What's Wrong with Public Housing?

Nothing -- When It's Working With and For the People Who Live There

Kids at the Meadowbrook  Apartments in South Austin enjoy the simple pleasures of any neighborhood -- even rapidly gentrifying Bouldin Creek.
Kids at the Meadowbrook Apartments in South Austin enjoy the simple pleasures of any neighborhood -- even rapidly gentrifying Bouldin Creek. (Photo By Kenny Braun)

Three summer days in the big city:

June 29, 1939: Accompanied by Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson and Mayor Tom Miller, the first families move into the Santa Rita Apartments at 2341 Corta Street. Santa Rita is not only the debut project of the Housing Authority of the city of Austin, it's the very first of what will be thousands of federally funding housing developments across America -- you know, "the Projects." (Thanks, LBJ.) Three months later, a Santa Rita family gives birth to the very first American Baby Born in the Projects. Or, as the papers said at the time, a "Latin-American" baby. Santa Rita, and the subsequent Rosewood and Chalmers Courts projects, were segregated to appease twitchy local leaders -- black, brown, and white, respectively.

June 29, 1996: Santa Rita is visited by an audit team from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. They do not like what they see: "Unit 3016 at Santa Rita [had been] vacant for 262 days. Vandals had broken the windows and rear door, clogged up the upstairs toilet, and sprayed graffiti throughout the apartment. At June 30, 1996, 21 of the 97 Santa Rita Apartments were vacant." This was not an exceptional case. By the time HUD releases its scathing audit of HACA, new Executive Director Jim Hargrove has already started cleaning house.

June 29, 2001: Fifteen young residents of Housing Authority homes will be awarded college scholarships by HACA's sister entity, the Austin Affordable Housing Corporation. The funds come from HUD, which has awarded AAHC the contract to administer the Section 8 housing assistance program for the entire state. This is a far cry from shutting down HACA and taking it over, as HUD nearly did five years earlier. Instead, the agency holds up Austin's housing authority as a model for the nation.

HACA provides housing for thousands of Austin seniors, both in its traditional sites and in senior complexes like North Loop.
HACA provides housing for thousands of Austin seniors, both in its "traditional" sites and in senior complexes like North Loop. (Photo By Kenny Braun)

It's easy to say, as Hargrove does, that "the Housing Authority has a story to tell, and it's a success story." There's no room for glossing the truth: The need is great, the (federal) bureaucracy is terrifying, the units are spartan, and life without money in America is not getting any easier. But in Austin as elsewhere, the Projects have been part of the problem, and today's HACA is well poised to be part of the solution. Compared to the nonsense one encounters among other players on the public-sector field, it may be the best part.

But HACA's success story is not over, and the cast of characters is broader than Austin's too-large population of poor people. Santa Rita, still very much occupied today, is tangible proof that Austin has been able to innovate in the housing arena, and it's not the last example. Now we have a straight-up, stone-cold crisis: Housing of any kind is scarce, homes for real people are nearly nonexistent, and bloated upscale haciendas litter the growth fringe like beached whales. Lots of talented and decent people -- and a few untalented or indecent people -- have tried to innovate our way out of this one, but that story is not entirely a success.

So what about the Housing Authority, a model that we know works if applied with common sense? Is Austin too good for good old public housing, albeit in a new-and-improved form? Don't think Jim Hargrove hasn't thought about this. That statewide Section 8 contract will do more than send Project Kids to college, valuable as that is. It will also allow AAHC to acquire (or perhaps even build) and manage affordable housing for you, me, and the neighbors.

On paper, there's a role for public housing in what the city of Austin calls "the continuum of housing choice." But "public" anything has, in recent years, been far less sexy than "public-private" -- partnerships and incentives and other self-loathing strategies of a government that doesn't trust itself. As our leaders try to squeeze vaguely defined working-class set asides out of downtown loft towers, the old-fashioned public-sector approach -- government builds, rents, and manages the roof over your head -- seems, well, old-fashioned, if not Soviet. But the Housing Authority has done well at cleaning its own house. Perhaps it deserves a shot at your house as well.

