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Understanding public attitudes toward public housing

Austins Rosewood Courts public housing development
Austin's Rosewood Courts public housing development

Amidst a lot of anger and outrage directed at a proposed development in Northeast Austin proposing to provide transitional housing for the homeless there have been the usual comments about the development being like “public housing” and then a recounting of the “failures of public housing”.

For example consider this entry on the Austin-American Statesman’s web site…

By BigBoy July 21, 2008 5:47 PM
All of these comments are interesting, but miss the point. This is an old-fashioned public housing project masquerading as so called “transitional housing”. It’s a fraud. There are nine public housing complexes like this already situated in East Austin between I-35 and Hwy 183. When they are brand spanking new, everything looks great. But drive through the parking lots after a few years and run down structures that have become cesspools for crime and illegal drugs. Segregating large numbers of poor people into densely populated, low-income housing projects has proven to create more problems than it solves for the neighborhood and community.

Having some knowledge about public housing in Austin these type of comments cause me concern.  Just how hostile is the public toward public housing?

Granted public housing has its share of problems and challenges.  But in Austin public housing is generally pretty well managed and maintained given the inadequate resources available to the Austin Housing Authority.

A few years back we ran two learning centers for public housing residents and their kids in two of the original 1938 public housing developments in Austin.  We found that residents were mostly decent folks struggling with incomes that were way too low for most folks to live on.  Only a few households were seriously a problem in the developments. Frankly, I found this challenged my previous attitude toward public housing. I was particularly impressed with management and maintenance work carried out by the Austin Housing Authority.  I can’t think of any other housing developments in Austin that have been continually occupied for 80 years, without major physical modernization.  This record is nothing to be proud of.  The housing authority needs modernization funding very badly.  But it is a comment on how well the developments are maintained with so little.

Instead of simply criticizing the appearance of public housing, we need to find a way to forge a partnership between public housing authorities and neighborhood organizations so that housing authorities convince elected officials to provide the funds to maintain this critical community asset.  To begin we need to establish a dialogue between local housing authority administrators, residents of public housing and neighborhood associations.  Their mutual well being is inextricably linked together.

Pubklic satisfaction for public husing is stronger than many other governmental functions. Click image to enlarge.
Public satisfaction for public housing is stronger than many other governmental functions. Click image to enlarge.

Those of us who work in low-income housing have heard lots of strong attacks by neighborhood leaders on public housing.  Its easy to lose perspective on the attitudes of the general poopulation toward public housing.  I prepared the attached chart from data gathered in a Gallup poll back in 2005. The good news is the public is more satisfied with public housing than poverty, heath care, energy and education.  But the bad news can be seen in the faiure of Congress and the President to provide adequate funding to maintain public housing.

I started my commitment to housing justice for people and communities with low incomes in 1975 in Austin's Clarksville community. These years of working side-by-side with dedicated community leaders to find solutions to housing and community development challenges have taught me some things and I’m learning new things every day.

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