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Housing Assistance and Vulnerable, Multi-Problem Families

Some households that rely upon federal housing assistance face serious personal or family challenges that stand in the way of their long-term stability and advancement. These include physical and mental disabilities, chronic health problems, substance abuse, and criminal records. In a multiyear study of five HOPE VI projects, almost half of all the original res- idents had one or more problems that made them “hard to house.” Specifically, 9 percent were elderly with no children, 30 percent were either disabled or included grandparents with children, 12 percent were “multi-problem” families (unemployed, no high school diploma, drug or alcohol problem), and 5 per- cent were large families (who needed apartments with four or more bedrooms). These categories overlap, so altogether, 48 percent of the original households across the five study sites (and at least 40 percent in each of the individual sites) fell into one or more of these groups (Cunningham, Popkin, and Burt 2005). The share of hard-to-house families in less distressed public and assisted housing developments is prob- ably lower.

Clearly, the service needs of these vulnerable families vary dramatically. Work linkage services are likely inappropriate for the elderly or for many dis- abled adults who need more in the way of health care. Younger families with children (probably the bulk of the 12 percent multi-problem group) need services that will help them stabilize their lives, pro- vide a secure environment for their children, and prepare to engage in at least some work. Trying to push them too quickly toward self-sufficiency could be counterproductive. In addition, these households may have difficulty using vouchers to relocate if their public housing projects are demolished.

For similar households that have experienced episodes of homelessness, permanent supportive hous- ing offers a promising solution (Bassuk et al. 2006). An exploratory pilot project is under way in Chicago to test the efficacy of providing intensive support services in conjunction with vouchers for hard-to- house families being relocated from public housing (Popkin et al. 2008). PHAs will almost certainly need extra resources and well-qualified partners in order to craft and implement strategies to more effectively serve these most vulnerable residents, which could





include expanded services delivered to residents of existing projects, enhanced housing vouchers, and the development of smaller supportive housing devel- opments in conjunction with HOPE VI.

Assisted Housing and Responsible Neighborhood Redevelopment

At its inception, public housing was intended not only to provide decent and affordable housing for low- income families, but also to eliminate slums and blight, thereby helping to revitalize ailing central cities. Dur- ing the 1960s and ’70s, public housing construction in many cities went hand in hand with “slum clearance” and urban renewal. Large tracts of rundown housing (mostly in black neighborhoods) were demolished, and displaced residents were relocated to new public housing projects, often in distant neighborhoods.

These policies have geographically isolated poor families—particularly poor minorities.30 Large sub- sidized housing projects, earmarked exclusively for occupancy by low-income families, exacerbated pre- vailing patterns of racial segregation, redlining, and white flight. And as years passed, poor management, physical deterioration, and runaway crime fed a down- ward spiral of disinvestment and distress in the sur- rounding neighborhoods. One key lesson from this history is that building more affordable housing— even high-quality affordable housing—in distressed neighborhoods does not constitute an effective neighborhood revitalization strategy.

On the other hand, the HOPE VI experience demonstrates that redeveloping distressed public housing can play a critical role in restoring neighbor- hoods, catalyzing revitalization, and strengthening the health of cities. To date, HOPE VI projects have significantly reduced concentrations of poverty and crime in the surrounding neighborhoods, replaced poorly designed and obsolete structures with high- quality housing that harmonizes with the local archi- tecture, and created communities that serve a mix of income levels. In many instances, HOPE VI has been creatively linked with other public- and private-sector investments so redevelopment extends beyond the immediate public housing site to upgrade streets and sidewalks, parks, community centers, recreational facilities, and public schools.

These investments appear to have helped catalyze real market turnarounds in central-city neighborhoods

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