A Public-Housing Policy That Says Fewer Units Is More

Jacqueline Leavitt is a professor of urban planning at the UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research

Why, in the midst of a severe shortage of affordable housing, is Los Angeles demolishing badly needed public-housing units and replacing only two-thirds of them? According to the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA), Mayor Richard Riordan and Andrew Cuomo, head of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, the rebuilding of Aliso Village on the city’s Eastside will provide mixed-income housing, which will remove the stigma attached to people living in public housing. But is “mixed income” just another euphemism for getting rid of the poor while pretending to help them?

At its start 60 years ago, public housing was called un-American. Early reformers wanted to combine moderate- and low-income people in one development and to provide housing resources in economic upswings as well as downturns. Their proposals were defeated by Congress as “creeping socialism.” Since then, public housing has become the scapegoat in a two-tiered value system: homeownership, which permits tax deductions and bestows instant middle-class status; and public housing, stereotyped as the exclusive domain of welfare recipients, gangs, single mothers and immigrants.

Responding to Republican threats to eliminate the agency in the early 1990s, HUD turned the budget knife inward and targeted severely distressed public housing with the HOPE VI program. HOPE VI allocates up to $50 million a project to rebuild fewer units, rent to fewer public-housing residents and attract residents able to pay market-driven rents or buy new units. Neighborhood facilities are also thrown into the mix. Unfortunately, it won’t work in Los Angeles, because the city doesn’t have enough affordable housing to meet the demand. Accordingly, the folly of tearing down units before new units are built to replace them should be self-evident. The Southland has four low-income renters for every unit available, the highest disparity in the nation and double the national average.

Aliso Village residents are particularly hard hit. A few blocks away, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority demolished 133 private-sector units to make way for the Eastside extension of its Red Line subway, which, if Proposition A passes, won’t be built anyway. Another 577 units are being destroyed to carry out the HOPE VI program in the adjacent Pico Gardens and Aliso Extension public-housing projects, collectively known as Pico-Aliso. Only 421 units will be rebuilt. Low vacancy rates in the surrounding neighborhood offer few alter-natives, and HACLA offers little assistance to help families move to other neighborhoods.


Aliso residents have good reason to be wary. HACLA admits it doesn’t have the money to carry out plans beyond demolishing and rebuilding fewer public-housing units. Furthermore, its concept of mixed-income housing separates public housing from other units. Why should public-housing tenants believe future housing conditions will improve as they face the multiple traumas of displacement with little support to find new housing, disruption of school and after-school programs and the uncertain prospect of whether they will be considered eligible for new units at the improved Aliso Village?

The L.A. housing authority has repeatedly stonewalled residents’ questions about the HOPE VI program. The city released its application for federal funds, to renovate Aliso Village and demolish units, only after requests under the state Public Records Act and federal Freedom of Information Act on behalf of Union de Vecinos, a group of Pico-Aliso tenants. Union members claim HACLA failed to translate information for Vietnamese- and Korean-speaking residents in Pico Gardens and Aliso Extension, where two-thirds of the units are already down, and garbled the Spanish translations. Resident advisory committees at each development were asked to approve HACLA’s application, yet residents who came to public meetings to get information later discovered that sign-in sheets were used to demonstrate resident participation and tacit approval of HACLA’s plans.

Similar struggles are occurring around the country. In Knoxville, Tenn., residents have protested demolition on the ground that the buildings could be rehabilitated; in Tucson, Ariz., because demolition means gentrification; and in Chicago, on issues of displacement. Housing authorities frequently confuse residents by providing inadequate information and by playing on people’s hopes for improvements and their fears of eviction.

What can be done? In Chicago, HUD and the city housing authority recognize the Coalition to Protect Public Housing as a bargaining entity in decision-making and as an advocate for tenant rights. HUD has announced a moratorium on demolition there until better planning can ensure replacement housing. In Baltimore, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke successfully lobbied for state funding to close the housing gap created by demolishing public housing. Ten years ago, the Los Angeles City Council established an Independent Housing Review Panel for HACLA. This body must be revived to monitor the housing fate of displaced Pico-Aliso tenants, to save buildings where possible and to press for a moratorium on demolition.

Riordan says changes are needed in public housing. If we don’t have the guts to make the move, he said, we won’t get where we need to go. Public-housing residents have guts; it is they, not bureaucrats or elected officials, who have raised serious questions about the demolition of Aliso Village. If demolition cannot be stopped, then the City Council should control HACLA’s actions and evaluate its demolition strategy and its displacement effects. Precious public-housing units should not be regarded as disposable as last season’s fashions.*