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Giving Families a Choice

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Fifteen years ago, the media briefly focused on the nightmarish conditions in the large housing developments of an Anacostia neighborhood in Southeast Washington D.C. named Washington Highlands. Because of a federal program to demolish distressed public housing and rebuild mixed-income, mixed use housing in its place -- HOPE VI -- the community was able to redevelop two properties. The challenge was, two others didn't qualify -- not because they weren't plagued by the same problems, but simply because they were subsidized by different federal programs. Thankfully, community leaders were undeterred, and working with public and private partners secured the necessary funding to transform the whole neighborhood.

Last week, as President Obama unveiled his new vision to advance opportunity in our cities and metropolitan areas, he highlighted the Choice Neighborhoods proposal to extend neighborhood transformation efforts beyond public housing -- to make the Federal government a partner with communities like Washington Highlands, not a barrier. We think it's absolutely essential to creating the geography of opportunity America needs to succeed in the decades to come.

Today, we have a better understanding of the relationship between poverty and housing policy in the United States, and the neighborhoods of concentrated poverty that resulted not in spite of government policies -- but in many cases because of them.

But as early as Jacob Riis' How the Other Half Lives, describing the squalor of New York's tenements nearly a century ago, we've known that the condition of the buildings was only part of the problem -- that poor physical health, education, and diminished access to economic opportunity were often connected to the overall condition of the neighborhood.

Unfortunately, these problems were deepened by the "urban renewal" movement that flourished in post-war America and literally wiped neighborhoods from the map, from Chicago to Detroit to Los Angeles. Replaced with high rise housing of last resort and disconnected from schools, jobs and transportation, families were left with no choice but to move into neighborhoods that were more segregated and concentrated in poverty than those they had left.

That all began to change when HOPE VI was launched in 1993, with its focus on more livable, mixed-income housing -- porches on the street, regular street grids -- and the holistic, integrated approaches championed by Senators Barbara Mikulski and Kit Bond.

The program's successes are undeniable: substantial declines in neighborhood poverty, crime and unemployment, and increases in income, property values, and market investment. As a direct result of HOPE VI development, thousands of affordable units have also been built -- as well as community centers, parks, grocery stores, Boys and Girls Clubs, and Head Start facilities. Indeed, the $6 billion HUD invested in HOPE VI has provided a very good return for the taxpayer, leveraging $17.5 billion in additional development capital.

Put simply, HOPE VI changed the face of public housing.

This month HUD announced it would build on HOPE VI innovations, encouraging local public housing authorities to invest in renewable energy, green building and, importantly, early childhood education. It's not a coincidence that the most successful public housing transformations have looked beyond the front gates of the new development -- from St. Louis to Charlotte to New Haven, communities across the country have proven the correlation between successful housing and good schools.

But there's a limit to what can be done under HOPE VI. As HUD staff noted in Washington Highlands in 1994, the agency had no ready mechanism to deal with problems in both public and subsidized housing in a single neighborhood. Fifteen years later, HUD still doesn't.

That's why we need Choice Neighborhoods -- proposed by President Obama in HUD's 2010 budget -- to give families the choice they never had before. Not only would it expand the range of activities eligible for funding -- more than doubling the funding we have for HOPE VI this year -- it would bring the neighborhood partners like community activists, local governments, non-profits, private firms, and public housing agencies to the table. And it would link housing choice more closely with intensive school reform and early childhood innovations, by forming a partnership with the Department of Education's Promise Neighborhoods initiative.

As President Obama said this week, "Many of our cities have already become their own laboratories for change, coming up with innovative new ways to solve the problems of our time." Driving those innovations is what Choice Neighborhoods is all about. When it comes to neighborhood revitalization, it's time the Federal government became a part of the team.