Saturday, January 20, 2007

Bricks v. Sticks

I think Danger Blonde has nailed this one: demolishing much of the existing public housing infrastructure is a bad idea. As far as physical structures go, there is no upside to demolishing most of the half-century old brick construction buildings to replace them with "stick-built" modern housing that can't be insured.

While the building are older and will need remediation and renovation, and may harbor asbestos or lead paint that will need to go, the problems with "the bricks" . Some local advocates for preservation agree. In a long article in Gambit Weekly:

Longimte local urban planner Bob Tannen says that the Lafitte is worth saving for several reasons: the buildings were nicely designed, modeled after the much-prized Pontalba apartments that line Jackson Square, and they were built using excellent materials -- good bricks and tile roofs.

[Lafitte project neighbor Shirley] Simmons remembers her relatives, legendary Seventh Ward craftsmen, coming home and talking about their work on the bricks hat day. "So I know that Lafitte was built by the very best roofers, cement finishers, and carpenters," she says

The buildings are attractive. The garden layout ought to be not a hidden drug market but a haven for children and other residents just as the lanes and parkways of Lake Vista were for its upscale residents. [Interesting aside: Lake Vista was designed to be a working-class community, with narrow lots designed for affordable homes. You can still find modest "Levee Board houses" there what would not look out of place anywhere in Gentilly Good intentions gone, well, somewhere.]

The question is: how do we change the projects from ghettos of despair into a place full of hope for the future of New Orleans?

One thing was clear from all the discussions I facilitated as part of the Housing Committee of the Mid-City Neighborhood Recovery Meeting: All assisted housing should be for people who are coming home to work for the rebirth of New Orleans. If you're not retired or on disability, don't come home and look for housing assistance. Sorry, but there isn't enough to go around, and we need housing for people who are ready to contribute.

I would take it a step further: If you're retired or on disability, I think some sort of community service compatible with your age or disability is a reasonable expectation. We have always had a city full of kids being raised by grandma and not enough formal childcare to go around. I don't see why every development couldn't have resident-staffed child care relying in large part on retirees.

If you're living in assisted housing and can't find a job, the city should find one for you at minimum wage plus your apartment. There are parks and streets and so much more that weren't much to look at before the storm, and are worse off now. I don't see why public housing can't be leveraged as part of a Works Progress Administration-style rebuilding effort. (For the kiddies, the WPA was a Great Depression era federal program of public works. Look closely at those curvaceous bridges in City Park and you'll notice signage that they were largely WPA projects).

How are we going to rehabilitate these buildings when the federal government wants to get out of the clustered public housing business? First, we need to examine the heady rush into distributed, mixed-income development. It's a wonderful idea, but how well has it worked. Instead of trying to lure yuppies into former projects, we need to look at how to grow a more prosperous middle class out of the people who live there now. Perhaps we should hire the residents to remediate their own apartments and rehabilitate their own buildings as a first step, including trades training in the process. These buildings could probably last another half-century, and add to both the housing stock and character of the city if properly rebuilt.

We should also provide housing free or cheep to NOPD officers, firefighters, EMS, etc. These folks will add stability and security to the neighborhoods, and we don't want them living in tin boxes or having to commute from across the lake every day. I don't think this will displace many residents. If you've followed the Katrina story as closely as I have, you've heard the tales of people from the bricks who've landed in suburban garden apartments with new furniture and clothes and jobs. The recurring story line is so many of these tales is: these people have landed better off than they were before, and they're not coming back.

Finally, we need to have some rules, people. Go to work or go to school , or find someplace else to live: no exceptions. No drugs or guns: no exceptions. No stayin' by grandmas unless you meet the first two and don't exceed the leased number of residents: no exceptions. If you are going to stay in assisted housing, own the place: require residents to perform community service to keep the grounds up, etc.: no exceptions. Those of us lucky enough to make the rent or the note on our own all live with these rules. We should expect people who are getting a hand up to do the same, and to contribute something extra (as we do in taxes to pay for it) toward making the system work.

Some people are going to hate these ideas, but I don't much care. Anyone who claims to advocate for public housing and doesn't advocate to keep out idlers and thugs isn't much of an advocate for the residents. I'm not ready to give up the idea that this catastrophe presents the opportunity to do things right, and how to handle these buildings is the next, best opportunity to get the recovery right.

If if you don't like those ideas then don't move to a disaster area, which sadly we remain over 500 days after the Federal Flood.

