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A Better Way to Public Housing: Readers Weigh In

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I still recall the squalor of Norfolk's poorest sections that preceded the construction of public housing projects. I share and support Thad Williamson and Adria Scharf's premise (“Evicting the Poor,” Back Page, Sept. 30) that there continues to be a need for public housing.

One major error of the Great Society programs of the 1964 Johnson administration was the concentration of huge projects in the inner cities. One rationale for this dense construction plan was that tenants would be near the center of each city so that workers could be close to jobs. Some speculated that the Democrats were attempting to concentrate their voters for political gains.

Projects everywhere have become notorious for being crime-ridden places where the cycle of poverty is sustained from one generation to the next. Young project tenants see few positive role models.

New designs that reduce density and provide a mix of publicly owned and subsidized units are a step in the right direction. We must not insist on a one-for-one unit replacement at a particular site, but ensure that a thorough review of all tenants is completed and a mix of remedies, including vouchers, private, subsidized and publicly funded housing should be applied, based on the financial circumstances of the individual.

The giant housing projects of the Johnson era are a failed model, and we must learn from those mistakes. A multi-tiered solution is needed that can break the cycle of poverty while providing housing, and housing assistance, for our citizens.
J. Tyler Ballance
Glen Allen

Gilpin Court is a product of the early 1940s and, along with other projects, was meant to be transitional, temporary housing. When the legislature provided the housing, it was provided for a middle-class culture that was trying to move on at the time of a housing shortage. This worked well until our cultural revolution of 1958 through 1964. At that point, the middle class vacated the projects and left them to those who lacked the education or ambition to move on. When the middle class values faded, there was a shift in the cultural needs of the project inhabitants. Previously we were only providing the physical need of a temporary place to reside. What we missed is that when the cultural shift occurred, the new class of inhabitants also needed education — not only linear public schooling, but also spiritual and emotional support.

Because we didn't meet the needs of the project inhabitants beginning in the '60s, we now have a victimized, dependent population that in no way has middle-class values. The charter given the Housing Authority in the '40s has to be amended to include the education of the project residents to move them into middle-class values. Until this happens, we will be faced with the same crime rate and a net tax deficit required to provide city services for this population, whether it is concentrated in a project or spread out by vouchers.

The city is moving into the 21st century! The Gilpin Court-North Jackson Ward area represents the most developable 50 acres of ground in the central city. This ground is at the crossroads of Interstate 95 and I-64. It is a natural extension of the city and the BioTech Research Park. It could potentially be a business park and look like the downtown of Charlotte, N.C. The Housing Authority has developed a master plan that not only incorporates low-income housing but also allows for business development of this ground. This may satisfy the needs of both the residential and business communities.

As the area is redeveloped, we need to be sensitive and not clear-cut the area with no recognition of its history, the way we did in the Navy Hill neighborhood when the BioTech Research Park was developed. The Gilpin-North Jackson Ward neighborhood has the added attraction of 20 acres of green space in the form of the Shockoe Hill Cemetery and the Hebrew Cemetery. This is the largest green space in the downtown outside of the Capitol grounds!

The Housing Authority is still about eight to 10 years from totally closing Gilpin Court. There is adequate time to find replacement housing for the current residents. But finding housing is only addressing a symptom of the problem of the poverty culture. The problem is that we have treated the residents of the city projects as “those people”! We have neither identified nor addressed their real needs. The solution is not in just meeting their physical needs. The solution is in meeting the emotional, spiritual and educational needs of the city's poor, whether they are in projects or not. The ultimate question is, what history will we make?
Eric W. Johnson
Richmond

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