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Secretary Andrew Cuomo's Remarks
PHAS Awards

April 21, 1999

SECRETARY CUOMO: Thank you Mr. Porter for that kind introduction.

Mr. Hockett, thank you for those beautiful words of inspiration.

Mr. Blue thank you for the intelligence and power in your remarks

And Sarah Glaser . . . I think I'm in love Sarah. What do you think your father would say, Sarah?

God bless you. What a talent.

Harold Lucas, who I believe when the history book is written on public housing, he will go down as the Assistant Secretary who truly transformed public housing in America and brought it to a different place - the rightful place. And it is my pleasure to work with him as a colleague and see him in action. Thank you Harold Lucas for everything you do.

You've heard the message of the day. Let me just put a couple of exclamation points on it if I can.

I believe, truly, that this is an historic day for public housing. It's going to be a turning point.

The story that is being told today - the rightful story, the truthful story - has been too long in coming.

And it works on two levels.

The first level is: it is a beautiful story of success for you in your housing authority with your residents in your community.

I was in the housing business. I worked, before I became the HUD Secretary, before I became a paper-pushing bureaucrat, I actually had an honest job. And I ran housing. And I know that the only way to run a housing development is unit by unit, brick by brick, laundry room by laundry room. No easy way to do it. And to have a successful housing authority means you work day in and day out. You took care of every complaint, went to every tenant meeting. No big broad strokes to make it all work. It takes days of effort and that is a glorious accomplishment on all of your parts and you should all be proud.

You provide safe, clean, decent housing for the residents who live there. You are a good neighbor to the rest of the community. And you have honored the commitment that your board put in you. Not easily done. But you did it. And that is an outstanding accomplishment in and of itself.

You are one of the nation's finest, and you should be proud of it.

The second accomplishment, though, goes beyond you and your housing authority, and I think it's about the institution and the industry of public housing, by and large. Because what today is really about is telling the truth about public housing.

What does that mean? It means for many years, literally for decades, this nation has had a false impression of public housing. It has had the wrong stereotype of public housing. Unfair. Incorrect. But pervasive.

You go across the nation and you say to someone that you work in public housing. And they say, "Oh, Public Housing."

"I want to put public housing on this site." . . . . "No you don't." . . . Why not . . . We don't want public housing here. . . Why not? . . . Well because public housing didn't work. Public Housing is a failure . . . Really? . . . Yeah. You know public housing.

Public housing is Cabrini Green. That was the icon. That was the symbol for public housing. Not right. Not correct. Not true. But that was the impression.

Cabrini Green was public housing, or if you went to the South-Southwest, West Dallas Housing Authority. Same configuration. Different manifestation. Where Cabrini Green built high. Building after building. State street corridor, 4 and a half miles of high-rises.

West Dallas Housing Authority was the same concept in a different physical configuration - low and wide. It went on block after block. Not high but wide.

And that's what the American people thought public housing was. And that's why they didn't want it in their back yard. And that's why they don't want to fund it. And that's why they don't want to support it. Because the stereotype is failure. And we allowed that impression to be set. And we allowed that impression to continue for decades.

Until we correct that impression, we will never do what we have to do with public housing in this nation.

Why? Because we'll never have the support. Because if the American people believe that it's a failure, then they're not going to support it. And they're not going to continue it. And they're not going to replicate it. Why would you if it's a failure? If public housing is Pruitt-Igoe and Cabrini Green and West Dallas Housing Authority, why would you do any more of it? You wouldn't. They're not wrong in their assumption, given their premise. If that's what it was, then we shouldn't do any more of it.

But that's not what public housing is. It's not Chicago or West Dallas Housing Authority. It is 3,400 public housing authorities across this nation. The vast majority of which are beautiful success stories. They provide safe, clean, decent housing with their residents in partnership. They're good neighbors. They've done a good service. And they've done it well. And they do it efficiently. And they do it effectively. That's the truth. That's the real story. But we had to get that story in front of the American people and displace the Cabrini Greens and the West Dallas Housing Authorities.

And I believe that was our greatest challenge - only to tell the truth, only to get the correct information before the American people. Easier said than done. Why? Because they had the other image for so long.

So we said look. We are not afraid of the truth in public housing. We welcome the truth in public housing. In public housing, the truth shall set us free.

And we want to tell the truth. Please, look at public housing. We're proud of what we are. And we're proud of what we've done. We welcome your inspection. (Applause)

We didn't from the light. We ran toward the light. Come in and look at my housing. Come and look at my PHA. I welcome you in. I'm proud of what I've done. Talk to my residents. Talk to my board. Let me take you on a tour of my PHA. I am not afraid of the light, and I am not afraid of the truth.

HUD, in my opinion, never did public housing the service that it deserved. Because once the stereotype was negative, it was easier, frankly, to reinforce the negative. It was easier to talk about how much public housing we're blowing up. We're blowing it up. We're blowing it up. We're blowing it up. Why? Because that was consistent with the stereotype. What's the best thing you can do with Cabrini Green? Blow it up.

And that was the message from this Department: we're blowing up public housing. But it only confirmed the negative, which was that it was a failure. And the truth is we are blowing it up in those limited cases where it was a failure. But of the 3,400 housing authorities, that is a miniscule minority.

