If you don’t live in public housing, you probably don’t think about it very much. When you do think about it, vague and negative stereotypes likely come to mind, about high crime rates and entrenched poverty. You might not think that the housing projects in your city have anything to do with you.
A new public relations initiative called ReThink is trying to change those attitudes. Funded by Housing Authority Insurance, Inc., which provides insurance to public and affordable housing projects, ReThink aims to educate Americans about the benefits of public housing not only for the people who live in it, but for society as a whole.
Perceptions of public housing, according to research funded as part of the ReThink project, are a jumble of preconceptions and contradictory attitudes. Sixty-three percent of those surveyed say they would support public housing in their communities, but 53 percent don’t want to live close to it. Sixty-one percent believe that public housing has some positive impact on its residents, but nearly a third of respondents (31 percent) don’t think public housing residents are hard-working members of society.
Adrianne Todman, executive director of the District of Columbia Housing Authority, says the stereotypes just aren’t fair. “It’s not welfare queens,” she says. “Our residents are children, seniors, veterans, people who are working and paying rent.” In fact, all public housing tenants pay at least some rent.
Nationally, according to ReThink, 2.2 million people live in public housing. At least 500,000 are on waiting lists, including 70,000 in Washington, D.C., where there are just 8,000 units. The long economic downturn has intensified the demand, while belt-tightening in Washington has meant budgetary pressures on housing authorities. The sequestration alone has meant a loss of $1 million a month for the DCHA, says Todman.
"I can’t speak enough about the shamefulness of allowing this to occur," she says about the sequestration. "A budget is a priority document. It reflects your priorities. There’s a lot of money in America, but what do we want to spend it on?"
Advocates, she says, need to educate "Joe Six-Pack" on how public housing should be one of those priorities for the nation’s cities, because it encourages stability and community among America’s neediest residents.
To that end, on ReThink’s website, you’ll find first-person stories from public-housing residents whose lives have been transformed by the availability of public housing. The highly produced two- to three-minute spots cut against the popular image of public housing residents as unemployed, directionless, and without ambition.
There’s a young man who spent much of his childhood bouncing around motels and struggling academically, who says that only after his family moved into public housing was he able to focus on school. Once he had a safe place to live where he could focus on his studies, he started getting all A’s. "It was a validation that there was nothing wrong with me personally," he says. Now, he’s an engineering student at MIT.
There’s a 54-year-old man severely disabled by brittle bone disease who says that his public housing apartment gives him the chance to live independently and pursue his job helping seniors who also live in public housing.
There’s another young man who is the first in his family to attend college, a chance he says was enabled by the stability his family gained when they moved into public housing. "Everybody deserves an opportunity to succeed," he says. "But not everybody has this."
Ray Mariano, who is the executive director of the Worcester Housing Authority in Massachusetts, and former mayor of that city, grew up in Worcester public housing himself. He remembers well the stigma that was attached to it.
The father of one of his school buddies put an end to their friendship because he assumed Mariano would be a bad influence simply because he lived in a project. “It was the first time in my life that I felt unworthy of someone else,” says Mariano.
But it was public housing, he says, that allowed him and his eight siblings – children of a father who was a disabled World War II vet and an immigrant mother – to get ahead. Now his own kids are succeeding, he says. His son is attending Harvard Law School, and his daughter has traveled to more than a dozen countries around the globe.
"That is an American success story that does not occur without support," says Mariano.
Mariano recognizes that the public housing model needs improvement. The Worcester Housing Authority has been piloting a program to increase the assistance it gives residents in an effort to get them on the track to move out of subsidized housing, the way his family did, rather than staying there for generations.
Residents agree that the kids in the family will go to school and all adults in the household will either work full-time or do full-time community service. In exchange, they are given counseling and guidance on every aspect of their lives, from health to finances to personal relationships. “Our residents need all that help,” says Mariano. “They don’t necessarily have a place to get it.”
If they earn enough money to owe more than the minimum rent payment, the difference is held in escrow for their later use. The initiative is new, but Mariano cites the example of one man who has been able to save enough money through the program to buy a house.
DCHA’s Todman agrees that addressing the root causes of poverty is essential. "Until we get a grasp on how to generate our youth out of poverty, as a country we’re not going to get any better."
But she argues that public housing remains an essential part of that effort. "It’s something we need to look at as a country,” she says. "[Public housing] is actually an asset that belongs to us all."