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Remarks by HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo
HOPE VI Conference

Atlanta, Georgia
Monday, February 28, 2000

Thank you Mayor Bill Campbell. I refer to him as a Mayor for the Nation. What he has done in Atlanta, what he has done with HOPE VI, what he has done with the Empowerment Zone - he has made these programs work. He has shown what is possible. And we on the federal level can only do what is done by the local level, and no one does it better than Mayor Campbell. Thank you for having us in Atlanta. (APPLAUSE).

We have the whole HUD team down here today. We have Assistant Secretary Howard Lucas from Public Housing. We have Assistant Secretary Susan Wachter. We have the General Counsel, Gail Laster. We have the Deputy Assistant Secretary Eleanor Bacon who runs the HOPE VI Program, and has done a really extraordinary job. (APPLAUSE).

And there are two former Assistant Secretaryies from HUD, former public housing Assistant Secretary Kevin Marchman, and former Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research, Michael Stegman - two very good public officials. We miss them very much at HUD. We understand that they had to retire from the pace and the frenzy, but we know that they'll be back one day soon.

In many ways the video that we just saw really says it all, and says it very well. What it doesn't say is where we are today and the possibility for the future. The history is right. When you think about what the 1937 Housing Act says, about what the 1949 Housing Act says, it's such a simple, bold promise, really, that this government made to the people - that this society made. And it was unabashed and it was without caveats. It says, we must provide safe, clean, decent housing for every American - period. That's all, one sentence, two sentences. You didn't need to go on for paragraphs, you didn't need a lot of hypotheticals.

Why? It was a different time. We believed in ourselves. We believed in our ability. We were optimistic. We were aggressive. We were hopeful. And we said, everyone should have safe, clean, decent housing. Of course, this is the United States of America, it was inarguable - nothing less. Certainly as a threshold, as a platform, everyone should have safe, clean, decent housing. I was listening to President Truman's inaugural speech and he didn't talk much about the need for urban redevelopment, and the need for housing. It was as if of course we should have this, no one could dispute it.

Then we went and started to build public housing. For the most part, public housing in this nation is an overwhelming success and never, never forget that. It is as successful as any government program. We have made mistakes - and we'll talk about them in a moment - but by and large public housing is a phenomenal national success. We tend to dwell on the failures, we tend to dwell on the mistakes. That's where the attention went, that's where the notoriety is. But on the numbers, public housing authorities across this country are an overwhelming success.

You can't communicate this. You can't explain it to the Congress of the United States. You can explain it to the person down the block, but it is true. We went out in the beginning of this administration, I said, let's for the first time tell the truth about public housing. Let's gets some evidence on the truth of public housing. And we went out and we inspected, with an independent outside engineer or expert, every public housing unit in the United States. The first time ever, believe or not, that HUD has conducted a physical inspection of every building it owns, not just on the public housing side, also on the FHA housing side. Every building has been inspected.

And then we went to the residents of public housing and we asked them what they thought. 500,000 surveys were sent to public housing residents, so it's not a small sample. The results surprised even me. Eighty-four percent of all the public housing units were "good" or "excellent" in terms of their physical condition. And the surveys we had from the public housing residents, which were confidential - they were anonymous - 75 percent of the people in public housing said they were satisfied or very satisfied with their housing. 75 percent.

Public housing is a success story. We have nothing to apologize for. Those numbers, on the performance, actually exceed the customer satisfaction of a lot of private companies. 75 percent customer satisfaction for public housing. We ask customers of private banks, are they satisfied - 70 percent. Customers of Burger King and McDonald's - 69 percent. The average on a hotel chain, - 71 percent. So public housing works. And you cannot refute that evidence.

But we did make mistakes along the way. And the mistakes have come to predominate the perception of what we have now. Whenever we concentrated too many poor people in one place we got into trouble. And you know what, we should have gotten in trouble. Because it was either a tremendous mistake of design and policy, or it was by design and policy. Either way it was a tremendous mistake for this nation. The West Dallas Housing development is the metaphor in the southern part of the country - block after block of low-rise public housing that went on forever. The Chicago Housing Authority, the CHA, is the symbol in the midwest and the northeast - large, high rise buildings that go on for four and a half miles, building after building after building. Eleven of the fifteen poorest census tracts in the United States, all in the Chicago Housing Authority. CHA has known (unintelligible), no reason (unintelligible) public housing and visit the other part of the city. To make sure that nobody visited, they put a highway separating CHA from the rest of the city.

