Sarasota Housing Authority Resident's Association

Saturday, April 29, 2006

What Happens to Relocated Public Housing Residents?

The Urban Institute is a research organization focussing on public policy issues. According to their web site:

In the mid-1960s, President Johnson saw the need for independent nonpartisan analysis of the problems facing America's cities and their residents. The President created a blue-ribbon commission of civic leaders who recommended chartering a center to do that work. In 1968, the Urban Institute became that center.

Today, we analyze policies, evaluate programs, and inform community development to improve social, civic, and economic well-being. We work in all 50 states and abroad in over 28 countries, and we share our research findings with policymakers, program administrators, business, academics, and the public online and through reports and scholarly books.

Recently they published a study on what happens to relocated public housing residents. The following summarizes their findings:

1. What was the impetus for the HOPE VI Panel Study?

I had been studying public housing for a long time, including a longitudinal study in Chicago. When HOPE VI came in and began demolishing one of the developments we'd been tracking, I became interested in the question of what would happen to all of the residents. There was a lot of exciting talk about HOPE VI building back something wonderful, but it really wasn't clear what was going to happen to these people living in the developments, most of them using this as housing of last resort.

So we started to put together the idea for a study and took it to HUD [Department of Housing and Urban Development]. The late Art Naperstek took the idea to Barbara Mikulski [Democratic Senator from Maryland], who got the study written into HUD's authorizing legislation in 1999. Once HUD was committed to this study, we were able to bring in a number of private foundations to support the project.

2. What findings surprise you most?

We went into this study with concerns about what was going to happen to the residents. One concern was that a lot of people might fall out of the system and lose their assistance. We were all surprised at how positive the findings were. The neighborhoods where people now live are dramatically better than where they started. They are much safer. They are lower poverty.

A quarter of the sample is now living in low-poverty neighborhoods, which we did not anticipate. There has been a big improvement in housing quality, which was somewhat expected. But the magnitude of the change was more than we expected.

On the negative side, we were surprised that the people who received vouchers in our sample were living in housing of lower quality than other poor African-American central city renters. No matter how we cut it, there's something about the housing that they're moving to that still isn't as good as it should be. And that really surprises me.

It was also staggering to discover how many people said they were in poor health. We had included a few questions about health, primarily asthma, in the baseline survey because asthma is associated with poor housing conditions. The rates of asthma were two, three, four times the national average. We added a much more comprehensive list of items in the second survey, including depression and obesity. The results are just shocking. We found that 75 percent of the sample is overweight or obese. The rates of hypertension and diabetes go along with that.

To me, the most disturbing part of those findings is the number of working-age adults who are in extremely poor health. They're being targeted for all these efforts for self-sufficiency; they're expected to be improving their lives in HOPE VI, and really, they can't. Even those that are working, about half of them, earn so little money that the idea that they're going to become self sufficient and earn theirway out of public housing is unrealistic for most of them.

3. How much do outcomes vary among the five sites?

We have two very large sites, Chicago and Washington, D.C., and I expected these sites to look much different in terms of the resident population and level of physical distress. It wasn't true. The five sites look very similar across the board. We had grandparents taking care of grandchildren at every site. Health problems are similar. I think the site where people were complaining the most about crime at the start of the study was Durham, which really surprised me.

In terms of differences, Richmond is the only really ethnically diverse site we have—about half Hispanic. Also, Richmond and Washington have very hot rental markets, which make relocation much more difficult. Because of the rental housing situation in Washington, D.C., they've wound up relocating many families to other public housing.

Atlantic City has casino redevelopment, so they have a lot of resources for their redeveloped housing. Chicago has had the biggest improvement in poverty rates. Families came from a place that was 60 to 70 percent poor and moved to communities that are 20 to 30 percent poor. So that's a huge improvement.

4. How are children affected when families move?

Disruption is bad for kids. Changing schools is enough to set them back six months. On the other hand, these kids were living in terrible places that were also really bad for them. So, you could argue that it was worth the trade off.

Certainly I would say we're seeing more positive than negative, especially for those families who took vouchers and went to the private market. They're still in schools that are majority poor, but they're not 100 percent poor like the schools they were attending in public housing. Parents say the schools are safer. That has many implications for children's physical and mental health.

However, many kids moved to other public housing, where the behavior of the kids got worse. With gang and turf issues, when you move families around you risk a strong negative response from the people already living in the development. We heard stories from respondents of bullets being shot into their son's windows right after they moved to their new apartment. Gangs are a real problem and must be considered in relocation.

For those with vouchers, we hear that people are having a harder time making it financially in the private market. In public housing, families don't have to pay utilities. When they get out in the private market, suddenly they are paying huge gas bills. It looks to us that some families may be making tradeoffs that may not be good for the kids. People might pay their rent on time, but they reported hardship in paying for food.

5. What's the outlook for the HOPE VI program?

Last year, the Bush administration zeroed out funding for HOPE VI. Because there has been tremendous bipartisan support for this program in Congress, they reinstated it, but at much lower funding levels than before. It's not just the HOPE VI program.

The voucher program is also being threatened with cuts. To a large extent, the success of HOPE VI depends on the availability of replacement housing.

However, the money that's already been allocated for HOPE VI in the form of five-year grants is still there. The housing authorities have the money. So, there's still the opportunity to take that money and use it for something like a greater focus on health. There are still opportunities to do creative and innovative things with the funding that's out there.

More information about relocation of residents can be found here.


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