Years of misguided (though often well-intentioned) public housing policies created vast, impersonal high-rise and barracks-style "projects" that warehoused the poor. These environments alienated and stigmatized their residents, isolated them physically and socially from the opportunity and diversity of the city beyond, and fueled a cycle of deepening poverty that corroded entire urban neighborhood.
In order to "break the monoculture" of traditional public housing, which mostly involved isolating poor families living on public assistance, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is providing grants to public housing authorities throughout the United States to revitalize severely distressed urban public housing. Through its HOPE VI program, the Department uses public housing money to leverage private investment in mixed-use developments with mixed-income dwellings, challenging local housing authorities to be fiscally responsible and to achieve competitive levels of quality, service, and efficiency. Since the program's launch in 1993, private-sector investment has accounted for almost 37 percent of the total $8.1 billion used for public housing and community revitalization.
The program's goal is to replace or renovate the most egregious public housing projects, building accessible, appealing and human-scale communities that are functionally and aesthetically integrated into the urban fabric. These community-friendly, lower-density developments with market-rate housing, commercial projects, and community recreation, education and information technology centers aim for economic viability.
HOPE VI housing addresses the social, economic, and educational needs of residents and helps move families to self-sufficiency. Each site includes a community center that brings together essential social service providers and programs, such as job training and day care, under a single roof. Community colleges, magnet schools and branch libraries are often part of the development. For example, HOPE VI investment in Centennial Place in Atlanta convinced the Atlanta Public Schools, with the support of Coca-Cola and Georgia Tech, to build a $12-million state-of-the-art technical school on site.
The impact on residents of public housing has been striking. In the seven-year life of the program, nearly 3,500 public housing residents left welfare and more than 6,500 have found jobs. After a HOPE VI revitalization of Hillside Terrace in Milwaukee, the percentage of families with earnings from work increased from 30 percent to 70 percent.
While it is clear that welfare reform in general has affected those numbers, it also is clear that a new day has arrived when it comes to public housing. Through the creation of enriching and supportive living and learning environments, HOPE VI public housing is generating a new level of civic culture and serving as an engine for neighborhood renewal.