"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, August 15, 2014

Public Housing is Still Around, and Guess Where?

Last week I wrote about Housing Choice Vouchers, and how their current distribution in Montgomery County is obscenely weighted toward Norristown and Pottstown.  I promised to begin looking at “why?” but I also mentioned that Federal housing assistance is a complex and multi-faceted topic, so this time I pile on the evidence about the concentration of housing assistance and extend it to both Royersford and Conshohocken while simultaneously discussing another well-known form of housing subsidy.  Not only is it well known, it’s much older.  It’s called “Public Housing”.
Public housing a different form of assistance than housing choice vouchers, and these differentiations must be understood.  Only you, the residents of these towns, can determine how each variation of assistance affects your community, so you shouldn’t just lump them together under some buzzword like “Section 8,” but be aware of the nature of each.  The public housing program also generates an entirely different subset of the question “why?” but I’m going to dispose of it rather quickly, because the answer should be considered a minor issue today, and there are more important ones to discuss.
I mentioned last week that housing choice vouchers are part of the shift in emphasis to “tenant-based” programs over the previously emphasized “site-based” ones.  The latter have not disappeared however.  In something of an oversimplification, the “site-based” programs fall under two categories: “public housing” and all the others.  The second category really isn’t a category, just my lumping together of a number of different programs, administered at different levels of government.  They offer subsidies to build housing with a specified number of units made available to low-income renters, and monthly rent subsidies.  These are not housing choice vouchers; the money passes directly from the monitoring agency to the owner without the residents touching it; it’s all by the numbers.  It is perhaps the most controversial of the “site-based” subsidies, because new proposals to build such subsidized housing show up periodically in the news (can you say “Pennrose,” boys and girls?). 
Public housing is the true survivor among housing programs, and still refers to government owned and administered housing complexes.  The biggest ones in our large cities are long gone, and good riddance.  Still, the program remains in existence, as do public housing locations in Montgomery County, administered by the County Housing Authority (MCHA).  Public Housing gathers housing aid recipients in one location.  This distinguishes it from the other “site-based” subsidy programs, which seek to include some of those under assistance among those who pay the full fare, which makes them somewhat integrative.   
There are 614 public housing units directly under the ownership and administration of the MCHA (technically, the Federal Government owns the properties, but never mind).  These are divided among seven public housing complexes.  Montgomery County’s public housing sites were built between the 1940s and the 1980s.  The general occupancy sites are the oldest, built between the 1940s and the 1960s.  High (actually mid) rises for the elderly/disabled are more recent, dating from the 1970s and 1980s.  Given my focus on the eight towns on the Schuylkill below Reading, I found it interesting to learn that five of the seven housing complexes are located in the valley, in three of its towns.  I suspect that declining property values after the Second World War had a lot to do with this.
For those who know how heavily Norristown is laden with housing choice vouchers, the good news is that Norristown does not have any public housing complexes.  The bad news is that Pottstown has three, including the largest one of them all.  In fact, Pottstown has 361 of the 614 units of public housing in Montgomery County, just under 59% of the total.  This interesting statistic at least adds to the prima facie evidence that Pottstown has received a disproportionate share of the MCHA’s attention.
There are two categories of public housing complexes: General Occupancy and Elderly/Disabled.  Both require the applicant to qualify according to the financial criteria, but the latter groups together those who are additionally not physically capable of living on their own.  So let’s be careful here, and try to maintain some sort of balance.  It only makes sense to group together the elderly/disabled (often the same people, by the way), given the need for special physical requirements (elevators) and internal dimensions to accommodate their medical needs.  This also explains why elderly/disabled complexes tend to be the newer buildings, as accommodating them in existing ones can require prohibitively expensive modifications.  Four of the county’s seven public housing locations are reserved for the elderly/disabled, and two of Pottstown’s three—Pollock House and Smith Towers—fall into this category.  It is hard to question money spent on these, and I seriously doubt that their residents contribute greatly to Pottstown’s crime problem, at least as perpetrators.  The concentration of two out of four such homes in Pottstown does represent a variation of the question “why?” but the answer will be different than anything about housing choice vouchers.
The other two complexes in the river towns are the Golden Age Manor in Royersford and Lee Towers in Conshohocken, and both are limited to the elderly/disabled.  I would be interested in knowing from the residents of these two towns if they have any opinions about these projects, and how well they fit into the town’s makeup.  There are other examples of housing subsidies in each town, so the question is also how these two compare to others as community issues.  Are they?  At all?  I’d like to hear from you.
It should come as no surprise that “general occupancy” housing complexes are much more likely sources of trouble than their elderly/disabled counterparts.  For the record, the two county public housing complexes not located in the Schuylkill Valley—North Hills Manor in Upper Dublin and Crest Manor in Willow Grove—are also “general occupancy”.
The third public housing complex in Pottstown is Bright Hope Community.  Bright Hope (not its original name) is located in the borough’s west end and it is the oldest such complex still open in the county.  It is by far the largest public housing site in Montgomery County, containing one less unit than do the other “general occupancy” complexes in North Hills Manor and Crest Manor combined.  It has had an up-and-down history of crime and drugs.  No long ago I wrote a post about “gaming the system” and referenced a drug bust at Bright Hope.  Pottstown urban activists are well aware of the place.
So, after two posts, it is clear that housing assistance of one sort or another is disproportionately present in both Norristown and Pottstown.  We will review possible reasons for this in upcoming posts (hint: it’s all about the Benjamins), but until then let’s begin by accepting that this is a complex situation.  Many factors enter into it, so don’t expect to have your simple reason for it all verified by me.  On rare occasions we may encounter something that actually has a simple answer, but only simple minds insist on simple answers.  The truth is not “out there”; it lies athwart the middle, as it always does, and it contains contradictions.