Either it was a tremendous design mistake, or we knew what we were doing. I hope it was a mistake now, because if it was purposeful, that's even worse. These mistakes went on and went on, and they cost us something. They cost us money, they cost us time. But they also cost us trust. They cost us the trust of the tenants. The Chicago Housing Authority went on for 40 years. Why? Because the tenants - one of the reasons - didn't want to leave. How can that possibly be? Eleven of the fifteen poorest census tracts, almost hellish conditions. They wrote books, literally, about the situation: Nick Lemann, "The Promised Land", Alex Kotlowitz, "There Are No Children Here". Children were falling off the roof, children were falling down elevator shafts. How could the tenants not want to leave? Because they were so distrustful, they were so hurt by this episode, that they thought it would be worse if they left. Believe it or not, they were so scarred by the transaction that they said, well at least I have this unit, and I don't trust you, government, enough to try to give me something else, so I'd rather keep what I have, I would rather the devil I know than the devil I don't.

What a damning commentary on the whole experience. And then the American people lost trust. Because they saw this as the result of public housing. They saw this as the result of progressive policy. When the government said we're going to go out and something good, you built the Chicago Housing Authority, you built Pruitt Igoe, you built West Dallas Housing Authority, that did no good for the residents, and hurt the community in the mean time and cost a lot of money. That became the icon for progressive government, for affirmative government. And it was damning.

Before I came to HUD I went to build affordable housing in the Westchester County, New York, just north of the Bronx. It was an affluent county, but it had a very big affordable housing problem. The Town Supervisor, who was very progressive, in a town in the middle of Westchester County came forward and said, you can build affordable housing in my town. And he showed us a site. I'll never forget, I drove up in the car, he said it's a perfect site, because there is a cemetery on one side, there is a golf course on another side, there is a community college on the third side, and the closest house is 400 feet away and there are woods in between.

Who could complain? Slight miscalculation on our part. The community, which was basically a middle class, predominantly white, I'm sorry to say, neighborhood, heard that we were going to build affordable housing and they went crazy. I went to the first informational meeting to explain to the community, the surrounding community, what this was going to be. I had an intern with me at that time, I was running a not-for-profit, and we were on our way up to the meeting and I said to the intern, I'm going to give you a tip, never go to one of these meetings empty handed, always bring something. So we stopped at a Dunkin Donuts and we got a dozen donuts and got some coffee. (LAUGH) And I said, now when we walk in we don't go in empty handed, and we go in with donuts and coffee and it's a nice gesture. We pull up to the high school parking lot, it's filled with cars. I said, oh, they must have a basketball game or something going on. (LAUGH) Six hundred people at this meeting. The dozen donuts didn't work, (LAUGH), and the Lord did not come down.

And the anger, the fear was overwhelming. These were people who had grown up in the Bronx, many of them, and had moved north to Westchester. They had that urban refugee mentality, and now they heard affordable housing and they thought, and they saw public housing. And they knew what this experience was, because you had built public housing in the Bronx, and you had built those high rises. And they had worked so poorly, that not only did they hurt the residents, but they actually hurt the surrounding community. And they moved to Westchester to get away from that, that phenomenon, the public housing, the people, et cetera, and they now heard this as you're bringing that to them in their new back yard. And they could not have been more fearful, more angry.

And then it started - the normal scenario that all too many of you know so well. The legal battles, three years of legal battles. But they were a wealthy community, so they were more creative, and they had fancier attorneys. They came up with a concept of seceding from the town. They would secede - form their own town, put in place their own zoning, which was going to prohibit any affordable housing, subsidized housing. We did the environmental impact statement. They found in the environmental impact statement that this site was also the nesting ground of the Kentucky warbler. And then all became bird lovers, amazingly. And they were so devoted to this Kentucky warbler, that they didn't want the housing built because they didn't want to hurt the Kentucky warbler.

Eventually we got the approval, we started to build. And then there was a mysterious fire when we built the first floor. So it was a painful situation, and we persisted and we persisted. Two weeks ago I went by, we were doing something else in Westchester, and I was driving literally right past, and I said, let's stop in. And we went, we stopped in and the place looks as great as it did the day we opened it. It's about 10 years old now, but we built it right, we built it in a suburban community, it's cedar shake shingle, and it's white trim, and it has some architectural flourishes. You would never believe that it was "public housing".

And we went to an event that had some of the elected officials there. The Town Supervisor who originally had shown the progressivity to allow us to do this lost the election because of this issue. And I went and I saw the new Supervisor who was there, and I said, tell me, how is West HELP, it was called, how is West HELP working? He said, Andrew, it is a model. The community has no problems whatsoever. They've actually welcomed it over the years, and now on a monthly basis we have joint community meetings with the local residents and residents of the housing complex and it works. But it was not easy, and it was totally counterintuitive. And those, those failed episodes truly did cost us. That's what Chicago Housing Authority is about, and all of them.

In 1993 we opened a new chapter and we acknowledged the problem and we said we're going to do something about it, and that's HOPE VI. Why HOPE VI? Where does the six come from? Nobody really knows, by the way. (LAUGH). But we now have HOPE VI and we're going to stay with it. (LAUGH). And we said, that we have to recognize the mistake, and do something about it - have the courage to do something about it.

