Concentrated poverty is a wretched thing, but the solution is not so simple as tearing down the projects. Hanna Rosin wrote about the unintended consequences of Section 8 housing in last summer’s Atlantic. Some excerpts follow (like most things in the Atlantic, it is a bit too long for casual reading but well worth the effort):
Ed Goetz, a housing expert at the University of Minnesota, is creating a database of the follow-up research at different sites across the country, “to make sense of these very limited positive outcomes.” On the whole, he says, people don’t consistently report any health, education, or employment benefits. They are certainly no closer to leaving poverty. They tend to “feel better about their environments,” meaning they see less graffiti on the walls and fewer dealers on the streets. But just as strongly, they feel “a sense of isolation in their new communities.” His most surprising finding, he says, “is that they miss the old community. For all of its faults, there was a tight network that existed. So what I’m trying to figure out is: Was this a bad theory of poverty? We were intending to help people climb out of poverty, but that hasn’t happened at all. Have we underestimated the role of support networks and overestimated the role of place?”
I also met La Sasha Rodgers, who was 19 when Dixie was torn down (now she’s 21). “A lot of people thought it was bad, because they didn’t live there,” she told me. “But it was like one big family. It felt like home. If I could move back now, the way it was, I would.” She moved out to a house in South Memphis with her mother, and all the little cousins and nieces and nephews who drift in during the day. She doesn’t know anyone else on the block. “It’s just here,” she said about her new house. Rodgers may not see them right out her window, but she knows that the “same dope dealers, the same junkies” are just down the block. The threats are no less real, but now they seem distant and dull, as if she were watching neighborhood life on TV. At Dixie, when there were shots at the corner store, everyone ran out to see what was happening. Now, “if somebody got shot, we wouldn’t get up to see.”
Dixie Homes was a complex of two- and three-story brick buildings on grassy plots. It was, by all accounts, claustrophobic, sometimes badly maintained, and occasionally violent. But to its residents, it was, above all, a community. Every former resident I spoke to mentioned one thing: the annual Easter-egg hunt. Demonizing the high-rises has blinded some city officials to what was good and necessary about the projects, and what they ultimately have to find a way to replace: the sense of belonging, the informal economy, the easy access to social services. And for better or worse, the fact that the police had the address.
Architect Teddy Cruz may have found a middle ground between dissipating poverty and dissipating social supports: planned slums. In GOOD:
Behind the precariousness of low-income communities, says Cruz, there is a sophisticated social collaboration: People share resources, make use of every last scrap, and look out for each other. Cruz is incorporating this resourcefulness into the planning of two new developments, in San Ysidro, a border-town community in southern San Diego, and in Hudson, New York. If they work as planned, these projects will become powerful case studies for a new approach to urban development that could be implemented across the country.
In collaboration with the nonprofit Casa Familiar, the San Ysidro development will include 30 housing units alongside spaces where residents can run small businesses. The model also accounts for sweat equity, allowing people who help with construction to gain rent credits for their work. Hudson, meanwhile, may not be a border community, but Cruz says the same conflicts are present—specifically, “a huge gap between rich and poor.” Cruz’s plan aims to vault the income gap with developments on several lots that are integrated into the city. The developments will include 60 housing units, playgrounds, a market, urban agriculture, and job-training facilities, all managed by a coalition of nonprofit groups.