Why did we tell the negative without telling the positive?

This new system. Because in Washington everything has to be a system. The new system is to tell the truth about public housing. Come look at us, and then tell the nation what you see. And that's what we did.

We got the best professionals in the country to go out and look at public housing - with fancy new devices - hand-held computers with little punch-pins and new regulations and a new REAC center, which stands for something that I forget. But we went and put this new system in place and we said we're going to go out and look at public housing, and we're going to tell you what we see honestly.

And they went out and they looked at public housing - all across the nation - big, small, medium sized - coast to coast. And they said that public housing is a miraculous success story in this nation.

You know what happened. They went out, and they didn't just see Cabrini Green. They didn't see just West Dallas Housing Authority. They saw your housing authority. And that was a different picture of public housing in this nation.

Now listen to these numbers. When you want to talk about an American success story, and you want to talk about the truth - the truth - contrary to public opinion:

Three out of Four PHAs rated as successful performers or high performers.

87 percent of PHAs rated as either Good or Excellent in their physical condition.

When the residents were asked what they thought of their public housing authorities - 75 percent of the residents said they were either satisfied or very satisfied with their public housing authority.

That is a phenomenal record of accomplishment.

Now how do PHAs compare to other businesses in the nation.

Is that really a record to be proud of. So we looked at the numbers compiled by Arthur Anderson, which does customer service surveys of all businesses. 75 percent of our customers say they were satisfied or very satisfied with their public housing authority. That is a higher percentage than the average of all the other businesses in the United States. The average customer approval is 72 percent after they surveyed 35 industries. The satisfaction with public housing is higher than the national average.

It's higher than the hotel industry, the banking industry, the fast food industry, the retail industry, and the utility industry.

Public Housing Authorities beat McDonald's. Beat Pizza Hut. Beat Citibank. Beat ´┐Żem all. That's the truth about Public Housing Authorities (Applause).

You should also know that we they went out and did the honest inspection and told the honest story that the assisted housing inventory, the other side of the HUD portfolio, the FHA side, the mortgage insurance side, was also an overwhelming success - about 83 percent of those units were also in excellent or good condition.

So, the story of the PHAs, the story of assisted housing is a success story.

Why is it important to get the truth out?

It's important, first of all, for you and your community.

It's important, second of all, for public housing authorities writ-large, across the country.

The truth is we have to do more for you.

We in this Department have to get more resources, more flexiblity so you can do your job better. We know that you have backed up modernization needs. We know that you're operating on a shoestring on the operating formula. We want to get you more funds. What we need before we can get you more funds is more Congressional support. To get more Congressional support we need more support from the American people. To get more support from the American people, we had to tell them the truth about the beautiful work that you are actually doing. And that's what today is all about. It's a vindication of public housing in this country, and hopefully now we will be able to get you the support that you need.

But even more than that, I think it operates on a higher level, in some ways. Public housing to me has always been a very simple, but a very powerful message about this nation.

Public housing started in the 1937 Housing Act. And what they said in the 1937 Housing Act was that it is the policy of the United States to promote the general welfare of the American people by providing safe, clean, decent housing. That was the policy of the United States. We said that in 1937.

I don't know that we have been as ambitious or as aggressive as a nation since then.

In some ways we were bolder then. To step up to the plate and say everybody in this nation should have safe, clean, and decent housing. We said it in 1937. We haven't said it since.

Why? Why were we bolder in 1937 than we are in 1999 walking forward to the new millennium. What happened in that interval?

Why were we more interested in our neighbor, in our sense of community in 1937 than we are today?

What happened in that interval? When we were once courageous enough to say we're going to build public housing all across the nation, because we believe it's an investment in people and places and community. And were courageous enough to do it.

Somewhere along the way, we lost that energy. We lost that commitment.

My own theory is that we believed, mistakenly once again, that we tried and we failed. That's why it's important to correct the perception.

Public housing is a view of this nation and its aspirations at it finest.

It says, we can do more than just for ourselves. As Mr. Hopkins pointed out quoting Martin Luther King, we are in this together. And it's not enough for me to get mine, if you don't get yours. And it's not enough for me to have a beautiful home if you're sleeping on the streets tonight. And public housing in 1937 said that. It said that we understand that. We know that. That we must be together. We must be a community. We must be interconnected. We must be interrelated. And I won't sleep well until you sleep well. And WE CAN DO IT. (Applause) It is possible. We have the capacity. We have the knowledge. And we will.

Public Housing has to say to the nation, you weren't wrong. You were right. You had the right dream, the right goal, the right aspiration, and we did it. And we did it well. Now let us do more of it. Let us build more public housing and modernize the public housing that we have. And let us build more 202s. And let us build a better education system. And let us do economic development. And let us do health care, because we can do these things.

When they say to you that you can't do public housing. They're saying you can't do any of this. You can't do progressive government. You can't do activist government. You can't reach out and help your neighbor. And we have to say you're wrong. We can. And look at the truth. And show the light. And look at an American success story. And then let's build on it.

That's the story of public housing, and that's your story. Thank you for telling it.

Content Archived: January 20, 2009

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