Livable Meadowbrook

One expects to find the Projects in the Ghetto, which is where the city put Santa Rita and Rosewood and Chalmers, although today there are far worse neighborhoods in Austin than the inner Eastside. And in any city, when public housing is dumped stupidly and in inhuman proportions on a neighborhood, the ghetto is what you get. (Luckily Austin has escaped the fate of, say, Chicago.) But the best microcosm of HACA at work may be a project in an almost completely gentrified south-side neighborhood, where average homes are selling for twice the citywide median and developers have built a block's worth of expensive urban townhouses right next door.

Meadowbrook used to look like a refugee camp, and adjacent Guerrero Park was a convenient corner store for vice and trouble. Today's Meadowbrook is still clearly a Project, constructed back in the day with all the aesthetic attention previous elites felt poor people deserved. But it also brings economic and ethnic diversity (particularly with its sizable African-American population) to a neighborhood quickly losing any right to call itself South Austin funky.

Programs like the homework club at Thurmond Heights (top) and computer training at Meadowbrook are part of HACA's efforts toward  what HUD calls family self-sufficiency -- that is, getting out of public housing.
Programs like the homework club at Thurmond Heights (top) and computer training at Meadowbrook are part of HACA's efforts toward what HUD calls "family self-sufficiency" -- that is, getting out of public housing. (Photo By Kenny Braun)

And if quality, livable neighborhoods are ones where people know their neighbors, hang out on their front porches, and get involved in decisions that affect them, then Meadowbrook (with one of the most active tenant councils in the HACA network) has few apologies to make. Even in the middle of a blazing August afternoon, Meadowbrook is a more "vital" place -- and not in an uncomfortable way -- than most yuppie hangouts in the Bouldin Creek environs.

The newest building at Meadowbrook is a community room where HACA offers the many, many programs that are, in its view, a key plot element of its success story. Computer training, ESL and GED classes, small business development, job training, financial management classes, and on and on are offered via partnerships with other organizations like Goodwill or ACC or Huston-Tillotson or American YouthWorks, which benefit from the convenient facilities and ready access HACA provides to people who need their services.

"You can find the people who you need, and we have the network set up with the resident councils and the citywide resident advisory board," says HACA board co-chair Carl Richie. "Working through us is efficient, and if you've got a product that works, we want to help people deliver it. We don't have to be the expert that tells you how to do it or takes credit for the idea. We can facilitate it because we don't want to stand in the way of our residents getting the services they need. And we have everyone -- the old, the young, the disabled, the unemployed. We offer one-stop shopping, if you will, for a service provider."

Meanwhile, the residents (and people in the surrounding neighborhoods, because all these offerings are open to the public) can avoid hassles over transportation or child care that wipe out the benefits of skill building. And the benefit to HACA is obvious, although it's only during the Hargrove era that the authority has seen it that way.

"We're doing whatever we can to ensure that public housing is a temporary housing solution," says HACA community development specialist Cindy Bartz. "So we provide many, many opportunities to families to acquire skills, gain employment or improve their employment status, and then transition into Section 8, or the private rental market, or home ownership." Under the HUD-created Family Self-Sufficiency welfare-to-work initiative, 120 HACA families have committed to an action plan for economic independence: As their income increases, part of their rent goes into escrow and earns interest. They can later invest in a home, a business, or further education.

Of the Housing Authority's 19 sites, only eight are on the Eastside. The rest are scattered in neighborhoods all over Austin, including ones where gentrification is firmly afoot. And, of course, there's the senior Lakeside Apartments complex, located right next to the Four Seasons downtown.
Of the Housing Authority's 19 sites, only eight are on the Eastside. The rest are scattered in neighborhoods all over Austin, including ones where gentrification is firmly afoot. And, of course, there's the senior Lakeside Apartments complex, located right next to the Four Seasons downtown.

This goes for the kids, too. At the Thurmond Heights development off North Lamar, says Carl Richie, an employee named Reetie Jones "started a homework club. She got businesses to donate different things and prizes, and all the kids in the development would come to her house. And now we do it at our other developments. That shows you how proactive our employees are."

The Authority plans to expand the homework program to other sites. Bartz is also working with AISD on dropout-prevention strategies for the too-many HACA kids who don't attend school.

Back at Meadowbrook, neighbor Jackson Cole has for nearly 20 years volunteered, primarily operating his Children's Sports Foundation, which serves about 150 kids with year-round sports programs. The walls at HACA's offices on Second Street, next to Chalmers Courts, are lined with team photos of annual lineups of the Meadowbrook Barons baseball squad. "Without him, some of the kids would be lost," Meadowbrook resident Denise Rivers is quoted on the HACA Web site. "We have a recreation center a mile from Meadowbrook, but nobody [from Meadowbrook] uses it. Who's going to take the kids there or pay the fees? They need something on site."

