New York Times, March 21, 2008: Washington۪s Grand Experiment to Rehouse the Poor

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WASHINGTON When District of Columbia officials tore down the decrepit housing project in southeast Washington where Samantha Jackson lived with her teenage son, they promised that they would build a more attractive, mixed-income community and that former tenants like herself could come back.

“I was very happy,” recalled Ms. Jackson, 42, a school custodian. “The area was rough and scary.”

Ms. Jackson, who has been staying with a friend since the demolition in 2004, is now in line to buy, with subsidies, a new apartment in a town house in the same neighborhood, and she can hardly wait. “It looks like Hollywood to me,” Ms. Jackson said of the onetime slum where glossy buildings and the Washington Nationals stadium are also rising.

Bucking national trends and citing what they call “a moral goal,” District of Columbia officials have pledged to preserve and even expand low-income housing, replacing dangerous projects with new communities that keep both poor and “work force” residents firefighters, teachers and laborers in the mix.

The redevelopment of the Arthur Capper and Carrollsburg projects, where Ms. Jackson lived, is the first in the country to promise replacement of all low-income units within the same neighborhood, said Michael Kelly, director of the city Housing Authority.

“Mr. Kelly is undertaking a great experiment to see if he can turn around distressed neighborhoods and keep the original residents there to benefit,” said Sue Popkin, a housing expert at the Urban Institute. “It۪s a gamble. We don۪t know how to take a terrible neighborhood and make it nice while keeping the same people there.”

The federal government no longer pays to build housing projects, which in Washington, Chicago and other cities became symbols of concentrated poverty.

Since the early 1990s, it has given money under a program called Hope VI to tear down distressed projects, to be replaced by mixed communities built with private partners. In a pattern that critics disparage as “demolish and disperse,” some former tenants return but most scatter with rental vouchers, destroying community ties. District officials say they have learned from past mistakes.

The issues are in contention at the federal level now: the Bush administration proposes to eliminate Hope VI, while the House of Representatives has passed a bill that would extend it and require that all razed public housing be replaced.

The Washington venture will preserve housing, but social ties have been undermined by the stretched-out construction schedule; some former tenants will wait as long as eight years to return, in the meantime using vouchers or staying in other public housing.

Martha Queen, 72, who is raising her 17-year-old great-grandson, has been lonely and depressed since she moved to a public unit in a different neighborhood, away from her friends.

“All the things you۪re familiar with, they۪re gone,” she said of her former home. “It۪s all rubble now.”

“I just sit upstairs and look out the window,” she added.

She has been offered a new two-bedroom at Capper-Carrollsburg, but it is smaller than the place she had before and she has resisted, fearing she would have to get rid of half of her furniture.

The Housing Authority, which controls 8,000 units, has received federal grants to tear down six projects and create mixed communities. The city says it will use bonds and private investors to redevelop more sites, but critics ask if that is financially feasible.

The current site had 707 low-income units. In the expanded community, as many low-income rentals will blend in with more than 800 homes rented or sold to working-class and more affluent people, as well as an office building, new stores and parks.

In the meantime, former tenants are offered social aid, from credit repair and job advice to drug treatment.

Ms. Jackson, who expects to buy her home in 2010, had an unpaid medical bill that tarnished her credit rating. The support program put her in touch with a legal aid center that persuaded an insurance company to pay.

Poor people will pay 30 percent of their incomes in rent. Other units are for sale, with subsidies, to the working poor, including families making as little as $25,000, while others will sell at market rates.

Many residents were suspicious. A group organized to press for a stronger role in shaping the Capper-Carrollsburg project, and fought, for example, to keep a youth center open before the final demolition.

A committee of residents, officials and neighbors decided that any returnees with a serious criminal conviction within three years of the move-in date, and anyone with seriously bad credit, would be excluded. They will keep their current vouchers or public units, officials promise.

One-for-one replacement of units will be more difficult in cities lacking high land prices, which enabled Washington to issue bonds tied to future tax revenues. Still, the drive to save public housing reflects a growing sense among urban experts of the limits of rental vouchers. Vouchers help families move out of crime-infested projects but in cities with tight housing, landlords may not accept them, driving tenants to new slums on the urban fringes.

“Vouchers sometimes have the unintended consequence of just shifting burdens around,” said Robert J. Sampson, chairman of the sociology department at Harvard.

Vouchers also depend on annual appropriations; for the coming year, the funds proposed by President Bush would reduce vouchers and aid to low-income housing, according to Barbara Sard, housing director at the Center on Budget and Policy Alternatives in Washington.

Dwayne Todd, 20, grew up in the Capper-Carrollsburg projects. “I was mad when I found out they were tearing down our home,” said Mr. Todd, who has a girlfriend and two babies. “All my friends are scattered.” But the case worker helped him get a job as a security officer, and he looks forward to returning to his own place.

“I want to move back there, I have so many childhood memories,” he said. “Some people didn۪t really want them to change the neighborhood this way, but for me it۪s a pretty decent thing. I don۪t want my kids to grow up in a project.”

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