Revisiting the Hope VI Public Housing Program’s Legacy

Hope VI developments, which replaced huge projects with smaller units that matched the scale of the neighborhood, were supposed to represent a new way of thinking about low-income housing. They didn’t always get it right.
by | May 2012
David Kidd

It can be hard to imagine now, but there was a time when stark, monolithic projects were considered the epitome of progressive thinking about housing the nation’s urban poor. Massive superblock developments, like Philadelphia’s Richard Allen Homes or Chicago’s infamous Cabrini-Green apartments, replaced moldering, overcrowded tenements that often lacked heat and hot water and were thought to breed pestilence. Public housing towers -- conceived in the New Deal and built throughout the postwar era -- embraced modernist architectural values that sought to separate tenants from street life, often turning inward toward secluded courtyards. They turned their backs to the streets to shield themselves from the urban decay of the industrial city.

As time went on, that salutary isolation began to act as a quarantine. While center-city residents fled to the suburbs in the later decades of the 20th century, the conditions of public housing projects deteriorated alongside municipal budgets. Once a temporary stop on the path to economic independence for rural emigrants and returning vets, public housing had become the housing of last resort for minorities and the poor. From 1980 to 1990, the number of urban neighborhoods of high poverty, in which more than 40 percent of residents are impoverished, rose by half. The number of public housing households in extreme poverty -- earning less than 10 percent of area median income -- shot up from 2.5 percent to 20 percent.

Nowhere was this sense of decline more evident than in the Richard Allen Homes, a sprawling series of three- and four-story barracks-style buildings spread over eight full city blocks of North Philadelphia. Built in 1941, the maze of red-and-tan brick buildings comprised more than 1,300 apartments arranged around verdant courtyards. In the decades after they first opened, the Allen homes deteriorated significantly. Utilities faltered, sometimes causing raw sewage to back up in sinks and bathtubs. Days-long electrical blackouts were a familiar occurrence. Drug dealers took up permanent residence in vacant units. By the 1980s, says Virginia Wilks, a longtime resident at Richard Allen, the city had seemingly given up. “When a tree would die, they would take it down and wouldn’t replace it. They’d start laying concrete.”

Enter HOPE VI. In response to the destitute conditions of federal public housing nationwide, Congress in 1989 began working with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to develop a solution. The grant program they came up with, HOPE VI, part of the larger Homeownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere series of initiatives, was a revolution. The idea was to “deconcentrate” the poverty that beset older projects by employing the basic tenets of the emergent New Urbanist movement: a walkable grid of single- and multi-family homes that encourage street life. Huge and hulking projects would be torn down and replaced by smaller units that matched the scale of the neighborhood. The first round of grants went out in 1993 and totaled some $570 million. By the end of the decade, HOPE VI would become, if mostly by subtraction from the cityscape, the most visible federal public works initiative since the creation of the interstate highway system.

Twenty years on, however, the track record of HOPE VI is one of uneven success. No one disputes that it was a vast improvement over the superblock tower approach. But HOPE VI has had plenty of its own stumbles, growing pains and mistakes. In an effort to refine the rebuilding process, the Obama administration in 2010 effectively restructured HOPE VI into a new program. While critics still debate the legacy of HOPE VI, officials believe they’re reaching new frontiers in urban housing policy.

When the first HOPE VI grants were given out, the Richard Allen Homes were at the top of the list. The Philadelphia Housing Authority received a $50 million grant, the maximum amount issued by the feds, to renovate the blighted barracks. Redevelopment occurred in three phases. The first was a mid-rise senior center. In the second, opened in 1999, developers demolished some original low-rises and gutted others, converting them into rows of six townhouses reserved only for returning tenants. Landscaped cul-de-sacs assured that residents’ homes would face open-air street life.

But this particular style of redeveloping existing structures quickly became outmoded. Sandra Henriquez, now HUD Assistant Secretary for Public and Indian Housing, was then the administrator and CEO of the Boston Housing Authority, which also won a 1993 grant for its Mission Main development. “The housing authority didn’t know what to do with [the grant] because $50 million wasn’t enough to do a significant rehab given the size and distress of the property,” she says. “It became clear, in relatively short order, that it was cheaper to demolish and rebuild than to renovate.”

Learning on the fly, with some HUD advising and support, local public housing authorities began to leverage different forms of financing in order to build more attractive, modern developments. Primarily, that leverage entailed using Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC), significant federal tax breaks for developments that include units for families making less than 60 percent of local median income. Along with housing the extremely low-income group -- the traditional public housing clients, earning less than 30 percent of area median income -- public housing authorities also leveraged private financing for market-rate units.

In Philadelphia, such redevelopment was a massive undertaking. It’s the nation’s fifth largest city and has the fourth largest housing authority, which acts as landlord to some 80,000 residents. The city also has the third highest individual poverty rate -- at 25 percent -- of the nation’s 20 largest cities. From 1993 to 2010, the city won five HOPE VI implementation grants totaling more than $150 million, plus some additional demolition grants. With such a drastically expanded role for the housing authority, the results predictably varied.

