Public Housing Redevelopment Without Needing the Word “Gentrification”

The sour taste of urban renewal is still on the taste buds of residents who were displaced during the 1950s-1960s. Unfortunately, some elected officials and Public Housing Authority (PHA) board commissioners and staff are unaware of the history in these minority communities. The decades of disinvestment and underfunding in public housing have led to depreciated, deteriorated, and dilapidated obsolescent structures. In some metropolitan cities, the land is even located in an opportunity zone, sitting on prime real estate, and is a part of the city’s comprehensive plan.

Ironically, on this land, there are public housing residents who have lived at the property for three or more generations. Some families have lived in the same unit for 20 years or more. Although the public housing residents do not own these properties on paper; both psychologically and sociologically, these public housing units have been a part of their families for generations. Nonetheless, the redevelopment process itself scares families because it creates the fear of displacement, homelessness, and working with private-sector actors who are interested in a “return on investment.”

Furthermore, in 1992, the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing Report specified that 86,000 public housing units were distressed and needed to be demolished. This report led to the creation of the Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE VI) program. During the 1990s and early 2000s, PHAs began to demolish and revitalize their public housing portfolio through the HOPE VI program. In 2010, the Capital Needs in the Public Housing Program Report revealed that there was a 26-billion-dollar backlog (as of today, it is a 70-billion-dollar backlog). Likewise, in 2012, the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) and Choice Neighborhood programs were introduced to redevelop distressed properties through private investment and the leveraging of public housing properties through the Section 8 funding platform.

The RAD program mandates that residents are eligible to return home after redevelopment without undergoing the rescreening process. However, the low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) program discretion conflicts with this rule based on income restrictions and suitability. It is a best practice for PHAs to transparently explain to residents if they meet both the eligibility and suitability criteria—explicitly explaining what happens if residents select the permanent housing choice voucher option or if a private management company will handle the redevelopment. There is a significant difference between eligibility and suitability and this extra transparency would help alleviate  displacement concerns and  avoid potential lawsuits. Another best practice is to track displacement and outcomes by making sure that residents do not fall through the cracks and that every resident has a safe landing. This creates transparency, trust, loyalty, and credibility.

As stated previously, the issue of urban renewal has left a bad taste in the mouth of minority communities, especially if the exact location where their public housing community sits is in a prime real estate area. As Eva Rosen illustrated in her book, The Voucher Promise: “Section 8” and the Fate of the American Neighborhood, public housing redevelopment often results  in gentrified neighborhoods, whereas public housing residents were displaced and burdened with the cost of the redevelopment. Although some of these areas are in desperate need of neighborhood revitalization because of the underfunding of public housing over the years, the process ultimately leads to despair, mistrust, apathy, and the word “gentrification.”

A great public housing redevelopment planning process should involve an aggressive community engagement strategy that includes residents, housing advocates, elected officials, and community stakeholders. The PHA should hold regular community meetings to provide information, solicit input, and feedback. The PHA should also offer a variety of communication and feedback methods in addition to the community meetings, such as one-on-one resident meetings, needs assessment surveys, and small group conversations with a focus on topics such as project design, relocation, and construction timelines. In addition to focusing on residents, the PHA should involve other stakeholders, including local school districts, law enforcement, and service providers, by addressing the needs assessments through resident services, mobility counseling, and Section 3 opportunities. Additionally, the PHA should create a public relations campaign that includes a monthly newsletter designated exclusively for providing information and updates to residents and neighborhood stakeholders of the impacted target area.

Another technique to remove the appearance of gentrification is to create a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA). A CBA is a legally binding contract between a developer and a coalition of community residents, housing advocates, and concerned citizens. CBAs work by providing detailed community needs to the developers in exchange for community support and buy-in of the project. The CBA also ensures the residents are heard, valued, and considered during the redevelopment process. The CBA creates the ability to maintain the historical integrity of a public housing community, ensuring the protection of the current residents, countering the threats of displacement and homelessness, and providing economic opportunities and growth for vulnerable residents.

Laurie A. Walker indicated in her academic article Community-Level Engagement in Public Housing Redevelopment that public housing redevelopment planning must have consistent involvement from the neighborhood associations and resident advisory council throughout the entire process. Walker also indicated that public housing redevelopment creates opportunities for residents and community advocates voices to be heard in the neighborhood revitalization process. Additionally, Walker elucidated that when residents are engaged in public housing redevelopment, it removes and deters gentrification speculations.

For PHAs to successfully redevelop distressed public housing, there must be a combination of both people-based and placed-based outcomes that embrace a holistic neighborhood revitalization approach that includes resident engagement, mixed-income housing, tenant protection vouchers, project-based vouchers, and/or LIHTC funding. The first solution is to allow and encourage public housing residents to participate comprehensively in the process through resident engagement. Implementing a strategic housing plan that includes substantial resident input will allow for the final design to better meet the needs of the residents while catalyzing community ownership of the process. This is a “window of opportunity” to take yesterday’s failures and turn them into tomorrow’s successes. Let us keep the words of John Lewis’ final essay in our hearts, “We must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.”

Featured photo by Julian Grüneberg on Unsplash