WASHINGTON _ Jackie Massey,a former resident of Washington D.C.'s public housing,called her neighborhood a “block of pain”.
“It was highly concentrated,dense,and full of pain,” said Massey,a resident of D.C.'s public housing. “I call it my block of pain. We had a lot of crime drugs and murder. And it was all people we knew,people we loved,people we grew up with.”
But Massey now is looking forward to a neighborhood of beautiful townhouses,picket fences,and green lawns. Massey still will live in public housing,but the Districts housing is a whole new place – safe,clean and new. A decade ago distressed public housing was a nation-wide problem,but those involved in the issue say the amount of crumbling public homes have been drastically reduced. They say housing can be repaired anywhere,with the organization and will to make the changes.
Massey's experience is not unique,many in her position were living in the same conditions.
In 1989,a national commission found that roughly 100,000 public housing units,or homes,could be considered “severely distressed”,said Donna White,a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The District's public housing was among them. In 1995 the a local judge determined the government could not rescue the Districts public housing. The judge placed the D.C. housing authority,which controls public housing,in the hands of David Gilmore,who was a member of the national commission to evaluate distressed public housing. Gilmore was charged with the task of rebuilding the crumbling communities.
“A number of public housing advocates filed a civil suit on behalf of the homeless community. They said our housing stock was so bad it was unlivable and it was true,” said D.C. Housing Authority spokesman Arthur Jones.
Prior to the court order,unfixable homes,poor management and the misuse of funds left area public housing in disrepair,said Jones. Some homes were so neglected they were unfixable. At the same time,so many repairs needed to be made,the waiting list for residents to receive service was roughly six weeks,said Jones.
Because the housing authority,catering to 10,000 tenants,is the largest landlord in the city,the negative effects of the decaying homes reached far. When court gave power to Gilmore,roughly 20 percent of the properties were vacant and considered unlivable,said Jones.
The housing authority had won grants in the past to repair problems,but mismanagement had allowed the funds to sit unused while public housing crumbled,said Jones.
At this point in time the D.C. housing authority ranked last among the 3,400 housing authorities in the country,he said.
In 1993,HUD began a program called Hope VI to combat the national problem. Hope VI gives grants to those in need of funds to demolish or revitalize distressed public housing.
More than half – about 60,000 – of the 100,000 distressed homes were demolished entirely,or rebuilt,said White.
With the aid of four Hope VI grants,totaling $105 million,Gilmore and the D.C. housing authority were able slowly to make drastic changes in public housing. The grants allowed the housing authority to rebuild four battered communities. Two still are in the works.
But Gilmore said it took more than funding to rebuild the crime-ridden communities.
“In terms of recovery,the vast majority that has taken place in housing in not just Hope VI funding,” said Gilmore. “A new commitment to quality and good management were the factors that really were most important. This isn't one of those situations that was solved just by throwing money at them.”
In addition to the four complexes being demolished and rebuilt,the housing authority began a program that completely remodeled D.C. public housing that was repairable,said Jones.
“They went into the homes and fixed everything,cabinets,appliances,floors,ceilings,paint,common areas and stairwells. And they did it all while the residents we still living there,” said Jones.
Using the housing authority's federal funding,they were able to hire residents to do much of the work,an important part of the rehabilitation of the neighborhood,said Gilmore.
“To partner with them in the process of making changes in their neighborhood and their quality of life is a very positive thing,” said Gilmore.
“It gave them a sense of purpose and a paycheck,” said Jones.
Jones said the changes made to the homes improved the living quality for the residents and stopped the endless trail of repair requests from the residents.
Now housing units are checked out every six months,to ensure they do not fall into states of disrepair,said Jones. The D.C. housing authority,now highly ranked,is running independently.
Massey said today's housing authority is much different than it was a decade ago.
“It's not like it was yesterday,they have rules and guidelines. You can't go back to living ghetto-fabulous,you got to live decently and respectfully,” she said.
Massey said guidelines to be a part of the new communities such as improved credit and surviving without welfare are incentives to keep residents working hard.
“It's a known fact that folks of a certain income don't want to get involved,to vote,to work,” said Massey. “They don't know what their rights are,their fights are,what their desires and dreams are…they're comfortable in doing nothing,and that causes you not to grow.”
Massey said the rebuilt neighborhood,filled with those who need public housing,but who earn a variety of incomes,are more apt to be successful because they are surrounded by pleasant and hard-working community.
And these changes have taken place throughout the country,in cities such as Chicago,Philadelphia and Atlanta – places previously notorious for dilapidated public housing,said Gilmore.
“The problem is that,the evident failures,the housing authorities that were distressed,were in some of the big cities of the county…Those are the kind of situations that get a lot of notoriety. Improvement is well underway,and it's not to say it's perfect,but it never will be.”
Gilmore said,even in large cities,the number of distressed housing units now is very small. Eighty-five to ninety percent of public housing is operating in good condition,he said.
Massey,who will be part of the 85-90 percent,is looking forward to her birthday in May,when she can move into her new home. Her three-bedroom,two-and-a-half bathroom townhouse stands in the same neighborhood her “block of pain” once stood.
“I think the key words are ‘looking forward'. This is something I can call my own,it's a reality,” she said.