Public housing: History of need

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Editors Note: This is the second of a five-part series looking at the state of public housing in Alexandria.

The Alexandria City Council and the Alexandria Redevelopment Housing Authority are wrestling with decisions that will affect the authority and public housing in Alexandria for decades to come.

The U.S. government has provided shelter for the poorest people throughout the history of this country. Congress formalized providing housing for low-income individuals in the Federal Housing Act of 1937. In addition to creating a federal agency that oversaw public housing, the act established guidelines for the provision of low-income rental housing. Out of this 1937 law, came local housing authorities. These authorities are chartered by the states in which they exist and operate under federal guidelines. ARHA was the fourth authority chartered in Virginia and has been in existence since 1939.

A. Melvin Miller, chairman of ARHAs board and a former U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development executive, said, In the early days, public housing was meant for working-class people who needed help getting on their feet. The idea came out of the Depression and the tent cities that were around because people just couldnt afford any place else to live. In the early days, people had to pay a minimum amount of rent and there were pretty strict guidelines about who was accepted into public housing and who was not, Miller said.

Many of the public housing projects were built in the 1940s. We used to call them row houses and now they are called town homes. Still, you can go to any big city in the country and recognize public housing developments because they look alike. Some architect came up with a design and then just copied it all over the country, Miller said.

With the end of World War II and a return to prosperity, the country and its cities began to change. The cost of housing increased, raising the amount of rent that housing authorities charged their own residents. As that happened, the more affluent residents of public housing moved to the suburbs, where they could afford homes of their own, leaving public housing developments with vacancies.

When the Federal Housing Act was passed, the idea was to provide temporary assistance to people who had lived through the Depression but who were expected to get back on their feet and move into private housing as the economy changed, said Vola Lawson, a former city manager in Alexandria and the citys first housing director.

Those changes were codified in 1969 with the Brooke Amendment. Sen. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts authored the legislation, which provided no-cost housing for the poorest individuals.

The Brooke Amendment basically said that we had to take people in public housing whether they had a job or not. It capped the amount of rent we could charge at 25 percent of the household income, but 25 percent of nothing is still nothing, Miller said. That is when the change in public housing tenants really began.

Alexandria and public housing
While Alexandria does not provide any direct funding to ARHA, past and present city councils have affirmed their commitment to public housing through resolutions. The first of those was adopted on March 21, 1972, and is known as Resolution 99. The resolution stated, that with respect to a public development or redevelopment activity which would make the elimination of existing housing necessary or desirable, the city affirms its position that no such activity can proceed prior to the adoption of a plan which provides for the prior or simultaneous relocation and or replacement of the housing to be so eliminated. …

Since no city council can bind the next, the Alexandria City manager and the executive director of ARHA signed a contract. They were redeveloping Cameron Valley, and we were losing a number of public housing units, Miller said. This preserved all of the public housing units that were in our inventory at the time. If the city wanted to redevelop an area, it had to provide a one-to-one replacement of the redeveloped units.

Ultimately, Resolution 99 was superseded by Resolution 830, which Council adopted on June 8, 1982. This resolution changed the definition of public housing to incorporate publicly assisted housing so that units for elderly and disabled persons could be included. Since that time, the city has remained obligated to replace any of the 1,150 units specified. No additional public housing has been built.

The Citys Housing Office was born in 1975, along with the federal governments Community Development Block Grant program. Through this program, the federal government provides grants to localities for affordable housing, infrastructure development and anti-poverty programs.

We really got involved in public housing at that point because we had CDBG money that we were giving to ARHA, Lawson said.

There is an old adage that, he who has the gold makes the rules. So it was with the city. Beverly Steele, who was the assistant director of housing under Lawson and became the director when Lawson became city manager, said, We saw a lot of things that gave us concern and did what we could to make certain that CDBG funds were being spent as approved.

Concerns over mismanagement of funds and property finally led to a coup. Although the city doesnt control ARHA, they appoint all of the board. In the 1980s, they finally appointed enough people to hire the city manager to be the executive director of ARHA, Miller said.

Steele remembers it well. The ARHA board hired Doug Harmon to be the new executive director and he wore two hats: city manager and head of ARHA. It wasnt very workable, she said.

As boards hire, they also fire. After a very short period of time, the board fired Harmon and hired a housing official. There has always been a difficult relationship between the city and ARHA because of money and control, Steele said. The city really has no oversight authority; that rests with the federal government. But, when ARHA has financial difficulty, the board comes to the city for help. The solutions are not easy.

Editors Note: This is the second of a five-part series looking at the state of public housing in Alexandria.

Next week, Part III.

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