Prepared Remarks for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program's Discussion - "From Despair to Hope: Two HUD Secretaries on Urban Revitalization and Opportunity"

National Press Club
Washington, DC
Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

Thank you, Henry.

I want to thank the Brookings Institution, particularly the Metropolitan Policy Program and my good friend, Bruce Katz, for hosting this event and for his commitment to innovative metropolitan policy.

But let me thank you, Henry, for your friendship, for your leadership, and above all for your commitment to advancing the idea that every American ought to have a safe, affordable place to call home.

In his three-and-a-half decades in public life, Henry has opened the doors of opportunity to millions of Americans.

It was in San Antonio that he began his crusade against racial and economic segregation and isolation - a battle that he would wage in communities across America when he became our nation's tenth Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

It was in that role that he helped craft and refine one of the most powerful weapons to fight concentrated poverty our country has ever known:

The HOPE VI program - the history and promise of which we celebrate and seek to build upon today.

This afternoon, I'd like to share the Obama Administration's vision for neighborhood transformation in the 21st century.

In so doing, I'd like to discuss how HOPE VI changed the face of public housing.

And above all, I want to explain the moment we're in and how I believe HUD's comprehensive new initiative, Choice Neighborhoods, will help us seize that moment, working in concert with our broader initiatives on the sustainability of communities. By building on the lessons we've all learned from HOPE VI, I believe we can create the geography of opportunity America needs to succeed in the decades to come.

Public Housing, Urban Renewal and the Concentration of Poverty

But before I do, I wanted to take a few moments to put what Henry just said in a bit of context.

To understand HOPE VI-why it was created, what it has accomplished and where it must go from here-I believe we need to understand the relationship between poverty and housing policy in the United States, and the neighborhoods of concentrated poverty that resulted not in spite of government policy - but in many cases because of it.

For both better and worse, the notion of "public housing" in the United States was, in many ways, sparked in my home city of New York at the turn of the century.

In response to Jacob Riis's How the Other Half Lives, awakening America to what he described as "the hot beds of epidemics" and "deadly moral contagion" of the city's cramped tenements, Governor Teddy Roosevelt and Lawrence Veiller created a State Tenement House Commission to address the deplorable conditions depicted in Riis's photographs.

Riis, Jane Adams, Lillian Wald, and others in the emerging settlement house movement recognized that substandard physical structures, as terrible as they were, were only part of the problem.

They believed then what Henry would nearly a century later - that transformation required a focus on something far more ambitious:

On physical health, on education, on access to economic opportunity.

On meaningful outcomes that often resulted from the overall condition of the neighborhood - on which the built environment was a major influence to be sure.

It took the Great Depression for the Federal government to enter the housing market on a broad scale - the primary motivation of which was to not to help the poorest of the poor, but to stimulate an economy in which anyone could lose their home and become poor overnight.

As part of the New Deal, while the Federal Housing Administration provided home mortgage financing, the Wagner-Steagall Act provided construction jobs in the devastated housing sector and housing for working families at a time of massive, widespread unemployment, effectively launching public housing in America.

This housing wasn't envisioned as permanent in the sense that generation after generation of the same families would live in it - but to help families move up the ladder toward economic opportunity and the middle class.

But that all began to change with the urban renewal movement, which swept through American cities beginning in the 1930's and flourished in immediate post-war America.

Urban renewal was part of a broader intellectual and legal movement that believed that experts could reengineer society - eliminating poverty and other social ills.

Across the national landscape, new legal entities emerged-not coincidentally named "authorities"- intended to free these technocrats from the small minded prejudices and political whims that might keep them from realizing their ambitions. From the Tennessee Valley to the East and West Coasts, authorities were created to distribute resources on an epic scale and with ostensibly scientific precision.

Of course, heads of housing, transportation, water, and other planning authorities brought their own prejudices to bear on the distribution of the enormous pools of the resources that they controlled.

In essence, they were empowered to remake the American urban landscape and accountable to virtually no one - least of all vulnerable members of society whom their decisions most acutely affected.

