-building activities.

The problem is not lack of a platform for residents to express their views and or to keep abreast of the CHA's annual and long-term plans. Rather, it's a lack of ample participation in these boards, and in general attendance, that needs a remedy. CHA Executive Director Betsy McCright, for example, regularly holds RAB meetings -- open to all residents -- before each open, monthly CHA board meeting. She holds an additional series of meetings to discuss what should or must be included in the CHA's required annual plan before it's submitted to HUD.

The CityWide Resident Council's current concern suggests that information about future housing plans -- and the potential sale or demolition of the College Hill Courts and East Lake Courts next year or in the next several years -- hasn't been well shared. But that's not so. Those possibilities have been cited on tentative sale or demolition lists in the CHA's annual reports for several years because the agency is required to cite the financial and maintenance prospects for its housing units. Its reports, based partly on resident participation and discussions in RAB meetings, have regularly noted that without new funding for rehabilitation of these projects, they may be sold or demolished.

Indeed, the listing of endangered units is a rule that often leads to replacement funding from several sources. For example, because the CHA listed the potential demolition of the old 50-unit Steiner apartments on North Chamberlain in East Chattanooga, it was able to secure investor-tax credits for developers, along with other state and federal grants, to replace the Steiner units with the new 48-unit Maple Townhomes. Similarly, through its listing of the old Fairmount units in North Chattanooga several years ago as a candidate for remodeling or demolition, the CHA was invited to apply for a federal stimulus fund which largely funded the demolition and replacement of the Fairmount project with new townhomes.

The demolition of the old, multistory Spencer J. McCallie homes in Alton Park in 2001-2003 paved the way for the new HOPE VI townhouse development there. Though the latter didn't match the former number of units, it improved the quality of the housing stock.

More objective information about public housing, as well, shows that the wait-list of 5,000 applicants for Section 8 vouchers, which subsidize recipients' rent payments in the city's private housing/rental stock, can be misleading: It doesn't mean that 5,000 families are virtually homeless. Many of the applicants already are in public housing projects, and have applied for Section 8 aid in order to leave project housing. When or if they get Section 8 vouchers, some of the shifts would make public housing available for the 1,814 waiting for those spaces.

This doesn't mean there isn't a lack of available or affordable public housing in Chattanooga. But it does illustrate that the dynamics of public housing is more complex than the numbers alone suggest.

The new CityWide Housing Council would do well to build a partnership with the CHA and work to energize resident participation in improving public housing units and their quality of life and safety. It could help immediately in these goals by organizing on-site programs for childcare and extended education aid for children and their mothers, who constitute about 90 percent of the single-parent households in public housing in the projects.

Schools that mainly serve low-income urban families and students from public housing are often labeled as "failing", simply because the learning environment away from school doesn't support education. There's an evident need for more advocates to reverse this dynamic in public housing: It is unarguably the most important single factor in improving public housing, and the rise out of it.