In Defense of the Threatened Hope VI Program

Grants dedicated to revitalizing distressed public housing are needed to correct flawed Federal housing policies of the past.
March 22, 2004, 12am PST | Todd Baylson
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 Todd BaylsonIn 1989, Congress formed a commission to eradicate distressed public housing. At the time, many public housing developments had abysmal living conditions, deteriorating physical plants, social problems and high crime rates. The commission recommended addressing the intertwined physical and social problems and funding the large-scale changes needed to improve these communities. The result was the Hope VI program.

Hope VI funds demolition, pre-development, development and supportive services. Grants are awarded through a competitive points-based application process in which Public Housing Authorities (PHAs) who meet thresholds and achieve high scores are awarded grants (a maximum of $20 million dollars in 2003). The applicant's ability to leverage other funding is an important part of the scoring. Additional funding sources increase available money, spread risk and improve accountability. The goal is to create well-planned sites with a mix of different types of new or rehabilitated housing (often both rental and homeownership) that attracts a mix of incomes, de-concentrates the public housing, creates a neighborhood and integrates the site into the larger community.

The administration's FY 2004 Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) budget reduces funding for Hope VI from $447.75 million in FY 2003 to a proposed $150 million and HUD has indicated it intends to end the program. HUD's problems with the program are valid including the cost of preparing an application, access for smaller PHAs and the on-average more expensive per-unit development cost. The biggest problem is a $2+ billion dollar backlog of awarded money without enough new housing.

I would argue however, that many of these problems are the result of Hope VI's thorough intentions and its comprehensive process. Although time consuming and expensive, the results are better and worth the investment. The program requires resident and community involvement, garnering input on the design and allowing demolition and relocation concerns to be respectfully addressed. Creating new sites and incorporating different housing types, mixed-use or commercial space, and off-site housing all complicate things but will better serve the residents and make a more successful project. Working with local governments is difficult but assures coordination with other revitalization efforts and a catalytic benefit.

In many cities around the country, the Hope VI successes glow. In Philadelphia where I live, the Schuylkill Falls, Richard Allen and Martin Luther King Hope VIs have turned disinvested areas of the city into new neighborhoods. At the Schuylkill Falls site, two 14 story towers and 714 units of barracks-style public housing are being replaced by a mix of 250 rental, home-ownership, market-rate, and public housing units including an attractive four story building for elderly residents with ground-floor retail. It took seven years for the revitalization to take shape but during that time the local residential and commercial real estate market has boomed, in part because the blighting influence of the old public housing is being replaced by a neighborhood. In nearby Chester, PA, two recent Hope VIs have developed the best housing in the city. They have maintained an excellent appearance and value in a place that practically defines disinvestment.

HUD's intention is to distribute formerly-Hope VI money through other housing programs. This will threaten the ability of PHAs to improve distressed public housing in many ways.

  • Large grants are needed to address distressed public housing because it is old, deteriorating, difficult to manage, expensive to rehabilitate, blighted and some of the nation's worst housing. Annual funding is inadequate to maintain existing conditions, much less improve the real estate.
  • Large amounts of funding are needed to perform the type of revitalization sought by Hope VI. Although linking physical development and supportive services is lengthily, difficult and expensive, examples from around the country demonstrate that it has been more successful and sustainable than the alternatives.
  • Hope VI attracts developers who bring additional funds and the discipline and expertise of the private market to public housing development, creating stronger assets and a better product.
  • Hope VI critics claim that the number of distressed units the program was created for have been demolished and therefore, that need is expiring. However, large numbers of applications demonstrate continued need and existing public housing continues deteriorating.
  • In smaller cities HUD funds are disbursed to a variety of deserving projects without much catalytic benefit. Formerly-Hope VI money may disappear into many projects without a large impact.
  • With so many HUD programs, especially the Section 8 Voucher Program, under-funded, the demise of Hope VI will exacerbate a reduction of needed affordable housing resources.

To address its concerns, HUD should assist over-extended PHAs, recapture unspent funding, require adherence to production timelines and continue 'fine-tuning' the program. For example, in 2002 HUD required applicants to possess site control of the land needed for replacement housing rather than accepting pledges of land contingent on an award. As a result grants are now only awarded to PHAs that have site control and are ready to get started. HUD calls this project readiness, and it is just the sort of adjustment that will improve Hope VI.

In summary, many of HUD's problems with Hope VI are symptoms of its comprehensive approach and the reason its successes are so dramatic. Ending the program without further 'fine-tuning' threatens an important affordable housing resource that has revitalized communities, created homeownership opportunities and benefited residents. Hope VI is needed to address the remaining -- and still-lived in -- mistakes of past federal housing policies.

Todd Baylson is nearing completion of a Master's Degree in City and Regional Planning from the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, where he grew up. He recently assisted the Chester Housing Authority with its third Hope VI application and works in the Land Use Planning and Urban Design Group of McCormick Taylor, an engineering and planning firm headquartered in Philadelphia.

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