A Fresh Start : Housing: The Moving to Opportunity program will take families out of the projects to see if a new environment helps them succeed.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Patricia Williams does not mind that she could become a guinea pig in a national experiment about housing, education, race and social mobility. All that really matters, she says, is a possible ticket out of the troubled Jordan Downs public housing project in Watts, where she has lived for 17 years.

"I want to go anywhere out of the projects, anywhere out of the Watts area," said the mother of eight. "Kids outside have a better chance than the kids being stuck in Jordan Downs."

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Williams and many other public housing residents in Los Angeles and four other U.S. cities hope to be chosen for a controversial federal program called Moving to Opportunity. It uses rental subsidies to find out what happens when poor families settle in more affluent neighborhoods, presumably closer to decent jobs and better schools.

It is, in other words, a test of the old question about environment's effect on people, especially children. The test comes amid increasing national concern about how public housing can isolate generations of residents in a web of unemployment, welfare, crime and despair.

"If you give people new life opportunities in better neighborhoods, at least their kids, if not the whole household, can turn into functioning citizens rather than ciphers in the welfare system or criminal justice system," said attorney Alexander Polikoff, who designed a successful Chicago desegregation program that is the model for Moving to Opportunity.

First proposed during the George Bush Administration, the $70-million project will move 1,325 families nationwide over the next few months. In Los Angeles, 188 households will be selected by lottery from an anticipated 1,000 or so applicants, mainly African American and Latino women with children. Recent recruiting meetings were very well attended at such local housing projects as San Fernando Gardens in Pacoima, Ramona Gardens in Boyle Heights and Jordan Downs.

Half the participants will be in the control group and receive traditional Section 8 rent assistance vouchers that can be used in privately owned apartments anywhere in their home state for at least five years. The other half, with the help of intensive counseling, must use the vouchers in specified neighborhoods where less than 10% of households are below the federal poverty line, which is about $14,700 for a family of four. The education and employment of the two groups will be tracked and compared.

In the past, many Section 8 recipients stayed in low-income neighborhoods close to friends and relatives. In contrast, the 18-year-old Chicago desegregation program has moved low-income African American families to integrated and more upscale suburbs. The children of the relocated families showed more school success than children who stayed in the city. As a result, social scientists and Jack Kemp, former Housing and Urban Development secretary, persuaded Congress to try a national test.

But Moving to Opportunity has encountered strong opposition, even though the number of vouchers is tiny compared to the overall federal rent subsidy program. White politicians from Baltimore suburbs recently protested the possible MTO move of 285 households--mainly African American--from Baltimore city public housing, saying it would export poverty to middle-class areas.

The program's very essence is not to concentrate families, but to scatter and integrate them as much as possible, HUD officials said. They insist that Baltimore protesters distorted issues for political gain.

"I think it's unfortunate," said Margery Turner, HUD deputy assistant secretary for research, "that the fears and the prejudices of families in this close-in suburban community have really been built up and exploited to generate opposition."

HUD Secretary Henry G. Cisneros, a Democrat who has embraced Republican Kemp's plan, insists that Moving to Opportunity will proceed in Baltimore and the four other cities--Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Boston. But the Baltimore dispute caused Congress to shelve a proposed expansion. Cisneros continues to push other initiatives for more choice in housing.

In Los Angeles, more than one-third of the city's 756 census tracts are eligible by their low poverty rates to be in Moving to Opportunity's more experimental side. Those are scattered mainly across wide swaths of the San Fernando Valley, the Westside and the Wilshire district. Housing authority surveys show that many of those neighborhoods appear to have decent numbers of vacant apartments that meet federal guidelines for fair market rents.

Williams would like to move to Westwood if she wins the lottery. "I have friends who live there, and it seems so pretty and peaceful," she said.

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The 46-year-old single mother, who is a part-time cafeteria worker who receives welfare, makes no secret of why she wants to leave Jordan Downs. The highly visible drug dealing, she said, presents bad role models for her children and grandchildren. Her two older daughters live in their own apartments in the development with their children.

"All they can visualize is being a high roller, a drug dealer. That's all they have to look forward to. And it just goes on and on and on. I'm tired of looking at the same old thing every day," she said.

