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Each weekday over the course of a week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

May 15, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 29




Joe Feuerherd Abandoning Hope in Public Housing

By Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent

Public Housing is viewed as the shelter of last resort for the most troubled of the poor: multi-storied monstrosities that encourage crime, stifle initiative, stymie education, and further multi-generational poverty. Those who grow up in the "projects" and eventually leave are said to have "escaped," like a convict would a jail.

All that is changing.

Over the past decade, and largely under the radar of the nation's major media, the federal government has invested more than $5 billion in hard dollars -- and leveraged billions more in private investment, tax credits, tax-exempt bonds, and land donations -- to rehabilitate more than 100,000 Public Housing units and the communities where they are located.

In cities across the county -- from Atlanta and Louisville to New Orleans and Los Angeles -- the efforts are bearing fruit: middle class job-holding families are returning to the inner city, living side-by-side with the poorest of the poor in "mixed-income" housing developments with improved schools and public services.

And now, if the Bush Administration has its way, the effort to revitalize these neighborhoods will cease. As part of its budget, the Administration proposes to eliminate the $500 million in annual funding for the program, called "HOPE VI," that has fostered these changes.

It's not that officials at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) believe HOPE VI hasn't worked. To the contrary, HUD Secretary Melvin Martinez recently declared victory. He told the Senate Banking Committee in March that "HOPE VI has served its purpose." Said Martinez: "It is time to look to the future and pursue new opportunities which can more effectively serve local communities."

As questioning from both Republican and Democratic members of the committee made clear, what Martinez really meant is that Public Housing revitalization is not a priority for the Bush Administration.

It's all about choices.

"The costs that we're talking about [for HOPE VI] are really infinitesimal compared to the size of the tax cuts proposed by the administration," says Max B. Sawicky, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal Washington think-tank.

Says Sawicky: "We've got $1.4 trillion in proposed tax cuts on the one side and [then] you've got this little program: couldn't we have a little less tax cut and keep that program? It seems obvious that we could. If $1.4 trillion is what we need to revitalize the economy, wouldn't it work if we had $1.395 trillion?"

The proposed elimination of HOPE VI is just a small example of a much larger trend. A host of other federal programs -- Community Action Agencies, child nutrition programs, Medicaid, and after-school programs among them -- would be slashed under the Bush plan, even as we approach the largest deficits in the nation's history.

Given the administration's priorities -- tax cuts and the military -- domestic spending will be starved for the remainder of the Bush presidency and beyond. Which, come to think of it, may have been the plan in the first place.

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