We knew what worked because we had also been doing what worked for many years, but now we had to face up to the problem and go right into the thick of it, and resolve it. Because a continuation of it was festering, and was bad for everyone involved. That is what HOPE VI is - mixed income, don't isolate people, don't segregate people, don't discriminate against people. Don't put all the poor people on one side of town. Don't put all the black people on one side of town, because there was a racial overtone to all of this, lest we kid ourselves. Go back to the original vision - educational opportunities, tenant participation, make the programs accessible to our brothers and sisters who are disabled, because we are all temporarily able. Economic opportunity. Build it in a way that shows pride. Build it in a way that it is an asset to the community. And you can say to the neighbors, property values are going to go up, not down. Our public housing project is going to be better than the surrounding houses. We're not building an institution.

And we did it to the tune of 100,000 units, and there are now lessons all across the nation of how good it can be when it works well. In Pittsburgh you have the Manchester Terrace, you have Lockwood Gardens in Oakland, the Valencia in San Francisco, the Kennedy Brothers complex in El Paso, and you have Centennial Place here, which is as good an illustration of these concepts as anywhere in the nation.

And we went back to the Chicago Housing Authority and we spent the better part of this year working on those very thorny issues that started it in the first place. Sitting down with the residents and trying to develop the trust, and sitting down with the city officials and trying to understand their fears, and trying to tackle the financial problems.

And I can't tell you the pride I have as the HUD Secretary to say that finally, after 40 years, that Chicago Housing Authority that should have never been built in the first place, is finally going to come down. Not one building, not two buildings, but all of it. We signed an agreement two weeks ago with the Mayor of the City of Chicago, Mayor Daley, whose father built the Chicago Housing Authority in the first place, with Congressman Bobby Rush who was a former Black Panther and got involved because of many of the issues that this Housing Authority raised. And we shook hands and we agreed to a plan that's going to take it all down, and build it the way it should have been built in the first place - in the community, in townhouses, in ownership, rich and poor together, black and white together, not separated, not distanced, not walled off one from the other.

And that ends the metaphor, and it closes the chapter. But it opens the last chapter and that's the chapter that is left to write, and that is the chapter that you need to write. Because what you have done with HOPE VI, what you have done with these 100,000 units is not the end in and of itself. Because as you know, we have to do so much more. This was just righting the wrong. This was just saying to the American people, we acknowledge the mistake that we made when we made it, and we can correct it. And by the way, we know how to do it.

But what we now have to do not only as housing people, but also as community development people, as activists, as advocates, as believers in cities, we have to take this step and build upon it. And we have to take this step and make it the first step of a march and a parade that says, look what we can do. Yes, we took those 100,000, seven percent of the public housing stock that needed to be rebuilt and we did it. But I have news for you - forget seven percent, forget 100,000 units, there are millions of units of need. You have 5.3 million Americans who need affordable housing in this nation, the highest number ever. This now gives us the credibility to bring our approach to scale.

You have a strong economy, the best economy in history, behind you. You're looking at a surplus. You have the product, you have the credibility, you have the proof that you can do this. Come look at Centennial Place. Come look at Kennedy Brothers. Don't tell me we can't. We can. You have a HUD, believe it or not, that is working and is back in business and is on your side. We made the changes we had to make. It is working. (APPLAUSE).

You have the best HUD budget proposed in 20 years by this President, President Bill Clinton, a $6 billion increase. Every program in HUD goes up. 120,000 new vouchers, including the first production program in 17 years. Because vouchers are nice, but hard units are better, never forget that. We're going back into the production business for the first time in 17 years. (APPLAUSE). Fair Housing is up. 100 percent operating PFS for public housing, finally. CDBG is up, economical development is up, a third round of Empowerment Zones - right across the board, more resources.

And you have to take this product and take this opportunity and show the American people what we can do and then let us take this to scale, because we were right in 1937, and we were right in 1949, and we lost our way in the middle. Because we should believe in ourselves, and we can be better than this. And safe, clean, decent housing is the minimum of what we should do. Because we are that good, and we can do it. Just show the American people, just show the Mayors, show the local communities, show the Congress how good it can be.

And then let's take this country that has so much promise and bring it to a higher place. You think this is a success with your great economy and your Dow Jones? Imagine how good we can be when every person in public housing is making a contribution, When every young person is off the street and is learning and is working. Imagine how strong we can be when we say, this is not just about an economic transaction, it's about forging community. It's about forging one people out of various races and various colors. It's about welcoming rather than excluding.

That's what public housing is really a metaphor for in this nation. How do we treat one another. How do we include one another. How do we forge community. Can we actually live up to the founding premise of this nation. Our founding fathers said "E pluribus unum" - out of many one. Can we do it? You say, yes, we can. Thank you and God Bless.

Content Archived: January 20, 2009

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