Whatever you think about the character-building aspects of sports, you only need to look at the Barons photos to see that, at least when the pictures were taken, these kids in uniform were not street urchins with no options stuck in a dead-end Project Life. "We're looking to put ourselves out of business," says Bartz, "by providing opportunities for the children who live here now, so they don't have to use these same services as adults."

No Magic, Just Work

So even if life in poverty is hard, Meadowbrook is a pretty good place to live, even in comparison with the good life next door and around Bouldin Creek. "They've certainly raised the bar, building townhomes right next to us," says Hargrove. "And we're interacting with the neighborhood the way they want us to interact. Our challenge is that we manage our properties, enforce the lease, keep our properties clean, decent, well-lit, and as high-quality as they can be, so when someone raises the bar, it's us. That's getting back to the basics of managing property."
HACA executive director Jim Hargrove
HACA executive director Jim Hargrove (Photo By John Anderson)

Oh, yeah. Managing property. That's what a housing authority does, isn't it? None of HACA's other endeavors would matter much if its sites were still a bunch of foul slums, not even up to your typical Project standards. Mind you, that was only four or five years ago. "It was widely known," says HACA commissioner Rita Wanstrom, a resident at the senior-site Lakeside Apartments downtown, "that this was a housing authority in serious trouble, at both its senior and family sites. There were a lot of problems."

Being the oldest housing authority in the country, with the oldest properties in its inventory, HACA has had lots of time to screw up, or not, in lots of different ways. When Hargrove came on board, after overseeing authorities in Cuero (yes, there is public housing in Cuero) and Texarkana -- on the heels of HUD's 1997 audit -- HACA had screwed up in almost every possible way. Most grievous and egregious, though, was the decrepit state of the properties themselves.

Back in what Hargrove calls "the before times," HACA "had 330 vacancies, every one of them boarded up, every wall that could be written on covered with graffiti, grass up to your kneecaps." That was about one in seven HACA units, at a time when more than 1,000 people were on the HACA waiting list, some for as long as three years. "The staff was ready and able to do what needed to be done, but there was an absolute lack of focus.

"So we took the plywood off, painted over the graffiti, mowed the grass, got the admissions department functioning, and started making properties available." The authority went through a major reorganization at the same time. "And within eight or nine months, you could start to see things changing. We got focused back on the core business of offering housing. I wish I could tell you more that was magic, but that's really all it was."

The 1997 HUD audit is full of hair-curling detail, with photos of occupied HACA units that look like crime scenes or war zones. Even though Projects in general bear the scars of generations of tenant abuse, much of the decrepitude on display was caused by HACA itself. At the Booker T. Washington homes in East Austin, residents lived for months with gaping, vermin-ridden holes in their ceilings -- left behind after HACA "fixed" pipe breaks in the upstairs units. Other residents heated their units with the kitchen stoves because the furnaces didn't work. Because the back doors had been improperly installed, residents at Booker T., HACA's largest project, had to leave their homes unlocked in a neighborhood filled with crime and vice -- much of it based at Booker T. itself.

 In five years, HACA's properties, such as Thurmond Heights, have gone from health hazards to award winners. When [residents] saw we were serious about improving quality of life, says Jim Hargrove, they became serious, too.
In five years, HACA's properties, such as Thurmond Heights, have gone from health hazards to award winners. "When [residents] saw we were serious about improving quality of life," says Jim Hargrove, "they became serious, too." (Photo By Kenny Braun)

In sum, the real and inherent difficulties of Project Life, federal rules, and tight budgets became excuses for waste, apathy, and poor management. According to the HUD audit, staff turnover in the mid-1990s was more than 100%; the authority spent money without bids, written contacts, or even invoices; front-line staff was "asked" to work illegal unpaid overtime while topsiders gave themselves hefty perks; and working families languished on the Section 8 waiting list even though their turn had come and HACA had the funds to get them into subsidized apartments. Meanwhile, HACA glibly told HUD it was complying with federal standards it had, in fact, not met in years.

