Do public-housing projects have to be squalid warehouses for the minorities and poor, ravaged by vandalism, drugs and vicious crime?
The question will become more acute soon because the Carter administration, faced with the grim economics of a housing market out of the reach of millions of Americans, is considering more traditional public housing or a new subsidy program for privately sponsored projects.
Conventional wisdom says public housing has been - and will remain - an unmitigated disaster. People think of high-rise buildings filled with fatherless black welfare families, some of the most dangerous spots on this continent - places like Providence's Chad Brown, Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes, New York's Fort Greene and St. Louis's infamous Pruitt-Igoe.
But it need not be so. Spotted around the country, rarely publicized, are public-housing and other heavily subsized projects that are quietly and humanely doing their job for people of all races.
A prime example is Valley View Homes, a project of 264 garden-style apartments in buildings spread across 11 acres in a relatively affluent middle-class neighborhood in north Providence. Valley View was originally constructed by the city government for returning World War II veterans, and in fact has a handful of its original tenants. Today 900 people - 400 of them children - live in the project. Twenty-five per cent are elderly. Tenant occupations range from microbiologist to stock clerk, jewelry maker to auto mechanic. The list reads like a little United Nations: English, Irish, black (about 18 per cent), Hispanic, Portuguese, Italian, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese.
That remarkable mix has been maintained because the resident manager was given authority to select tenants to maintain a balance. There are several dozen fatherless welfare families, but also some residents who've achieved solid middle-class status.
Manager Bob McCormick, a 28-year-old Providence native with an accounting background, constantly walks around the grounds to keep contact with residents and claims he knows 200 of the families personally.
McCormick is backed up by a strong tenant council that exerts pressure on families responsible for messy hallways or antisocial behavior. When the city considered selling the project a few years ago, the tenants protested at a hearing. Said one: "They will have to shoot me to get me out." And another: "I have neighbors like I had 40 years ago, the old-fashioned kind, people who know you and care about you."
Valley View is "a remarkable demonstration that public housing, under the right circumstances and with the right kind of management, can work," concludes Loyola University urbanologist J. S. Fuerst, who's been watching the project for several years.
But Valley View's success is not unique; it is also found in public housing or publicly subsidized projects in many cities, including St. Louis's LaClede Houses, West Bluff in Kansas City, New York's Wise Houses, the North Beach project in San Francisco.
The ingredients of success, in a nutshell: Keep projects relatively small (no multi-thousand unit projects); don't locate them in the most hopeless ghetto areas; put an understanding but no-nonsense manager in charge of each; back up that manager with a strong tenant council with pride and interest in the project; provide adequate maintenance funds on a timely basis.
Finally, public-housing managers must be given broad authority over tenant selection, imposing an informal quota system to create a mixture of family types, income levels and races. That means, for instance, a reasonable limit on public-welfare recipients and female-headed households with several children, and keeping black or Hispanic residency below a "tipping point" that will drive out all whites. Managers must also have power to evict socially intractable families - those with destructive children, for instance.
"Do-gooder" organizations oppose such ideas, asking where the worst-off families can ever be housed if public housing rejects them. There's no easy answer to that - except to say that concentrating problem families in projects is a sure prescription for the proven social disaster of the Pruitt-Igoes of America, an extension of segregation, misery and crime at public expense.
Ironically, even Valley View is now in peril because of grave errors made by the administration of Republican Mayor Vincent Cianci Jr. Cianci campaigned for office on a promise to keep Valley View alive and committed hundreds of thousands of dollars of federal community development block grants for desperately needed renovations: repainting that had been postponed for many years, building new roofs and replacing the antiquated, ill-functioning central heating plant.
But Ciani permitted the city housing authority to raise rents - also a long-overdue step-before many of the vital repairs were made. The result: a rent strike and problems getting tenants to sign leases.
Even more serious in the long run. Cianci let the housing authority revoke McCormick's power to select tenants, shifting that authority to a downtown office. When I asked Cianci if that wouldn't result in excessive assignment of blacks or welfare clients, upsetting the balance and vital chemistry that's made Valley View viable, he replied: "If a black wants to go in there, why should he be discriminated against because he goes over some quota? I don't think in these times we can say we want to keep a balance."
Says Fuerst: "Taking tenant selection away from a manager who's doing a fine, professional job is just unbelievable. They'll stack it full of undesirable tenants. That good whites and blacks will leave after a while, and Valley View will be converted to the horrible fate of public housing all over the country. And you'll have a canker sore in the middle of all-white north Providence, affecting the schools and undermining property values."
The problem, Fuerst adds, "isn't with public housing itself. It's the idiots who run the central administrations." He points to the example of Le Claire Court, which had a 15 to 18 per cent black clientele when it opened in an all-white Chicago neighborhood in 1950. But then the city housing director forced the project to take applicants as they came; since the waiting list was predominantly black, there was a racial flip-flop. Today 597 of Le Claire Court's 600 families are black, two-thirds of them on welfare. The neighborhood people were originally annoyed; now they're enraged.
Such incidents only stiffen the resistance of suburbs to accept their fair share of subsidized low-to moderate-income housing.
For big existing projects in ghetto areas, all-tenant management - attempted successfully in Boston's Broley-Heath and a number of other projects around the nation - may be the best alternative.
But for new projects, the Carter administration should foster the approach that's worked so well until now at Valley View and selected sites across the country: limited size, strong local project management and a tenant mix that neighborhoods can accept and live with.