Because of Los Angeles' sprawling and multiethnic nature, disputes like Baltimore's are not expected here, according to officials of the Housing Authority in Los Angeles, which runs the local program. Many middle-class neighborhoods of Los Angeles already have some racial integration in rental apartments, they say. Although the movement will be dispersed widely, all the eligible middle-class districts will be within the city's boundaries, avoiding Baltimore's problems of sending families into neighboring towns.

"Los Angeles has a whole different character (than Baltimore)," said UCLA law professor Richard Sander, who is president of the Fair Housing Congress of Southern California, an organization hired to help with Moving to Opportunity. "I don't think there is this idea in the Anglo community here that there is a barrier that can't be breached."

To maintain the experiment's integrity, families will not be screened for chances of success, officials say. But once the residents are chosen, the Fair Housing Congress and a housing advocacy group called Beyond Shelter will help those in the more experimental half to find apartments and counsel them on transportation, child care and being a good tenant.

Yet, Donald Smith, executive director of the Los Angeles Housing Authority, seems ambivalent, calling MTO "a difficult and risky experiment."

Although families may find better housing and schools, he is skeptical about employment prospects because the program does not include job training. Even well-established middle-class families have employment difficulties these days because of the economy, Smith added.

Still, the Housing Authority and tenants believe MTO is worth a try, as long as it does not detract from other efforts to reform public housing.

At recent meetings, the housing authority's Section 8 administrator Steve Renahan and a Spanish-language interpreter explained MTO over the noise of many children in attendance. Overall audience response was enthusiastic, especially because the local waiting list for regular vouchers has been closed for four years, with about 40,000 families on it.

(Both Section 8 and public housing tenants generally pay 30% of their income for rent. But different formulas may mean somewhat higher rents for Moving to Opportunity families who leave public housing.)

Among those who intend to apply is Luz Elana Tafolla, chairwoman of the San Fernando Gardens residents council. Although crime has declined because of better security and tenant activities, housing projects' problems are often exaggerated by outsiders, she said. The stereotype stigmatizes children in school.

"Some kids don't want to say they live here because they think people will think they are bad," said Tafolla, 40, who has lived in the development with her two children for eight years, since a divorce pushed her into deep financial problems.

"There's not a lot of bad people here," she said. "There's a lot of people who sometimes have problems and can't afford rents outside. But it's mainly a lot of good people who have dreams and desires for a better life."

Moving to Opportunity may offer that, she said, through bigger apartments in newer buildings in nicer neighborhoods. Tafolla hopes to move close to her son's middle school in Chatsworth.

Much of MTO is based on the experience of youngsters in Chicago's so-called Gautreaux Program, which has moved about 5,500 black families to better housing since 1976. That desegregation movement is named after Dorothy Gautreaux, the African American woman whose lawsuit successfully challenged Chicago housing patterns.

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Researchers at Northwestern University found that only 5% of black children who moved to integrated Chicago suburbs dropped out of school, compared to 20% of those who used Gautreaux vouchers to stay in the city. The youngsters who moved to the suburbs went on to college at higher rates too, 54% compared to 21%. The new suburbanites, however, did report cases of maladjustment, racial bias and isolation.

Less dramatic was the effect on adults' jobs prospects. A study found that 64% of the Gautreaux adults in the suburbs were working, compared to 51% of those in the city.

James Rosenbaum, the Northwestern sociology professor who headed those studies, is optimistic that MTO can succeed nationwide if carefully administered. It is important, he said, that a wide variety of neighborhoods be made available. There is the temptation, he said, of just seeking places "where you won't get too much flak."

Harsh criticism has come from conservative writer James Bovard, who attacked rent subsidies in a recent issue of American Spectator magazine. It is not clustering of low-income people in public housing that causes social problems, but "the web of irresponsibility and viciousness created by paying generations of people to become government dependents," Bovard wrote. Moving to Opportunity, he said, is another welfare plan doomed to backfire.

Federal administrators fear opposition from another camp: urban activists who might view the program as hurting public housing and taking away its most motivated families.

Yet, Polikoff, the Chicago attorney, believes it would be wrong to keep families in the projects just for the sake of maintaining population numbers.

"This is offering those who are motivated a chance to escape," he said. "Some will get out and have heartwarming success stories, others will have distressing failures. But at least society is recognizing the need to provide escape hatches for some."

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