In the opinion section of today's Oregonian, architect Michael Willis takes a heartfelt stand against the ongoing stigma of public housing.
The Willis essay is actually a response to a previous op-ed piece written by Ray Hallberg, who criticized the Housing Authority of Portland for applying for $40 million in federal money to tear down the 39-year-old, 60-unit Hillsdale Terrace in Southwest Portland (pictured above and below) and build 100 units of new public housing.
"Families in public housing projects blend poorly or not at all with the larger community," Hallberg wrote. "Project schoolchildren are marked by their peers as 'from the project' and tend to self-segregate. Rightly or wrongly, there is an inescapable stigma attached to the tenants of public housing projects."
"Such projects have been identified nationally as social failures since the 1960s," Hallberg added. "The larger the project, the larger the failure."
To Michael Willis, this isn't just an attack against the Hillsdale Terrace project that his firm, Michael Willis Architects, is designing. Or the numerous public housing projects the firm has designed in the past, in Portland as well as San Francisco, New Orleans, Oakland and several other cities. It's also a personal affront, because Willis grew up in a public housing project in St. Louis.
"We are most proud of the work we've done for HAP in Portland, reconnecting former public housing communities into the surrounding neighborhood fabric in ways that value both the residents of the newly built housing and their neighbors," Willis writes. "Please go to North Alberta Street and Vancouver Avenue to see Humboldt Gardens or to North Portland's Portsmouth neighborhood to see New Columbia. And if there are still issues to be resolved between neighbors, that's called real life. At least it will be in the context of neighbor-to-neighbor, not as neighbor-to-stigmatized people from the projects."
I find this an interesting debate, and one that is perhaps settled by design.
For starters, Hallberg is not merely some crackpot. He is a retired builder and developer as well as a member of the Homebuilders Association of Metropolitan Portland's Oregon Housing Hall of Fame, and previously served on the board of the Housing Authority of Portland.
And Hallberg has a strong point when it comes to evaluating the success of public housing projects of the past. You don't have to live in New York or Chicago to remember the common phenomenon in the 1960s and 70s of affordable housing towers that were meant to lift people out of poverty but often, as Hallberg noted, resulted in crime-ridden places and the notion that the struggling poor population was being segregated away from the rest of society.
He remembers when Hillsdale Terrace once engendered such controversy upon its original construction. "In the late 1960s, HAP proposed the Hillsdale Terrace apartments at 100 units. The plan triggered immediate, intense neighborhood resistance because no one wants a public housing project next door," Hallberg (pictured at left) writes. "There were many neighborhood meetings, including a full house in the Wilson High School auditorium. There were two hearings before then-Mayor Terry Schrunk's City Council. Finally, the plans was approved -- at 60 units -- and built in 1970."
Even so, times have changed. I don't think investing in a contemporary re-design for Hillsdale Terrace will elicit feelings of class-based discrimination, and today's public housing projects are designed to better integrate with an existing urban fabric. In other words, Hallberg is at least partially correct that no segment of the population should be isolated from the rest of a community. But I think Willis is correct that the time is past for public housing projects to be viewed merely as highrise slums that will mark residents ad doomed black sheep.
Of course, there is also a racial and class element to this particular debate. Hallberg is Caucasian and Willis is African American. Hallberg was a successful developer, while Willis was raised in just the kind of "projects" that are supposed to earn the "inescapable stigma" Hallberg writes about.
Ultimately I side with Willis in arguing we can re-make public housing so that it's beneficial to lifting people out of poverty. But Hallberg's reminder that such public investment to help the poor doesn't always run smoothly or without societal downsides.
UPDATE, 11/18/09: In an additional Oregonian op-ed the paper published online, Rick Nitti, director of the Hillsdale nonprofit social service agency Neighborhood House, has this to say:
"Hallberg argues that 'building a segregated, dense community of low-income families is exactly what HAP should not do. I agree with his premise but disagree with his conclusion. A newly developed Hillsdale Terrace will create a geography of opportunity for disadvantaged families with access to jobs, health care, services and resources, and good schools for their children."
"As someone who lived in the shadows of Chicago's Cabrini Green, I know first-hand what bad policy it is to isolate our poor in communities of poverty. The evidence is clear. Integrating low-income families in middle-class neighborhoods where they gain access to higher-performing schools and more job opportunities and are exposed to less crime and social distress has demonstrated increases in opportunity and reduced the effects of poverty."
"Building a new Hillsdale Terrace that is a model for sustainable development and is designed to reflect the surrounding neighborhood's character will help transform what is now a distressed pocket into a mixed-income community that instills pride and dignity among its residents."