Saturday, November 20, 2010

Howard Husock: Reinventing Public Housing

Howard Husock Washington Times, 11-09-10 (This article is adapted from the fall issue of City Journal)

It is easy to despair over the persistence of black poverty. The social problem that just won’t go away has resisted even the election of our first black president. The depth and complexity of its causes leads, understandably, to indifference born of frustration. That makes what’s going on under the aegis of the Atlanta Housing Authority (AHA) and its reformist leader, Renee Glover, so unusual - and so hopeful.

Not only has Ms. Glover demolished virtually all of the city’s poverty- and crime-ridden public-housing projects, but she also has initiated large-scale individual interventions in the lives of the black poor that hold the promise of actually reducing the ranks of the underclass. The immodest but appropriate name for her work: “human transformation.”

The context is this. Since taking over the AHA in 1994, Ms. Glover has transformed the authority, whose nearly 50,000 tenants are more than 98 percent black. To remain a public-housing tenant - either in a new mixed-income development or in a private apartment paid for by a housing voucher - one must agree to a work requirement. It is in helping tenants fulfill that requirement that the story of human transformation has unfolded.

The troops in this war on dependency are employees of the Integral Youth and Family Project, a for-profit subsidiary of the leading private developer of complexes to replace Atlanta’s projects. The employees of this sort of Peace Corps for the underclass are called “family support coordinators” (FSCs) and they are virtually all blacks in their 20s and early 30s. Some have made the journey out of public housing themselves. Kenya Tyson went from Atlanta’s Harris Homes to Morehouse College and counsels families who lived in the now-demolished Harris. Teaera Raines was raised by her grandparents in Macon, Ga., after her parents succumbed to drug abuse; she went on to get a master’s degree in management from Troy University.

One senses in the group the same spirit of pragmatic idealism that characterizes Teach for America and the KIPP Schools: the belief that people whom others have written off can be reached. Every day, the FSCs fan out in their own cars to visit three or four households relocated from the demolished projects. They give their cell-phone numbers to their “clients” and understand themselves to be on call at all times - including when the call concerns an angry boyfriend, domestic violence or where to find shelter with the kids at midnight.

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