Federal programs now favor urban over suburban public housing plans
Share with others:
Golf helped Frank Aggazio to rebuild the Pleasant Ridge community in Stowe, but it might take a fiscal hole-in-one to pull off such a feat again. That's because the program used for 18 years to transform public housing has been replaced by a plan that doesn't seem suburb-friendly.
When Mr. Aggazio, executive director of the Allegheny County Housing Authority, was trying to figure out what to do about the dilapidated, 250-unit Ohioview Acres development, somebody mentioned the First Tee program. It teaches disadvantaged kids its nine values -- from confidence to sportsmanship -- plus driving, chip shots and putting.
"It can make a difference in their life, can put them on the road to college," Mr. Aggazio said Wednesday of the program. "Maybe someone gets a college scholarship. I hope many of them learn the core values."
The authority included a three-hole course and an indoor golf simulator -- funded by grants -- into its plan to turn Ohioview Acres into Pleasant Ridge. That was a factor, said Mr. Aggazio, in its ability to win a $16.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's HOPE VI program for rebuilding public housing. That was the biggest chunk of the $39.2 million financing plan.
Now Pleasant Ridge has 181 apartments, including 10 occupied by families paying market rents, plus 15 owner-occupied houses. It has a gym, computer lab, day care, and the golf facility run by First Tee, which trains two dozen kids at a time.
First Tee is one reason why there's a 100-household waiting list to get into Pleasant Ridge. The authority is seeking $187,500 from HUD to build a clubhouse for the program.
The authority also used HOPE VI funds to redo Meyers Ridge, formerly McKees Rocks Terrace, and Homestead Apartments. It tried to win a grant to redo Burns Heights in Duquesne, but failed -- and now HOPE VI is gone.
President Barack Obama's administration has replaced HOPE VI with a new program, called Choice Neighborhoods. It expands the eligibility from traditional public housing communities to concentrations of Section 8 rentals. And rather than just redoing buildings, it requires a holistic community plan.
"What was created through public housing, was really recreating the failures of the past by isolating the lowest-income families from opportunity," said HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan. Many public housing complexes were cut off from stores and jobs. "We're recreating these communities as communities of choice."
The first five Choice Neighborhoods awards totaled $122 million, ranging from $10.3 million to $30.5 million, and going to Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco, Boston and Seattle.
Mr. Aggazio noted that all of the winners were city authorities. He said suburban authorities, like his, see the program's requirements -- which HUD summarizes as a blend of "well-functioning services, high quality public schools and education programs, high quality early learning programs and services, public assets, public transportation, and improved access to jobs" -- as heavily favoring public housing neighborhoods near urban business districts.
He's still hopeful that a state-run tax credit program will allow him to occasionally build new housing in chunks as big as 50 units. But he's not confident that he can redo some of the county's struggling communities, as he did in Stowe.
"I don't think we could replicate this," he said, looking over the neat, white townhouses of Pleasant Ridge. "It would be very tough."
First Published October 23, 2011 12:00 am