Tuesday, July 1, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
It was item small “e” on the agenda, and it sailed through with nary a nay from the board nor a peep from the public.
Still, on June 19 the Las Vegas Housing Authority’s board took the first step in what will be the biggest change to the Las Vegas Valley’s public housing since post-World War II.
The board approved seeking permission from the federal government to demolish 251 apartments of subsidized housing. During the next five or so years, the agency plans to reduce four times that amount to rubble, markedly changing the lives of thousands of poor people.
It’s the end of public housing as we know it, at least for the Las Vegas Housing Authority, the largest of the region’s three housing agencies. The other two, North Las Vegas and Clark County, have no similar plans.
Now that he has board approval to apply to the federal Housing and Urban Development Department for permission to demolish three sites known collectively as Ernie Cragin Terrace, Carl Rowe, executive director of the Las Vegas agency, has launched a complex plan aimed at replacing them with mixed-income, low-density housing. Under the plan, some tenants of the former will become tenants of the latter. Many others will use the federal Section 8 voucher program to locate new housing anywhere a landlord will accept the vouchers.
But Rowe doesn’t expect the next steps to follow as smoothly as the first.
“We’ve had none of the opposition so far, but there will be,” Rowe said.
Controversy has followed similar plans elsewhere since the first one was launched in Atlanta 13 years ago and then in Washington, D.C., New Orleans and Baltimore. Despite protests, HUD has come to back the idea, seeing it as a way to lift people out of the poverty it sees public housing as perpetuating.
The change has often been accompanied by protests from activists who say tearing down the buildings breaks up communities and can lead to homelessness. Jeff Crump, associate professor of housing studies at the University of Minnesota, said it “doesn’t really address the root causes of poverty, and just moves people around.”
Rowe is familiar with the criticism thrown at the idea, but insists on two things.
First, public housing is broken and leads to crime and other symptoms of social decay, instead of encouraging escape from poverty, he says.
In a Sun interview in March, when Rowe first made public his plan to get rid of public housing, he said the “projects” have helped create “generations of ... dysfunction, with a lack of education ... (and) wherewithal to function in society.” Places like Ernie Cragin, he said, are “concentrated blight.”
The second thing Rowe insists on is that no one need be left behind and most tenants will land in better housing than they are in now.
Rowe is also hoping most of them will take advantage of a program the Las Vegas agency plans to expand that helps families become self-sufficient and buy homes instead of depending on the federal government for housing. The program takes a few years and includes setting goals for getting good jobs and saving money.
The Las Vegas agency’s move occurred a day before the Atlanta Housing Authority got approval from HUD to demolish 650 apartments known as Bowen Homes. It was one of the last steps for the Atlanta agency after 13 years of demolishing 10,000 apartments.
Rick White, its spokesman, said his city was “the first to go down this road,” starting in 1994. HUD hosted a meeting last month in Atlanta to talk with housing authority chiefs from across the country about replacing public housing with mixed-income housing. The Atlanta Housing Authority’s president and executive director, Renee Lewis Glover, was the keynote speaker.
White said his agency determined in the 1990s that “public housing is a failed policy, and in many ways an immoral policy.”
That viewpoint and the decision to get rid of public housing have drawn plenty of controversy, including allegations by an Emory University law professor that the Atlanta agency’s approach violates the federal Fair Housing Act, not to mention the claims of causing homelessness.
White said, “There is not a single case of homelessness as a result of this policy.” As for more sweeping critiques — the idea that communities are being lost, for example — he echoed Rowe’s belief that the projects don’t build communities.
“No one would plan a ... community like this, with 100 percent poor people and 80 percent women and children,” he said.
The Atlanta agency points to 14 mixed-income developments that have been built on the ashes of public housing as evidence of success.
Larry Bush, a regional spokesman for HUD, said one of the keys to replacing public housing in any community is involving — and helping — tenants affected by the change.
Examples include creating contracts with tenants that give them the option to return to their neighborhoods once new housing is built or helping pay for transportation to look for apartments owned by landlords who accept Section 8 vouchers.
Rowe said his agency has already begun meeting with tenants’ groups in projects that will be affected, and he has plans to visit Ernie Cragin, where no such group exists.
“We’re going to be constantly reaching out,” he said. “We want this to be open as possible ... and stay ahead of the rumor mill.”
Bush also said “there will always be a need for public housing,” especially for the elderly and people with disabilities. In keeping with that philosophy, the Las Vegas agency has no plans to send the wrecking ball to its 1,000 public housing apartments for seniors.
The feds may take up to 90 days to answer the agency’s request for permission to demolish, and the demolition may not happen for another year.
From here on out, though, it won’t be easy, White said.
“It’s not for the faint of heart.”