Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The public housing mess

When I was 24 and an architecture student in Stuttgart I drew up plans how to fix up public housing in town, at the time a student project anchored in the reality of dismal conditions of housing walk ups at the periphery of Stuttgart Germany (in Europe the poor usually live at the edges of cities, as the French say, the "banlieue"). At the end of that experience  published an advocacy handbook for tenants.

I have stayed involved with affordable housing ever since, be it as a volunteer organizing workshops for the HOPE VI highrise replacement projects in Baltimore or in converting former schools and industrial buildings into affordable housing (Printers Square), or by renovating dilapidated housing stock (Samester Apartments, Sharp Leadenhall).
A report about a (German) tenant revolt and its happy ending

I have seen a fair share of squalid apartments and wondered many times how people can live like this, or more importantly, why the should. In many cases the public or non-profit landlords had let the units fall into disrepair. In other instances the social ills of our society which leaves too many people incompetent, played out in combination with neglect. No question, it takes more resources to maintain units for the poor who often have neither the skills nor the resources to keep apartments in shape.

A common problem is lack of ventilation either in order to cut energy expenses or just because of lack of knowledge. Sometimes windows are even taped shut with packing tape and foil while the units are crowded. Humidity from showers, cooking and just normal life builds up and creates mold everywhere. Of course, leaking pipes or spills seeping through the ceiling from above compound those problems.

On a September Saturday in 2002 AIA architects assisted in a workshop how to improve the Perkins Homes, a large public housing garden apartment complex wedged between Fells Point and the formerly industrial area along Central Avenue. Once again I witnessed tenant activists, desperate tenants, well intended officials and a housing area that lacked the most basic amenities or architectural features which would have given the area a human touch. Baltimore Housing was headed then by the same Commissioner it is headed today, and then and now I did not envy him. The money that had been set aside back then to fix Perkins Homes was since used to resolve accessibility issues that had been brought against Baltimore Housing under the Fair Housing Act. Today, the big sweeping improvements still have not happened for Perkins Homes.
Perkins Homes in 2002: No love (Photo: ArchPlan)

Too often at public housing, Peter gets robbed to pay Paul. Federal money that was once plentiful coming with fancy names such as HOPE III or HOPE VI has dwindled. The current idea is that Housing agencies should sell half their stock to private non-profits and fix the remaining part with the proceeds. Even the brilliant HUD Secretary Julian Castro doesn't seem to see how non sustainable such an approach is (I queried him about this during a recent appearance he had in Baltimore County).

Starting with HOPE VI, and not ending with this newest sales strategy, the number of publicly controlled affordable units goes steadily and drastically down while the needs for affordable housing go up. The result is a housing crisis all across America's cities with endless waiting lists of those who hold vouchers. But those are useless, if there are no units or no landlords to accept them.

Public housing agencies have not learned to manage their housing stock with the rents and resources they have available. They defer maintenance until the problems become unmanageable as we see once more spread out in our daily papers. The responsible commissioner and his agents say there is no way to keep up with the needs for investments and repairs and cry for more money from the state and feds. Yet, at the same time, the same people assume that the sale of these poorly maintained units into private hands would somehow result in satisfactory conditions for tenants without pricing them out of the units (the new private owners have to keep the units affordable under formula for a good number of years). It is not surprising if the public questions the logic of this thinking and housing advocates strongly oppose the sale of public housing.
SUN photo: The embattled Housing Commissioner

It is easy to ask for the Commissioner's head. It is not as easy to really fix the problems. There is no free lunch and the candidates for mayor who are asking for Graziano's resignation better lay out in some detail, how they would go about bringing human dignity back into Baltimore's public housing. They would solve a national problem while they are at it.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

See also my other articles about the topic:

HUD Secretary Julian Castro in Baltimore County
The American Rental Crisis
Affordable Housing, Anything the Vieanna Model Can Teach us?

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