Phase three of the new Richard Allen Homes -- the mixed-finance phase, which opened in 2003 -- consists of suburban-style twin units with front yards, driveways and brick facades. They earned disapproval from many urban planners and architecture critics, including The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Inga Saffron, currently a Loeb Fellow at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. “My issue with them is that they’re not dense enough. Real rowhouse neighborhoods are a lot denser,” she says. “Twins so close to the center of the city” -- slightly more than a mile north of City Hall and a mile south of Temple University -- “is just crazy. It’s a crazy waste of land, and they could have housed more people.”

Many of the more recent developments in Philadelphia and elsewhere have corrected these flaws of sparsity and incongruity with surrounding neighborhoods. The award-winning Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza development, nestled a couple of blocks from both South Philadelphia’s famed Italian Market and the edge of Center City, supplanted four towers totaling 594 units. The last of its 245 replacement homes opened last year. Saffron says it’s a much better effort than the Richard Allen replacement. “It looks a lot like the vernacular rowhouses around it,” she says. “It comes to the street line and it’s very humanly scaled,” plus it has the architectural flourish of staggered heights that one finds in older, organic rowhouse blocks -- even if it’s still a little sparing in the number of units, in a concession to make room for rear lot parking.

The most common and ardent criticism of HOPE VI developments, however, is that they simply don’t include enough replacement units for the poorest public housing clients. Public housing mega-projects had plenty of problems, but they certainly were efficient ways to provide housing to large numbers of people. The renovated MLK Plaza development has less than half the units it used to; Richard Allen houses less than one-third of the population it originally did. It’s a similar pattern in HOPE VI projects nationwide. As a result, an already vulnerable population has been forced to relocate, either to the private market through Section 8 vouchers, for those in good standing, or to other, older developments. Critics have charged that HOPE VI was less about improving public housing and more about plumping up central-city real estate values.

Putting aside the question of who had to relocate and who got to stay -- certainly, a major criticism -- life in HOPE VI projects is measurably better than it was before. Crime has plummeted: In the six Philadelphia developments that were razed and rebuilt in the 1990s, including Richard Allen and MLK Plaza, the number of major crimes fell 63 percent between 1999 and 2007. The former rampant drug problem at Richard Allen is now so small that police say it’s under control. In addition to the obvious improvements in housing quality, residents report a better quality of life in general, and an improved sense of safety.

Therein lies the central question of HOPE VI: Are residents better off because of the paradigm shift to mixed-income New Urbanism, or are they simply better off because they’re living in a nice new house? Some research has suggested that the benefits of HOPE VI -- lower crime, better quality of life and so on -- are no different from the effects of simply rehabbing old housing units.

If the goal of HOPE VI was to encourage self-sufficiency, and many of HOPE’s architects would say it was, then the program predominantly failed. According to research conducted by the Urban Institute and commissioned by Congress, only about 5 percent of residents have left housing assistance. Moving people into pretty, suburban-style townhomes does nothing to address the less tractable issues that influence poverty, including severe mental and physical health issues. (To be fair, about 20 percent of HOPE VI funding has gone to support services such as literacy and job training.)

In the past few years, a new consensus has developed at HUD and among local public housing officials. It’s a much more holistic approach, says Michael Kelly, the executive director of the Philadelphia Housing Authority. Kelly has also run or helped run the housing authorities of New Orleans, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. “What we’ve learned is that it’s not just housing,” he says. “It’s neighborhood revitalization. You have to look at education and schools. You need to look at the other kinds of amenities, like transportation and the relationship of housing to jobs and getting to jobs.”

In response to the evolving sentiment on public housing, the Obama administration in 2010 began redirecting the HOPE VI funding stream -- generally around $150 million annually in recent years -- into the Choice Neighborhoods initiative. The new approach is all about interagency coordination. Redeveloping the footprint of existing distressed public housing isn’t good enough, says HUD’s Henriquez. She says there’s “a need to work with other city agencies and elected officials to create something better that meets not just the housing authority’s needs but [also] the city’s needs.”

That means linking housing with schools and early childhood initiatives in the manner of the much-vaunted Harlem Children’s Zone program in New York. (Choice grant applicants are given preference if they’re also designated Promise Neighborhoods by the U.S. Department of Education.) It means bridging housing and jobs programs. It means big-picture thinking about housing and mass transit. HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan has said he wants to use the agency’s proposed Sustainable Communities Initiative to improve transportation options at redeveloped sites.

More than anything though, it means re-envisioning the role that public housing plays in cities at large. Officials see them not as superblock fortresses to ward off urban blight, nor as prettified faux-suburban enclaves that ignore the neighborhoods around them. Rather, says Philadelphia’s Kelly, they should be the backbones of revitalized, mixed neighborhoods, where “you have the welfare recipient next to the school teacher next to the doctor, and you can’t tell who’s who from the outside.”