Is There Still Hope in Hope VI?

Federal Program Started in 1992 to Upgrade Public Housing

“I am happy to be back,” said Sheila Brown, a community advocate and resident of Capitol Hill who recalled life in what used to be a drug- infested, crime-ridden community before Hope VI.

Hope VI, a federal program created in 1992 by Congress and funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, set out to recreate public housing projects physically, socially and economically to free predominantly poor families from poverty-stricken neighborhoods.

Old buildings were demolished and redeveloped to include a mix of subsidized and market-rate units both for sale and rent, “so that there isn’t a homogenous environment,” said Janice Burgess, the D.C Housing Authority Deputy Director of planning and development.

“At first the community was a good community,” Brown said. “You could leave your door open, go to sleep on your lawn and no one would bother you.” Between the 1970s and 1990s, drugs plagued the District’s communities creating pockets of crime, poverty and deterioration.

“(Residents) were tired of what was going on, and they wanted a safe environment. They wanted to create a new community,” said Elelta Agonafer, general manager for the Community Supportive Services Program (CSSP), created under Hope VI. She works to get original residents the skills needed to thrive in a new atmosphere by providing job training and placement, financial workshops, high school diploma programs and more.

Before Henson Ridge was remodeled in 2003, it consisted of stacked, plain, red brick housing projects, which resembled tiny jails with vertical barred windows. Within the District, Henson Ridge has the highest original resident return rate in the Hope VI program. The area is filled with townhouses with neat green lawns, small porches and glass windows. Each of these new communities has a site for community services.

“Without such programs the former residents would not have a chance,” Brown said. “A lot of residents would be lost to the community.”

According to Peter Tatian with the Urban Institute, displacement is a major criticism of the Hope VI program, which temporarily relocates former public housing residents into other areas with vouchers until the new units are complete. Even then, there are not as many subsidized low-income units as there were in the former complexes and residents must meet specific criteria to be eligible for re-entry into the units.

“Relatively few people have moved back, because (recreating the units) takes too long,” said Susan Popkin, research associate at the Urban Institute.

Only 30 percent of the original residents return to Hope VI projects, Popkin said. After being relocated, a third of the residents remain in public housing with no change in housing conditions.

“When they put you out, they told you one thing and then it’s another,” said Brown, explaining that the relocating process was difficult. While her community was being remodeled, she had to stay in another public housing project.

Unlike Brown, who resides in Capitol Hill’s townhouses, many residents find themselves back in traditional public housing after not meeting eligibility requirements set by residential leaders. A request for the complete reentry requirements was declined. Agonafer said return residents must “have minimum credit worthiness, be able to show verifiable income and a criminal history check.”

In addition to the reentry criteria, there is also an issue concerning what is affordable housing. “They need to be more specific — affordable homes for who? The rich and the famous?” asks Brown.

At Henson Ridge, apartments run from $835 for a one-bedroom apartment to $1,310 for a four bedrooms not including charges for water and electric. With a section 8 voucher, the minimum income for eligibility into the one-bedroom apartment is $18,643 and $30,600 for the four-bedroom apartment.

There is a waiting list to receive section 8 vouchers. According to the Urban Institute, there are 25,000 families in the District on the list. Many question whether Hope VI is helping those who really need it the most.

“We haven’t solved the problem of trying to help the more distressed families,” Popkin said. “But maybe it wasn’t fair to think it was going to solve this problem.”