Wednesday, March 26, 2008

How Do We Integrate The Poor Into Our Neighborhoods?

As someone who lives in a neighborhood going through gentrification I am often at odds with my belief that poor people need to be integrated into mixed income neighborhoods and the fact that many poor people trash the neighborhoods they live in. We must develop a method of removing poor people from the isolation of ghetto existence, while at the same time protecting the values of the properties we relocate them to. Unfortunately because of personal decisions, lifestyles, and circumstances many of our poorer citizens have lost either the desire or the ability to respect their environments. Many will say that this is due to our treatment of poor people and I would not disagree with this, but this does not help in creating situations that will allow them to escape the dangers of ghetto life.

Developers in some cities are trying to incorporate the same public housing tenants that once lived in the neighborhoods back into them after development through vouchers, subsidies, and grants. Sometimes when poverty is multi-generational many self defeating habits may be developed, habits which make it difficult to understand the responsibilities of ownership. I recommend that as part of the voucher and subsidy process we require recipients to attend seminars that detail the responsibilities of the members in an ownership society. No one is inherently born knowing how to be responsible, we learn these things from our parents and our environments. The reason many poor people are not more responsible is not because they are inherently lazy or trifling, but because no one has taught them any better.

The redevelopment of the Arthur Capper and Carrollsburg projects, where Ms. Jackson lived, is the first in the country to promise replacement of all low-income units within the same neighborhood, said Michael Kelly, director of the city Housing Authority.

“Mr. Kelly is undertaking a great experiment to see if he can turn around distressed neighborhoods and keep the original residents there to benefit,” said Sue Popkin, a housing expert at the Urban Institute. “It’s a gamble. We don’t know how to take a terrible neighborhood and make it nice while keeping the same people there.”

In Washington DC, they are trying to integrate the former residents back into a neighborhood that has been redeveloped, they are also trying to do similar things in Atlanta. While this is a risky undertaking it is one that I think must be attempted and allowed to succeed. So many other cities provide the former residents with vouchers to leave their old neighborhoods. The problem with this approach is that only certain landlords will accept the vouchers, these are usually slumlords who want to fill up crappy residences. This only relocates the former residents into scattered pockets of poverty throughout the city, once again surrounding them with other poor residents and bad schools. It is a difficult situation trying to incorporate former residents into the newer developments.

I know in my city they have tried to renovate older apartments into more mixed income residences in lower income neighborhoods. The problem is that placing a mansion next to the projects does not improve the projects or the neighborhood. It is hard to get higher income people to move into a neighborhood with drug dealers on the corners and violence in the streets. We have to develop a method of improving the neighborhoods and renovating them while still being able to integrate the former residents. In DC, they have created committees comprising of residents, city officials, and developers in an effort to create ground rules for integrating the former residents back into the neighborhoods. I think it is important to allow the residents an opportunity to take part in the decision making, if given the opportunity I believe they do not want the blight, drug dealing, and violence in their neighborhoods either.

A committee of residents, officials and neighbors decided that any returnees with a serious criminal conviction within three years of the move-in date, and anyone with seriously bad credit, would be excluded. They will keep their current vouchers or public units, officials promise.

Integrating these former residents will not be easy, but it is something as a society we must continue to do. If we do not then we are sentencing many of our fellow citizens to a life of hopelessness and strife. It is a thin line we walk trying to balance the opportunities of incorporating these former residents with the genuine concerns of the new residents for safety, property values, and peace. I know for me this is a challenge that though I struggle with it, it is one that I must undertake. We are all better off in my opinion when we are living, working, and learning in a diverse environment. Not only do we help those who are struggling, but we also help ourselves to be better.


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