Changing face of public housing


Editors Note: This is the third in a series of stories on public housing in Alexandria.

As public housing changed, the Alexandria Redevelopment Housing Authority changed with it. The number of public housing units did not increase but the number of units owned by ARHA did.

When many of the public housing projects were first built, they were built in places where they were an improvement over what was already there so nobody really objected, said A. Melvin Miller, chairman of ARHAs Board. That began to change with urban renewal.

Most of the original public housing, which still exists, is in what is called the North Side. James Bland, James Bland Addition, Ramsay Homes and Andrew Adkins are all located within blocks of each other. All are within relatively easy walking distance to the Braddock Metro station. Together these four developments include 296 public housing units. These units are reserved for families who are at the lowest end of the income scale. Ramsay was built in 1942, Bland in 1954, Bland Addition in 1959 and Adkins in 1968.

Most people dont think of Ramsay as public housing because it is small and, architecturally, looks very different from the other projects. Also, it is very well maintained, Miller said.

As the projects age, maintenance requirements increase. Many of the projects require upgrading and/or undergrounding of utilities; replacement of heating and air conditioning systems; roof and window replacement; significant interior work and plumbing and electrical upgrades.

As these needs have grown, federal subsidies have decreased. Since 2004, the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funding for ARHA has declined by 12 percent or $2,292,597. The agency is projected to have a $1 million operating deficit this year.

That deficit may lead to more maintenance complaints. About 15 years ago, Alexandria City Manager Vola Lawson had heard enough complaints about ARHAs maintenance record that she decided to examine the reasons. We commissioned an analysis of ARHAs maintenance procedures by The Mark Winkler Companies, Lawson said. It was taking ARHA sometimes three times as long to get a vacant unit ready for the next tenant as it took Mark Winkler.

The analysis was mixed. We found that the amount of damage to the units that had to be repaired between tenants was much greater for ARHA than for Mark Winkler, Lawson said. We also learned that, as federal funding decreased, the amount of money ARHA could pay maintenance staff decreased and thus ARHA was unable to attract and retain the most qualified staff.

Until recently, market-rate tenants and the fees for administering Section Eight have helped to make up for the lack of federal money.

Our Section Eight properties have subsidized our public housing units but it is getting to the point where that is no longer possible, Miller said.

ARHA owns a number of projects for Section Eight housing. This voucher system is designed to assist the working poor by giving vouchers to qualified applicants who can use them to obtain housing anywhere in the country. Projects such as ARHAs Hopkins-Tancil Courts is a project-based Section Eight development. There are 111 units here, mostly one and two bedroom units. Other developments that have many Section Eight units are Jefferson Village, which is a mixture of Section Eight and market-rate housing and Quaker Hill, which is also a mixed-use project. Glebe Park, which is scheduled for redevelopment contains public housing units, section Eight units and affordable market-rate units.

As we have to raise the rents on our market-rate units, they become too expensive for some of the people we want to serve to afford them, Miller said. Because our HUD subsidies are decreasing and because we get no funding directly from the city, we simply have no choice.

Changes to the rules
Who is served by ARHA and other housing authorities is becoming increasingly controversial. Hopkins-Tancil Court is known for an incident that led to the national One Strike Youre Out rule in public housing. In March, 1989, police were called to Hopkins-Tancil because of a hostage situation. At the end of the night, an Alexandria police officer, Corporal Charles Hill, and the suspect were dead. Hills partner, Andy Chelchowski, died later, as a result of the incident.
I remember testifying with Congressman [James] Moran to get the rule implemented, Miller said. As we were less able to turn people away who had no income at all, we had to have some way to get people out of public housing who were openly using drugs or allowing drugs to be used by people who live with them.

A recent controversy that led to the eviction of a woman whose son was arrested for possession of drugs being evicted has brought this regulation into question. We all sympathize with her but if you start making exceptions the regulation has no validity, Miller said. We get criticized all of the time for the amount of criminal activity in public housing developments and we get criticized when we enforce a policy that is trying to limit that very criminal activity.

Next week, what is happening with crime in public housing and who are the people who live in ARHA projects.