Interesting. I hadn't thought about it this way until reading your post, but they have to be abated (remediated) before they're torn down, so, when comparing costs, in order to be comparing apples to apples you need to take out the remediation/abatement cost and then only compare renovation to demolition and rebuilding. Dang.
fix the bricks up really nice and fix them up fast. don't assume that the people 'won't keep it up' or 'won't appreciate it'.

then, offer police/fire/ems/teachers FREE (or very near free) apts in the larger, nicest units (i.e. if a 2 br would do 'em, give 'em a 3 for some elbow room.) this might be especially attractive to those who are still in FEMA cans and with family spread around to relatives' places.

this puts policing directly in the community with the cops. with the fire/ems/teachers, it puts stable, employed, community-involved tenants in. scatter them around the complex.

then bring in the disabled, grandmas, and families with young kids first. give the youngest a chance to grow up in a new, clean, lower crime neighborhood.

also, reach out the the poor communities of other races. they're out there. if they could get even a 10% diversity, it would help the kids' exposure to other races as something other that 'out to get them'.

also, all the talk of eventually moving everyone to home ownership is not practical. first, not everyone WANTS to be a homeowner. some people like being renters. they're not up to (for many reasons) dealing with the things required for home ownership. and look at the problems getting homeownership for the musicians in musicians' village. people with sporadic work histories, bad credit, police records (even if clean now), big families, and a host of other reasons are going to find it difficult to get even a charity mortgage.

also, for homeownership, you'd have to do something about the catch-22 of the welfare system that forces you to take jobs you can't live on then kicks you out once you're working, regardless of that job's ability to support your family to the level that welfare was doing before. no one ever talks about that. just the vague 'get them jobs & working then move them out.' a mom of 3 or 4 cannot exist on an entry level clerk salary, but that salary will lose her any support except medical & daycare for her kids. how are you going to get her into homeownership? who's going to fix a broken toilet? who's going to fix a broken window? she sure can't afford to pay a handyman and probably doesn't know how to do it herself, even if she could find the time between work & the kids.

lastly, i was reading criticism about the layout of the buildings & their green space. i always thought that was one of the great things about nola's projects. the buildings were low & close to the yards where parents could keep an eye on the kids, unlike chicago's cabrini green where if you lived on the 10th floor, no way could you know what your kids were up to in the yards.

the criticism was that the cops couldn't get into the green space. i think that's b.s. the bricks were designed around the 40s right? well, back then, cops got off their fat doughnut-eating asses and walked beats. they didn't stay holed up up in their nice air conditioned cruisers all day. a cop nowdays isn't a person it's basically a radio-controlled car.

the green space is perfectly designed for beat policing. get some officer krupkes in the neighborhood. regular beat cops assigned to one area. let them be seen. let them chase away a group of loiterers by going up to them in person rather than by giving a sqawk of the siren and loudspeaker shout from in the car. get someone other than criminals walking the could-be-beautiful & park-like paths in the yards. that'll get the kids out & playing. get some community organized play there, not in broken-down nord parks but right where the kids live.

these project townhouses are architecturally beautiful. if you kicked all the poor people out of them, gutted them, and put some amenities in the green spaces, you'd have some really high-priced townhouses & condos. maybe that's what they're really trying to do. but i think they just want to scrape down to bare ground and build another wal-mart-like project. and if that's the plan, no amount of marching or community uproar will matter. the developers will do whatever they want. even if it's more expensive in the end, it'll all be a tax-incentive/tax-writeoff. developments get built. people object and they pretend to listen. but then they go ahead and do whatever they want.
Your proposals seem to have a split personality of first not allowing people the who don't work and not displacing the current residents.

Many of the former residents were either retired or unable to work. Much of the crime problem came from teenage children of residents, who should be going to school and under your proposal would still be allowed to live in public housing.

You can't have both ways I think. The two populations are largely incompatible.

Redeveloping the existing buildings is a worthy idea, as long as you somehow get a mixed population with enough stable families which is strong wnough to form a community and be able to defend itself.

There is little difference in quality of construction or ammenities between Pruitt-Igoe
and the towers along lakeshore drive in Chicago. The difference is in the occupants and admisnstration.

Public administration of housing has failed miserably here and elsewhere. The repeated attempts to fix HANO failed as well. It is an intractable problem and there is no known way to fix it.

Just because it is possible to do something, doesn't mean its a good idea.

In reading about crime I ran across a quote from former Cheif Pennington. He said when he came here there were 425 murders and 180 occured in the Projects. That at tha time that was only about 6,000 units out of approximately 100,000 in the city. That is an indicitatioon of the kind of problem when you concentrate the mst disfunctional families together with the most vunerable. We need to do something different. and better
Right on target, mominem, when you mention the word "concentration". They weren't built with that in mind, but over the years we essentially turned the projects into "concentration camps" for the poor. Places that we could "warehouse" them to keep them away from our neighborhoods (that's the collective "our"--I've pretty much lived most of my life in lower-income necessity more than by choice).

As far as placing police, teachers, etc. in apartments in the "nicest" units...with the history such as it is, would you accept a free apartment in St. Bernard or even Iberville if it was offered to you? Would you take a chance that living conditions would not revert (or even start out) to what was standard pre-K and place your family into that situation? Not me.
No, my assumption is that a certain percentage of people are displaced *by choice*. The post child being the couple from the St. Bernard who landed in Fargo and became the local newspaper's pet story. They had landed in much better circumstances and were staying. I don't think they'll stay forever, but I don't think they'll be coming home to the bricks when they return.

I do not support all residents' right of return, as I think I made clear. If you're not coming back to work or willing and able to volunteer for your discounted rent, then those people should be disqualified.

Everyone in NOLA is entitled: to insurance payouts, to compesenation from the Corps, to a lot of things. No one is getting those things, so people who are shut out of public housing by a reorganization are not singled out for some special punishment based on race or class. They just have to deal with the rest of us.
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