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L.A. Joins Push for Jobs for Public Housing Residents

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Alarmed that the ongoing overhaul of the welfare system will make it impossible for thousands of impoverished families to remain in subsidized public housing complexes, the city of Los Angeles will embark on what federal officials say is the nation’s most ambitious effort ever to prompt long-standing public housing residents to find jobs.

In a federal program to be announced today, Los Angeles will be the largest of seven cities chosen to participate in Jobs-Plus, a welfare-to-work program that will be run by a consortium of public and private agencies.

Because of its size and ethnic diversity, Los Angeles is the only participating city to have two housing projects included as so-called laboratories for the program. One will be the William Mead Homes, a predominantly Latino complex east of downtown, and the other will be Imperial Courts in Watts, which has a mostly black population. Each of the complexes houses about 1,400 residents.

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development officials, who will help oversee the three-year project, said Thursday that it will be critically important in ultimately helping all 10,000 families living in Los Angeles’ 21 public housing projects to remain in their homes.

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Under the sweeping federal welfare legislation enacted last year, most recipients who do not find work within two years would lose their guaranteed cash assistance.

And because as many as half of the heads of public housing households are chronically unemployed, government housing officials are concerned that they would eventually have to evict thousands of families from their subsidized units since they could no longer afford to pay their share of the rent.

The solution, officials say, is to create employment opportunities for public housing residents.

The new program, which is set to be announced today by new HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo, marks the beginning of a wholesale shift in the Clinton administration’s priorities regarding public housing, federal and local officials confirmed Thursday.

Traditionally, the more than 1 million families who live in public housing nationwide have had no incentive to find employment--and are even financially discouraged from doing so as a result of inflexible federal, state and local policies, said Michael A. Stegman, assistant HUD secretary for policy development and research.

As a result, Stegman said, public housing complexes have become isolated pockets of severe poverty, perpetuating a cycle of joblessness and despair and making residents and their children all but reliant on government-subsidized housing.

From now on, Stegman and other federal officials said, they plan to make public housing complexes the engines of employment for the poorest of the poor. Within the next few months, they will begin using the pilot program to provide participating residents with financial incentives for finding work, such as reducing their rent instead of raising it once they get a job.

Also, officials said, the housing projects will become centers where residents can receive the training and education they need to break the cycle of poverty.

“Instead of having housing developments where few people will get up and go to work, everyone will get up expecting to go to work or trying to find work,” Stegman said in an interview. “That is revolutionary in the public housing arena.”

Those pilot programs that prove effective in Los Angeles, as well as in Baltimore, Chattanooga, Tenn., St. Paul, Minn., Seattle, Cleveland and Dayton, Ohio, would be used as models in other cities throughout the nation, Stegman said. To qualify, Los Angeles spent nine months building a coalition of groups that will participate; it beat out more than 30 other municipalities that applied for the grants.

To kick-start the programs, HUD is contributing $5 million, augmented by a $1.5-million donation from the Rockefeller Foundation and $400,000 from the Surdna Foundation. The programs also will receive a significant amount of free technical assistance from the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, a New York-based think-tank group that has spearheaded the pilot project from its inception.

In Los Angeles, the county’s Department of Public Social Services will contribute job training programs, as will the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Adult and Career Education Division, officials said.

But even more important than money and governmental assistance, Stegman said, will be the fact that federal officials have agreed to give each city significant leeway in waiving a thicket of rules and regulations that he said strangle the incentive for public housing residents to find jobs.

Currently, residents are charged 30% of their adjusted income for rent--after federally approved deductions for medical expenses and care of dependents. That means if they get a job, their rent goes up significantly. And since many work-related expenses such as transportation and child care are not considered approved deductions, Stegman said, most residents--and their children--see no financial incentive in finding work.

One possibility suggested by Stegman would be for the participating cities to freeze a resident’s lower rent for the first 18 months that they work, so they can keep the extra money.

The specifics will be worked out in each city by participating government agencies, private sector groups and residents of the housing complexes.

On Thursday afternoon, there was already a buzz of excitement among those residents of William Mead who will participate in the project.

“We are looking to find jobs, and this will help us a whole lot,” said Lucy Esquivel, president of the William Mead Homes Resident Advisory Council, who has lived at the complex since she was 8 and who now shares her apartment with her five small children. “We don’t have anything at all here.”

Esquivel said the program may include classes in CPR, computers and child care, all of which could show the complex’s many gang members that there are alternatives to lives of unemployment and crime.

“They want jobs,” she said, “but no one ever gives them a chance. They will not change overnight, but this will give them, and us, opportunities.”

At Imperial Courts, “We are hoping that this is going to change us--from a community that has always been unemployed, where some have never worked, into a community that supports work,” said Delores Montgomery, treasurer of the Imperial Courts Resident Advisory Council.

John Wallace, a vice president of Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., met with HUD officials in Washington to discuss the project Thursday.

“It is an attempt,” he said, “to transform that major institution of public housing in inner cities across America. . . . That is what makes it so important.”

Such a transformation, however, will not be easy,

For the program to succeed, for instance, it must create enough jobs and revenues to replace those welfare benefits that are expected to be lost.

To do so, Los Angeles city housing authority officials said, they will have to raise the employment rates of public housing residents from an average of as low as 15% in some complexes to well above 50%--and quickly--even though a majority of residents are unschooled and lacking in job skills.

“The challenges are enormous,” Wallace said. “But in Los Angeles and the other six cities selected, we firmly believe we have the best chance for making this transformation possible.”

Although the ultimate goal of the project is to better prepare public housing residents for the uncertainties of a future without welfare, it will also help determine if public housing itself can find a way to survive welfare reform.

The reason public housing is in jeopardy, officials said, is because the government’s ability to provide it as a last resort for the nonworking poor is being hobbled by the one-two punch of recent federal budget cuts and the ongoing effort to force welfare recipients off the dole.

Since housing residents are charged no more than 30% of their adjusted income--after care of dependents, medical expenses and other federally approved deductions--the city’s Housing Authority must pay the rest.

Ed Griffin, planning officer for the housing authority, said his agency has been barely able to keep the housing units open and well-maintained in recent years. Most of its programs have been hit with cutbacks in federal funding ranging from 10% to 32%, he said, and the $22 million it is getting from Washington this year amounts to about $2 million less than it needs.

Without residents’ rent money, and without more federal aid, the city could have to shut down some of its housing units, Griffin said, even though there are more than 10,000 families waiting to get into them.

He too expressed optimism that the pilot project could set in motion enough of a radical transformation in the housing projects to avert such a grim scenario.

“This is a major transition . . . in terms of our ability to provide for livable and affordable housing,” Griffin said. “We know we need to play a serious role in economic development as well as housing.”


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