By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The anti-project: public
housing gets a new face.
Photo by Ted Soqui
The federal government has for decades been loath to invest more money in public housing; billions of dollars in deferred maintenance have reduced many projects to the point where demolition makes more sense than repair. When HOPE VI funds were used to demolish Chicago’s notorious Cabrini Green with explosives, former residents cheered. High-rise public-housing projects in the east had become towering "city-states of the poor," in the words of one writer, monuments to the futility of federal public-housing policy and the hopelessness of public-housing residents.
Aliso Village’s modernist garden apartments were just two stories and linked by ramadas, a pleasant design by no less noteworthy an architect than Lloyd Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright’s semifamous son. But the project’s demise met with enthusiasm: Father Mike Kennedy, who presides over Delores Mission, the parish serving the projects, marched down the street carrying a replica of the Virgin of Guadalupe to bless the demolition.
During the past half-dozen years, urban real estate values have continued to climb in neighborhoods near downtowns across the U.S., as intolerable traffic makes suburban locations less and less desirable. "The beauty of HOPE VI is that it has tapped the value of that real estate, which is valuable because of its location — next to transit, next to jobs, next to downtown," says Diego Cardoso, project manager of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s new East Los Angeles light-rail line, who sat on the L.A. Housing Commission when the L.A. Housing Authority applied for HOPE VI funds. "The key lies in thinking of public housing as an asset instead of a liability," he says. "The private sector has stepped in at the very moment that the federal government has literally abandoned hope."
HOPE VI was based on the principles of "New Urbanism," an urban design movement that seeks to encourage economic and environmental sustainability by building communities the way they used to be built — with a mix of incomes and housing types, pedestrian-friendly and transit-oriented. Housing in the old Pico-Aliso projects (as the combined Aliso Village and Pico Gardens were known) was concentrated in large apartment buildings surrounded by expanses of green space and parking lots that later got claimed as gang turf. Pueblo del Sol’s housing has been decentralized in townhouse-style apartments with doors and windows opening onto front and backyards — so that residents will have eyes and ears on the street and can take ownership over these smaller and more private spaces.
"The intent is to enhance public safety and crime prevention through environmental design that allows residents to be in control, rather than to create a fortress with fences and gates and bars that has to be patrolled by the police," says Pueblo del Sol’s lead architect, Quatro Design Group principal Ricardo Rodriguez. Rodriguez himself grew up in the Maravilla public-housing project further east; the success of his up-and-coming design firm is signified by his top-of-the-line German-built luxury car and cavernous design studio at an urbane downtown address. "New Urbanism encourages economic and racial diversity rather than concentrating and isolating so many poor people and their problems in one place. We worked very hard to create a positive space where only negative space existed."
It can’t be ignored that the number of public-housing units for the poorest residents in the new housing projects has been reduced by more than half — in the midst of what is an acute affordable-housing shortage. Tenant organizers estimate that only 250 to 300 of the 1,200 families that used to live in Pico-Aliso have come back. And the zero-tolerance policy of the new private-sector management company toward gang activity, guns and drugs has created a less-than-friendly neighborhood culture where neighbors spy on neighbors and former residents are viewed with suspicion by new residents.
Tenant organizers charge that the way demolition was handled caused so much fear and confusion that it seemed a deliberate disinformation campaign. Existing residents — some families had lived in the projects for three generations — were offered three choices: They could be housed somewhere in the project temporarily and be ensured of a new unit; they could use Section 8 vouchers to find temporary housing elsewhere and reapply for a new unit with no guarantee; or they could accept Section 8 vouchers and $5,200 in relocation assistance and give up their spots.
Which seems fair enough, if it weren't for the fact that in L.A.’s tight housing market, few landlords are willing to forgo market-rate rents for what the federal government would pay them through the Section 8 program. Available properties are mostly in neighborhoods that have at least as many problems as the old gang-riddled Pico-Aliso, or so far out of the city that residents are stranded without access to public transit, social services and jobs, or to the strong support network of families and friends that existed in the projects — a trend toward the suburbanization of poverty that is accompanying the increase in urban land values.
And residents who chose the Section 8 vouchers did so before President Bush announced that he was eliminating 250,000 vouchers by 2005 and another 600,000 vouchers by 2009 — a decision that renders many of the vouchers temporary. "Being poor is a state of mind, not a condition," HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson explained to Congress last summer to justify the cuts.