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Front Page > Issues > 2003 > February

False Hopes: Who will reside in New Columbia

teve Rudman exudes quiet confidence. As Executive Director of the Housing Authority of Portland (HAP), responsible for helping 35,000 Multnomah County residents with their housing needs, confidence is a good thing to have in these times of depressed economies and federal budget cuts.

Rudman’s confidence carries over to the Hope VI New Columbia project as well. With funding from a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grant, Rudman is carrying out a “revitalization” of the oldest federally funded housing project in the state. The task calls for relocating nearly 1,300 residents, demolishing the existing 462 units, building a new “mixed economy” project, and returning all former Villa residents who want to return to their North Portland haunts.

Rudman is confident HAP can do it. He’ll need the confidence since a look at other Hope VI projects show a less than stellar track record when it comes to the populations they are displacing.

The primary purpose of the Hope VI program is to “improve the living environment” for those living in severely distressed public housing. These are, after all, the poorest of our nation, very low to extremely low renter households earning 30 to 50 percent of the area median income. They face drastic housing shortages. HUD estimates there are units for only 70 percent of very low income renter households. For extremely low income renter households — those earning 30 percent of area median income — units exist for only 40 percent of these households.

Unfortunately, Hope VI seems to be making matters worse rather than better.

In the first six years HUD issued Hope VI revitalization grants to local housing authorities, only 11.4 percent — 2,568 — of the 22,500 people displaced by such projects were slated for placement in revitalized facilities. As one former resident of Baltimore’s Lexington Terrace public housing told a Baltimore Sun reporter in Sept. 2001, “[The public housing commissioner] told us to dream, dream about what this neighborhood could be [but] he didn’t tell us...that the dream meant we wouldn’t be included.”

In the Miami-Dade Hope VI plan, housing authority officials bragged to the press that they were about to “turn public housing nits into true communities that provide a comprehensive network of services.” Self-sufficient homeownership would now be within reach of those living in public housing. In fact, the Miami-Dade plan led to the demolition of 850 units that were subsequently replaced with 80 rental units and 382 various “homeownership” units - a net loss of 388 units. Increased prices further contributed to the displacement of public housing residents. In the Miami-Dade Hope VI plan, “homeownership” units built to replace public housing rentals required minimum qualifying income levels two to three times the income of most the original public housing residents.

Net loss of public housing units is not limited to one or two Hope VI projects. In 2001, revitalization awards resulted in a net loss of 3,092 public housing units, an overall reduction of 38.8 percent of the units affected by the program. At a time when demands on public housing is growing, Hope VI is either demolishing more units than they are building or upscaling facilities beyond the reach of the poor and working poor.

Demolition or rising costs are not the only causes for low placement rates of residents displaced by Hope VI projects. In many cases, displaced families are barred from returning to revitalized public housing by heightened screening of returning residents or use of vague criteria that allows local housing authorities to purge problem residents. In several Hope VI projects, long-time public housing residents were turned away from the revitalized units for having inadequate credit histories.

In most instances, HUD has promoted Section 8 vouchers as the primary method of dealing with people displaced by Hope VI projects. HUD has created the impression that vouchers are not only providing displaced families temporary housing but giving families who do not wish to return to revitalized public housing a choice to remain in subsidized private rental units. An Urban Institute report published in Jan. 2001, however, shows the voucher program playing a much smaller role in relocation. Data available on relocation from 1993 to 1998 showed that less than one-third of relocated families used vouchers. In contrast, 49 percent were moved to other public housing sites.

There’s an even darker side to Hope VI relocation. Finding places for residents while a site is revitalized can represent a significant cost to a local housing authority. Some housing authorities have adopted tactics that reduce the number of residents who could demand their rights to relocation services. Georgia Tech planning professor Larry Keating, for example, has accused the Atlanta Housing Authority of expediting evictions and withholding building maint-enance at its 1993 Hope VI Techwood development to induce residents to leave before relocation started. Nearly half of the 1,115 original families forfeited their relocation benefits by moving before the relocation phase of the project began. The housing authority only had to pay for 545 families.

Can Portland avoid these relocation pitfalls as Columbia Villa is revitalized? Steve Rudman thinks so. His planning team has drawn up a relocation plan that appears far more detailed that what has been found in other Hope VI projects. Considering the challenge they face, they’ll need all the pre-planning possible.

At present, 1,333 people live at Columbia Villa. Adults make up roughly half the population. Slightly more than one- quarter of the residents are white, slightly less than one-quarter Hispanic and nearly one-third black. Roughly 13 percent are Asian and Pacific Islander. Over three quarters of the households earn 30 percent or less of the average median income of $9,222.

HAP conducted a door-to-door survey on residents’ preferences last September, achieving an 89 percent response rate. The survey revealed that 69 percent of residents wanted to return to Columbia Villa after revitalization was complete. In the meantime, 56 percent preferred relocation to public housing in North Portland and 37 percent wanted to relocate to Section 8 housing in North Portland. A desire to remain in the neighborhood, keep children in the same school, be near family and avoid discrimination were cited as reasons for not wanting to move to other areas of the city.

According to HAP’s relocation plan, adequate public housing and Section 8 housing exists to meet these needs. They cite an increased vacancy rate of 7-9 percent that should accommodate relocation. HAP also notes that the voucher “turn back rate” (indicating the renter was unable to find a qualified unit) is far lower - 17 percent - than the national rate of 30 percent. The HAP plan does note that turn back has happened at a higher rate with non-English speaking immigrant households, particularly those who appear Middle Eastern or wear traditional Muslim dress.

HAP has also put together a number of programs to assist residents with issues affecting their ability to rent units, to counter rising costs, and other challenges that will arise as relocation unfolds. Other services will help residents find housing within the same school districts, locate housing for households with special needs, and assist families with transportation and childcare needs. HAP will also be providing either direct service or reimbursement for moving all Villa residents.

They have also hired six full-time employees to deal with relocating families. Rudman has promised that residents will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. The relocation team, even if all six employees are assigned case work, will each be carrying caseloads of 65 households or more. Handling the full range of needs, maintaining a tracking system, troubleshooting and handling all the other details within the compressed relocation schedule set for Columbia Villa could prove to be a very difficult task. If the relocation team isn’t able to do it, families will fall through the cracks.

No community is static. People move and neighborhoods change. Expectations that Columbia Villa will be reconstructed without some loss is unrealistic. But it must be kept in mind that Hope VI’s mission includes not just restoring deteriorating housing but improving the lives of the poor. Most Hope VI projects have failed on both counts.

Whether Portland can prove the exception remains to be seen. The test of this project will come in the next few months as families move out of the Villa and preparations for demolition and construction begin. If Rudman and his Hope VI team come through, they will have done something remarkable. If they don’t measure up to the challenge, then dozens of Villa families may fall through the cracks and find themselves in more dire conditions than before their hopes were raised by Hope VI.

Dave Mazza is editor of The Portland Alliance

Editor’s Note: Relocation is not the end of the Hope VI story in Portland nor is it the end of our coverage of this important issue. In the coming months, the controversial “mixed economy” strategy will be implemented, including the selling of public Villa land to private developers. As those elements of the Hope VI story unfolds, we will be covering it in the pages of the Alliance.


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Last Updated: January 29, 2003