Saturday, July 11, 2009

Frozen in Time?

Is the past truly prologue in our neighborhood?

The Growler was recently browsing through a mountain of files and press clippings and was stunned to come across some old articles that illustrate how this community continues to be stifled by philosophies that have not changed even a molecule over the years, despite the passage of time and evolving public policy.

For example, read this Washington Post account of a public meeting of a citizen panel called the Alexandria Forum. A. Melvin Miller, a senior HUD official who had served on the Alexandria Redevelopment Housing Authority Board from 1970 to 1977, “criticized some [C]ouncil members for advocating public housing alternatives such as dispersing low-income families in apartments throughout the City and issuing housing vouchers, much like food stamps, to subsidize rents for the poor.”

What's so remarkable about these comments? Mr. Miller made them in 1983, some 17 years after the landmark Gautreaux vs. Chicago Housing Authority case launched in 1966. The Gautreaux lawsuit charged that by concentrating more than 10,000 public housing units in isolated African-American neighborhoods, the Chicago Housing Authority and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had violated both the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees all citizens equal protection of the laws, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlaws racial discrimination in programs that receive federal funding.

Decisions at the district, appellate and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court levels affirmed the Gautreaux plaintiffs' position, finding both CHA and HUD guilty of discriminatory housing practices. In 1969, a federal judge issued a judgment order prohibiting CHA from constructing any new public housing in areas of the city that were predominantly African-American unless CHA also built public housing elsewhere.

By contrast, ARHA in 1967 unveiled yet another project in the Braddock area (Andrew W. Adkins) that added further to the already critical and segregated mass of concentrated public housing in this community. A later Alexandria public housing task force commentary that the Growler dug up notes that HUD – obviously feeling the pressure from Gautreaux – demanded scattered site housing from ARHA and the City as part of the mid-1980s John Roberts-Colecroft redevelopment project.

In the years since the 1983 Alexandria Forum, much has changed regarding housing policy. Always it was moving ahead, not backwards. In a case launched in 1992, Hollman vs. Cisneros, which included the NAACP among its plaintiffs, the courts found that the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority had essentially perpetuated segregation in public housing, denying a range of housing choices (including vouchers) to residents. Consequently MPHA has spent years re-mediating its past policies including siting and housing mobility.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), also in 1992, unveiled the landmark HOPE VI grant program, which includes among its major goals "lessening concentrations of poverty by placing public housing in nonpoverty neighborhoods."

According to his biography, Mr. Miller retired from HUD in 1997, was reappointed to the ARHA board in 2000 and elevated to chairman in 2001. Surely he was familiar with these landmark legal cases and the philosophy behind the HOPE VI program? HOPE VI was employed to transform the "Berg" project into Chatham Square and to successfully develop scattered site housing for half the previous residents.

But does an examination of the timeline reveal something significant? The impetus for Chatham Square appears to date from the early to mid-1990s, when progressive players like Shawn McLaughlin were guiding ARHA into the future.

Why then are Alexandria politicians today continuing to empower a viewpoint that has grown stale with time? It’s time for the Growler’s familiar question, “Cui bono?” Who benefits?

But Mr. Miller is not alone in his Janus-faced commitment to the past. An undated article in the old Alexandria Journal describes the creation of the Samuel Madden Redevelopment Task Force in 1994 and the controversial appointment of housing advocate Herb Levy. The Journal’s correspondent Roberta Holland described the former ARHA employee and commissioner as an opponent of public housing redevelopment, reporting that he believed it needed to remain “cohesive.”

As regular readers of the Growler know, Herb Cooper-Levy later joined a private non-profit housing organization and in the last few years has secured more than $10 million in affordable housing loans on its behalf from the City of Alexandria. Cui bono? Does it pay to be a naysayer?

The question for our newly elected City Council is whether they will be content to be held hostage by those steadily gazing backward (like Mr. Miller or Mr. Cooper-Levy), or will be independent and strong enough to break free and allow themselves to march resolutely toward the future once again.