All they had to do was sign on the dotted line.
But just five years after approving plans to use a $22 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development HOPE VI program to renovate their deteriorating houses, the tenants of Brownsville’s Prospect Plaza look back at a deal they couldn’t refuse and find themselves puzzled and dispirited. They’re getting the reconstruction and some money to move--and almost nothing of anything else.
First, their entire four-building complex will be emptied, a process that is already underway and should be wrapped up by the middle of next year. One of the buildings, containing 102 apartments, will be demolished. The other three will be renovated. The tenants will be relocated, but not to nearby townhouses. Those have yet to be built--and when they are, most will be offered for sale at prices far beyond the reach of the overwhelmingly poor residents of the projects.
Instead, Prospect Plaza’s tenants are being offered replacement apartments in other housing projects or Section 8 vouchers they can use to rent apartments on the private market. They have been promised the right to return to Prospect Plaza, which defines the area around Saratoga and Prospect avenues, but most doubt they will ever be able to move back. And the social services that were supposed to be up and running already are nowhere in sight. A consortium of community groups and churches, which joined with project tenants to jointly administer the funds, are now duking it out for control of the money.
All told, many Prospect Plaza tenants have lost faith in the plan that once seemed like their salvation. “I don’t know anything, except we have to get out,” says Joanne Jones as she sits in the sun in front of 1765 Prospect Place, where she has lived for 13 years.
“I think they’re full of shit--straight cheese,” says Keisha Washington, as her children rollerblade through the dirty halls of 1750 Prospect Place. Several of the apartments are already empty, their doors padlocked. Washington, who grew up in the apartment where she is now raising her seven kids, believes that the HOPE VI deal is simply a plan to remove the existing tenants and bring in higher-income people.
Washington’s got reason to worry. Strictly interpreting a 1998 federal law, the New York City Housing Authority, which manages the city’s 346 housing projects and is in charge of the Prospect Plaza deal, now requires that half the vacancies in all public housing developments go to what it calls “working families”--with incomes between $31,450 and $66,550, depending on family size. The 1999 Housing and Vacancy Survey found the median income in city housing projects was $9,704. Such “deconcentration” is an explicit goal of HOPE VI, too. When the development reopens, it will have the elusive income mix that NYCHA officials are sweating to achieve at other complexes.
Even residents who say they’d welcome higher-income neighbors are running out of patience. Milton Bolton, the president of the Prospect Plaza Tenant Association and once a big booster of the plan, is now ambivalent. He’s distressed that the social service programs are not established yet--particularly the homeowner training workshops, since he someday hopes to buy a house. Bolton, a soft-spoken bear of a man, sits in a straight-backed chair and bounces his 2-year-old son on his lap as his seven other children scoot in and out of the room. “We welcome the changes,” he says. “We welcome the impact if it’s done right. But no matter what we do, it still feels like we’re fighting a losing battle.”
Such gripes are normal whenever renovation plans become more than dreams on paper. But this particular vision--$75 million invested in troubled Brownsville--carries with it some terrible tradeoffs. To be redeveloped, Prospect Plaza must become a ghost town. Every week, several families move out, and their apartments are padlocked. The remaining tenants have been told that they will all have to be out within a year. The renovations--scheduled to be finished in early 2004--will almost certainly make Prospect Plaza a nicer place to live. But most of the families who patiently lived through tough times--drugs, deterioration, and gun violence, including a 1994 rooftop sniper and the 1995 crossfire killing of a four-year-old girl who was rollerskating in front of her home at 1765 Prospect Place--believe that they won’t be around to celebrate the project’s rebirth.
The federal Homeownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere program, a.k.a. HOPE VI, proposes a good deal for tenants and city agencies alike. It offers hope to housing authorities across the country, allocating money to severely distressed housing projects, seeking to clean them up and build new housing. And it offers hope to tenants because HOPE VI leverages other funds to provide ongoing social services, job training, and recreational opportunities so that the projects do not once again become human dumping grounds dominated by crime, drugs, and gunfire.
But more fundamentally, HOPE VI, inaugurated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1993, was born from the sense that the nation’s grand experiment with public housing has failed--that instead of giving people a boost, housing projects have become eternal ghettos. So HOPE VI does not attempt to create more federally subsidized apartments. Instead, it seeks to downsize housing projects, cutting the number of units dramatically and demolishing high-rises in favor of townhouses. And HOPE VI does not attempt to make more housing available to the poor. Instead, it seeks to tweak the income mix in the projects, bringing working-class people into housing developments dominated by the very poorest.