Why is this a Good Way to Spend $100 Million in Tax Dollars?
The Mayor’s public housing proposal, “HOPE SF,” (PDF) has cleared committee and goes to the full Board of Supervisors next week. Bean counters say it’s likely to pass, with the only objection coming from Supervisor Chris Daly, whose objections really can’t be called “principled” by now.
The plan will commit $100 million dollars over about 20 years (starting with $5 million next year) to recreating two large public housing projects, one in Bayview Hunters Point and one to be determined, from top to bottom. They’ll be turned into desirable housing units and divided evenly between low-income housing and market rate housing -- about 900 units each -- so that rich and poor will live side by side.
This will, in the end, reduce violence and help lift families out of poverty, right?
Funny thing, nobody seems to have asked that question yet. Why do we think this will work?
Okay, to be fair, there is a sound principle here: the “concentration of poverty” into small areas causes the effects of poverty to be a lot worse. It’s bad enough when one family has gang members in it, but when half the families on the block do, it’s terrible. So there’s something to be said for mixing up rich and poor into the same complexes.
Except that, when I ran the proposals by an expert, he laughed. I mean, seriously, he started laughing. A lot.
William A. V. Clark is a Professor of Geography at UCLA who studies neighborhood change in cities, and specializes in emerging segregation in U.S. metropolitan areas. He’s received fellowships from NIAS (Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies) and the Guggenheim, and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He’s written about the subject of alleviating concentrated poverty through housing programs fro the National Academy of Science, and there he was, on the phone, laughing about HOPE SF.
“Oh,” he said when the laughter was finished, “they never learn.”
The problem, he said, is that we’re basically building another public housing complex -- and the whole reason we need to do that is because public housing complexes don’t work. Across the country, from Chicago to L.A., they’ve not only failed to lift families out of poverty, they’ve tended to make things worse by concentrating it even further.
“Point me to a large scale poverty (housing) project solution that’s been successful … that isn’t being torn down or reconsidered anywhere in the country,” he said. “They just don’t work.”
Well, I said, what about the mix of wealthy and poor individuals here -- won’t that make a difference?
Could be, he agreed: the principle’s not a bad one. But evidence suggests that those mixed-income developments only work on a small scale, in small complexes, with a ratio of about 10 affluent household to every 1 impoverished.
With a 50/50 ratio like the one the mayor’s proposing, he said, it’s much more likely that the poverty will overwhelm the project all over again.
But then Clark started warming to the idea. “Well,” he said, “it’ll be an interesting experiment. And I’m sure they’ve got a reason for proposing this: I’m sure they’ve done studies, or something, that suggest good reasons for why this would work.”
Ah … hey … about that … maybe not so much.
I spent two days calling City Hall asking about that: why do we think HOPE SF will work? Is there a study we’ve commissioned? A model we’re following? Did someone get a really good vibe off a Tarot deck?
In the end, after bouncing around from department to department, no one had an answer. Matthew Franklin, the Director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing, didn’t return repeated calls.
His secretary (I love this) suggested that maybe he hadn’t called me back yet because he was “researching your question.” Not what you want to hear when you’re asking “why is this a good way to spend $100 million in tax dollars?” Shouldn’t that be something he knows … ahead of time?
I’m just asking.
For the record, Clark does have a better idea -- or at least one that’s backed up by more evidence. Housing vouchers -- which allow poor people to afford rent almost anywhere they want to live – do have a decent (though hardly perfect) track record of lifting individual families out of poverty.
Why aren’t we doing something like that? I don’t know. And, apparently, neither does City Hall.