The Kent County Daily Times: Public housing still worth supporting

By Stephen J. O'Rourke & Thomas Zampa

Public housing remains a valuable program that has assisted millions of low-income Americans in meeting their basic housing needs.

Created by the Housing Act of 1937, public housing has been the primary housing program of the federal government. At the height of the program, there were 1.4 million units of public housing. Now, for a variety of reasons, there are approximately 1.1 million units serving families, the elderly and disabled.

Public housing has gone through several iterations since its creation. Soon after the program was created, the Second World War started, and newly constructed public housing became home to war industry workers. The Chad Brown development in Providence - the first public housing build in Rhode Island - housed hundreds of workers producing war materials at the American Screw Company. At the other end of Providence, Roger Williams Housing sheltered workers from the Kaiser Shipyard that built freighters that delivered troops and ferried material to the war zones in Europe and the Pacific.

Public housing during that era was short-term housing. Many returning war veterans started their families in public housing. Once they obtained a job and were settled financially, they moved on. Public housing gave them an opportunity to get settled and move on.

In the mid-1960s, the housing program changed dramatically. No longer was public housing occupied by extended families with at least one employed adult. Public housing became home to the very low-income, mostly single parent households - almost all female - receiving some type of public assistance. It was during this period that public housing changed from a well-liked and well-respected program to one that was disfavored for what it now represented: the warehousing of the poor with a myriad of behavioral problems.

The sixties also saw the constructions of housing for low-income elderly. The first public housing in West Warwick - West Warwick Manor - was constructed during this period. It is home to 126 elderly and disabled individuals and families. Clyde Tower followed some years later with an additional 124 units of affordable housing.

Many of the problems at the family public housing developments were the result of well-meaning, but misguided public policy decisions. The creation of programs that discouraged work and family formation enabled young women to raise children without spousal support and at the taxpayer's expense. Rules that forbade the enforcement of rules of behavior also was a contributing factor to the low image of the program.

Congress and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the federal agency responsible for public housing, have over the years created supportive services to assist persons in public housing achieve self-sufficiency. Its purpose was to go beyond entitlement.

HUD's Family Self-Sufficiency Program provided numerous incentives for public housing residents to help themselves by achieving a life of independence by assisting in job skill training and employment opportunities.

There are many myths about public housing. Much has been written about the welfare queen with four or five kids on public assistance. This is the exception, not the rule. The average size of a public housing household has shrunk substantially and now averages the household sixe of other non-subsidized households. Their tenure in public housing has decreased as well. Very few families live their entire lifetimes in public housing. Approximately 50 percent of public housing is home to elderly and disabled individuals and families.

No greater source than the Bible states that the poor will always be with us. With housing markets increasingly more expensive and out of reach for lower-income families and the elderly, public housing remains a cost-effective means to house our low-income population and should continue to receive our support.

O'Rourke is executive director of the West Warwick Housing Authority, and Zampa is its chairman.

Courtesy of The Kent County Daily Times

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