Today, HUD cannot seem to honor HACA fast enough, pointing to its programs and systems as best practices for others across the region and nation. While over half of HACA's units failed HUD inspections in the mid-1990s, today "our scores are averaging about 90%, [passing]" says Housing Operations Director Wencesal Santiago. "We have fewer than 1% that have identified imminent safety matters, and every one they found we fixed within five minutes of being discovered."

Such results don't happen in any context but particularly in a Project, if HACA and its own tenants are not on the same side. "Residents aren't necessarily a trusting population, and when they saw we were serious about improving quality of life, they became serious too," Hargrove says. "You saw that with the inspections; residents played a crucial role in making that a success. Residents want to be a part of what we're doing." And they are, through the tenant councils and the citywide advisory council -- also chaired by Wanstrom, a self-described "up-front loudmouth activist" whose many leadership roles "sort of keep me off the streets." When it comes to empowering the residents, she says, HACA is "way the hell far ahead of the curve for housing authorities."

Santiago and Hargrove add that site managers and maintenance staff now go through extensive training that's tailored to their HACA duties. "Staff is the key," says Hargrove. "We know who our customer is, and we also know who makes service happen for the customer, and it's not me. The leadership and the staff are where the rubber meets pavement. In the before times, people thought this was a government job and that it didn't make any difference, and that's just not our way."

Landlords Needed

So much for getting its act together. At this point HACA is looking to take it on the road, away from the inherent insularity of the Projects and toward the broad range of housing needs. (We should note that HACA, naturally, is "trying to get away from words that terrify people, like 'project' or even 'development,'" says Santiago. "We'd rather talk about communities and homes, and about families instead of tenants. We want to be part of our community, not a chain of islands within our community.")

Other than its own properties, the big arrow in HACA's quiver is Section 8, which places eligible families in privately owned units across the city where landlords have agreed to accept the Section 8 subsidy as part of the rent. For years, HACA trucked along with enough vouchers from HUD to house about 2,000 families. Hargrove and Section 8 Director Lisa Garcia have more than doubled that number in less than two years, competing against other cities for limited HUD funds, which further confirms how much the feds think HACA has improved.

The library at North Loop. Traditionally, HACA's senior sites were better managed than others in the city, and residents at sites like North Loop -- or, famously, the Lakeside Apartments -- are adamant about staying put.
The library at North Loop. Traditionally, HACA's senior sites were better managed than others in the city, and residents at sites like North Loop -- or, famously, the Lakeside Apartments -- are adamant about staying put. (Photo By Kenny Braun)

These include more than 700 special welfare-to-work vouchers so the residents of HACA projects can take advantage of HACA's job-training programs, find good jobs when or before they lose their benefits, and then move into their own apartments via Section 8. As an added benefit, since HACA's sister corporation AAHC is administering Section 8 for the entire state of Texas (as part of HUD's downsizing and restructuring, they're outsourcing this function nationwide), Austin keeps the overhead associated with its own Section 8 vouchers.

In fact, Garcia has been so successful getting additional Section 8 vouchers that HACA, in today's tight market, is constantly looking for landlords to give them to. We're looking everywhere," Garcia says. "We need to put the word out that we need more units. We're doing high-pressure marketing and looking at areas [of town] that haven't traditionally been leased in the program." Landlords, that means you. Garcia adds that HUD has greatly simplified the Section 8 process "to make it more of a regular landlord-tenant relationship." Landlords can use their own leases, screen tenants themselves, and so on.

In theory, Section 8 is supposed to allow low-income families to live wherever they want in their communities. In practice, we've ended up with Section 8 ghettos like Dove Springs and apartment complexes that are entirely subsidized. Many of these -- the RBJ senior tower on Town Lake, or Eastside landmarks like the Marshall Apartments, Mason Manor, or Mount Carmel Village -- are widely assumed to be Projects when in fact they aren't. With the recent cleanups and capital investments in the real Projects, the subsidized sites are often in worse shape.

It's properties like those that spring to mind when Hargrove talks about using AAHC's revenues to actually buy property and keep it affordable while -- as odd as it sounds -- upgrading it to HACA's own standards if not higher. "I take pride that here across the street [at Chalmers], which was built in 1938, people go to the manager to ask if they can rent there, because they think it's private sector," says Hargrove. "So I can certainly take a Class A property and make it work."

