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
"HOPE VI is just an excuse for the federal government to deconstruct and reduce housing for poor people," argues tenant organizer Leonardo Vilchis of Union des Vecinos (Union of the Neighbors), who worked with tenants displaced by the reconstruction of Pico Gardens, and now with those displaced by Pueblo del Sol. "HOPE VI funding was for demolition, not repair. If the intent was really to help poor people, then there would have been one-for-one replacement of demolished units. Was the point really to help people, or to move them and their problems out of the way of the real estate market?"
The privatization of investment and of space that HOPE VI offered is a reversal of the cooperative socialist ideals embodied by the first generation of public housing — an irony not lost on UCLA architecture and urban-planning professor Dana Cuff. In her recent book, The Provisional City, she chronicles the "politics of property" that play out in the creation of large-scale urban projects requiring the massive demolition of homes and relocation of residents. The result of these "convulsive urban upheavals" is inherently unstable, she predicts, "an episodic utopia" providing only a "momentary vision of a better life."
Hundreds of homes in Boyle Heights were razed to make way for construction of Aliso Village and Pico Gardens in the early 1940s. Thousands more were demolished for the construction of the 5 freeway, and the 10, and the 60, and then the 710 — "consistent with the national use of highway construction for slum-clearance purposes," Cuff writes. And now, with the demolition and reconstruction of Pico-Aliso, "Social problems with economic roots are again being redressed by utopian physical solutions. If gangs like AVK (for Aliso Village Killers) no longer have a home, then the problem will go away, or so this naive logic goes. Like overcrowding in the ’30s, gangs are to be defeated by new buildings, only this time the buildings look backward to a nostalgic America."
So was HOPE VI the cureor the curse? Deeply conflicted, I sought the counsel of Peter Dreier, a national guru on housing and the poor. The widely published director of the Urban and Environmental Policy Program at Occidental College, Dreier was housing director for the Boston Redevelopment Agency under progressive Boston Mayor Ray Flynn. Providing some big-picture perspective, Dreier explains that in the ’30s, progressive activists in the U.S. had tried to replicate public housing in England, which mixed the poor and the working class with other stable-income families in government-built "council housing." But the real estate lobby in this country didn’t want to have to compete with government housing, and worked hard with Republican lawmakers to make housing projects off-limits to anyone but the "poorest of the poor." In effect, he says, this set public housing up to fail, because projects were sited in the poorest neighborhoods and turned into ghettos — thereby stigmatizing both poor people and the public housing in which they lived.
"I’m not a big fan of concentrating poverty," says Dreier. "But nobody really knows what happens to the residents who get pushed out of the HOPE VI projects to make room for the affordable and market-rate housing. HUD has tried to track these residents, without much success. Most probably go on to find housing that isn’t as good. Those who stay in the new projects end up with housing that’s better. The question is whether the tradeoff is worth it. I don’t think much of public housing as it existed was good. But neither is it right to tear down more housing than is created."
The real problem isn’t HOPE VI, he says, but rather that Bush has made it clear he doesn’t care about the poor or about the cities they live in, where he doesn’t get many votes. "Thanks to his $1.3 trillion in tax cuts, mostly for the wealthy, Bush has made it impossible for Washington to provide any significant aid to the nation’s cities or to the poor," says Dreier. "Bush inherited a federal budget surplus from Clinton, but the combination of huge tax cuts and increasing military spending has led to record budget deficits, leaving hardly any discretionary funds for social or anti-poverty programs."
Adds Pueblo del Sol developer Tony Salazar of McCormack Baron Salazar, which has built HOPE VI projects in several U.S. cities, "Concentrating very low-income people in one place hasn't been successful anywhere in the country. HOPE VI has built economically integrated communities by bringing the middle class back into very poor neighborhoods to spend their money, and it has given existing residents more choice in the private housing market. There’s a very positive impact on the surrounding community, and there are beginning to be studies that show children do better in school, more residents get jobs and more private investment follows."
One afternoon, I wandered through Aliso Village and into Boyle Heights, asking people what they thought of the resurrected housing projects. "Who cares about the people who got kicked out? They were thugs," one young resident stated emphatically, interrupting a game of basketball to talk to me, with all the certainty of youth. A teacher leaving the school reminded me that gang warfare had been a real threat — school children routinely had to duck under desks as gunfire slammed into the school grounds — and that there have been no shootings or gunfire or even graffiti for two years. "If for no other reason, it’s good because of the kids," she asserted. But there are others who worry about the many residents who’ve been displaced. "Who is going to care about them if not us?" wondered Patricia Zarate, who worked at Delores Mission before opening her Plaza Café nearby.