By Alana Semuels
For a long time, many American cities housed their poorest residents in giant public housing towers that had little going for them except for the fact they were affordable. Crime was rampant and indiscriminate, drugs were everywhere, and children who grew up in housing projects often had little access to educational opportunities that would allow them to live a better life than their parents did. Perhaps the most illustrative story of the horror of the housing projects was that of Dantrell Davis, the seven-year-old boy shot to death on his way to school one morning in the Cabrini Green project in Chicago.
Many of these projects are now gone. The HOPE VI program, developed by Congress and the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the 1990s, sought to dismantle huge problem projects and replace them with single and multi-family homes. Families received vouchers as the projects were torn down, allowing them to move to other neighborhoods, in a process that policymakers hoped would decentralize poverty. The Richard Allen Homes in Philadelphia, Cabrini Green in Chicago, the Techwood Housing Project in Atlanta, and dozens of others are now gone, replaced by smaller-scale housing developments.
Not so in New York City. Walk around virtually any neighborhood in New York, and you’ll see a handful of brick high-rise buildings, usually clustered around a small green space. Many are in need of dramatic investment: There’s Castle Hill Houses in the Bronx, which has 5,000 residents and needs $23 million of immediate repairs, according to The New York Times. Baruch Houses, the largest project in Manhattan, located on the Lower East Side, needs $241.9 million in repairs over the next five years.
Still, when Mayor Bill de Blasio today unveiled his plan for New York’s troubled housing authority, NYCHA, dismantling these aging towers was not a piece of it. The plan calls for charging more for parking, redeploying staff to other agencies to save costs and leasing land within the housing complexes to private developers to save money. As I’ve written before, studies have shown that residents of poor neighborhoods who are given the opportunity to move to higher-income areas or even mixed-income areas have better outcomes than those who remain in areas of concentrated poverty. HOPE VI might still be controversial among urban planners, but it’s hard to argue that decentralizing poverty from dilapidated high-rises was a bad idea. So why does New York City still have so many high-rise housing projects?