"There are definitely staff people who want to be able to take over places like Marshall," says Carl Richie. "The question is the resources available through AAHC. But in four years we've gotten to the point where we can be a player, if not the leader, in the market where we can address some of these issues."

Visions vs. Hallucinations

That progress is music to the ears of HACA's partner at the city of Austin: Paul Hilgers of the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department. Now, NHCD also receives funding from HUD, though from different pots of money and with different strings attached, which goes to support homeownership programs (beyond HACA's scope) and the work of nonprofit housing developers.
Neighborhood Housing and Community Development director Paul Hilgers, the City of Austin's housing officer
Neighborhood Housing and Community Development director Paul Hilgers, the City of Austin's housing officer (Photo By John Anderson)

The city and the housing authority have not always worked in harmony, partly because HUD sets it up that way, partly because nobody really worked with HACA in harmony, and partly because housing authorities don't look too far beyond the Project gate. "For most authorities, their properties and their populations are a full day at the office, and they're content," says Hilgers. "It would never occur to them to try to address the housing needs of the city."

But Hilgers -- "a charter member of the Jim Hargrove Fan Club" -- says "Jim and I pride ourselves on working together, at least in terms of communication. We haven't exchanged enough money, but we're working to do that." One option Hilgers suggests is for AAHC to fund housing that the city, or its nonprofit partners, could build and then lease back to Hargrove. Conversely, Hilgers' non-federal funds -- such as the city's Housing Trust Fund or potential bond proceeds -- could go to leverage AAHC's own revenues if it wants to pick up real estate. In any scenario, the primary responsibility for actually managing these affordable units would belong to AAHC.

In this town, for at least the past three years, a bright idea for meeting housing needs and a dollar will get you a coffee at the Tiger Mart, and Hilgers and Hargrove have greater ambitions. "On the resource side, going after the state contract for Section 8 is visionary," Hilgers says. "But Hargrove says a vision without resources is a hallucination, and Hargrove ain't a man to hallucinate. He makes sure he has the resources to do what he wants, and if he doesn't, he very methodically develops them. He saw an opportunity, at some risk to his organization, to reap a greater benefit to the community [and] be a stronger player in the continuum of housing."

Now, you may remember, about a year or so ago, talk about a move that would generate ample resources for any of Hargrove's wildest hallucinations: selling the Lakeside Apartments, which sit next to the Four Seasons on some of Austin's most valuable real estate. "When the Vignette thing came up," says Wanstrom, "my phone rang off the hook, and I told people the wrecking ball wasn't in the next block." Vignette, of course, wanted to build its new complex on the other side of Lakeside from the Four Seasons and nosed around about the property's availability.

Unusually for Austin, there's probably more support for a Lakeside deal -- or any other conversion of a HACA property, since projects like Meadowbrook and Chalmers and Booker T. also sit on potentially valuable land -- in the political circles outside HACA than within the authority itself. Hargrove notes that HUD's rules for the Hope VI program, under which cities around the country are blowing up old nightmare Projects with great fanfare and creating mixed-income housing, do not require a one-for-one replacement of converted units. "If I take property down, I lose a chance to house a family, which is my job," he says.

"I have the oldest inventory in the country, but it's serviceable and I can rehab it for less that it would take to rebuild. Hope VI is better suited for inventory that truly is dilapidated, which this is not. As for Lakeside, we're not in the business of buying and selling public housing. We own a piece of property that is extremely valuable, but I don't see it being sold." Richie notes that the board would only consider such a deal if the residents involved supported it, which is almost guaranteed not to happen at Lakeside.

Besides, even though Hargrove and the board wrote into HACA's mission statement that the authority would become entrepreneurial in meeting community needs and breaking the cycle of poverty, he and his board and staff suggest that too much talk about selling this project or converting that one or buying someone's Section 8 dive is distracting. "Right now, we're poised to make a very positive difference in the affordable housing arena," says Hargrove, "But the reality is that we have to stay focused on our customers, our residents. I don't want the community thinking that the Housing Authority is just out there looking to buy stuff."

In the past four years, HACA has shown that it can offer sound enough management to take on roles serving people who have choices other than to live in the Projects. But that's only because it's giving that same choice to people in the Projects. "Part of living the American dream of owning a home is believing you can do it, and many don't believe they can," Hilgers says. "What the Housing Authority can do now is bring a culture of success into the properties so people can latch onto it." end story

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