The face of this movement-both its undeniable achievements and unpardonable arrogance-was, of course, Robert Moses, a portion of whose legacy I inherited for the last five years in New York City as its Commissioner of Housing Preservation and Development.

Over the course of four decades-at one point the head of no fewer than a dozen different authorities-Moses undeniably transformed the face of New York - building tens of thousands of public housing units, major bridges and infrastructure from the Verrazano to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and adding some 20,000 acres to the city's parkland.

In this obsessive pursuit to transform the physical environment of metropolitan America-to build high rise housing and highway infrastructure that met the needs of the emerging "exit ramp economy"-neighborhoods from Chicago to Detroit to Los Angeles were literally wiped from the map - some distressed, others well-functioning.

And in their place, they left the ingredients for neighborhoods that would prove to be more segregated and more concentrated in poverty than those that had come before, filled with high rise housing of last resort - "superblocks," as "new urbanist" architect Peter Calthorpe called them in Henry's book.

The irony was, it wasn't that the housing units were substandard - not at first, anyway. Not in comparison to what they had replaced.

It was the communities themselves that were substandard.

With no semblance of walkability or human scale, the built environment and location conspired to disconnect residents from schools, jobs, transportation, and, above all, opportunity.

The result, as Jim Carr and Nandinnee Kutty put it in the indispensible collection, Segregation, was that "living conditions were not only physically undesirable - they were damaging to the human spirit."

Indeed, no one was more deeply wounded than African-Americans living in our cities who were left with no choice but to move into public housing developments that were more crowded and more segregated than the neighborhoods they came from.

The nation witnessed a wholesale creation of what historian Arthur Hirsch called a federally-sponsored "second ghetto" in which "government took an active hand not merely in reinforcing prevailing patterns of segregation, but in lending them a permanence never seen before."

So what had begun as a holistic effort on the part of Riis, Adams and others to reject the life of despair in the tenements had, in a matter of decades, actually deepened it - creating whole neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and segregation.

This wasn't simply the work of public housing alone, but rather a broader set of discriminatory practices encouraged by a web of federal policies - redlining by lenders, FHA policies which actively promoted segregated communities, highway systems that isolated minority neighborhoods, and, of course, officially-sanctioned segregation of schools, restaurants and other public facilities.

Nor was this the work of Robert Moses alone, whose legacy was quite complex.

Indeed, I've seen the premium Moses and his successors put on the mixed-income profile of the City's public housing stock, in large part preventing the declines we saw elsewhere in the country.

And having run through the magnificent colonnade of the Orchard Beach public bathhouse with my young boys, I've also seen how many of the remarkable public works that Moses left still today serve the low income and minority communities he's been accused of destroying.

But rather than the first step up the ladder to opportunity public housing was intended to be when created during the Great Depression, in too many cities and in too many developments, it had become a barrier to opportunity - "warehouses for the very poor," as Bruce so powerfully put it.

This was the context within which HOPE VI was formed - by Henry and by Congressional champions like Senator Kit Bond and Barbara Mikulski, and by forward-thinkers across the country who informed their ideas. Their goal was to not only demolish those warehouses, but build something better in their place.

Something far greater than any physical structure could represent.


By the 1980's, the transformation was complete: in too many communities, we had taken the community out of public housing policy.

The National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing had found that only 6 percent-86,000 units of the nation's 1.3 million public housing units-of public housing was severely distressed. Yet in the public's mind, the name "Cabrini-Green" and the terrible images it conjured had become synonymous with public housing generally - a symbol of the shattered lives William Julius Wilson immortalized in The Truly Disadvantaged.

Decades of neglect and silo-driven social interventions had left our most distressed developments in physical shambles and the people living in them, for all intents and purposes, trapped - surrounded by disinvestment, with little- to-no access to jobs, and beset by gang and drug-related violence.

By then, high rises weren't the only vertically-integrated structures that didn't connect to one another on the ground.

Social policies had become so diffuse that residents in public housing could have a dozen case managers from a dozen different agencies-from social welfare to criminal justice-and still no chance for a better life.

The timeworn debate about the American welfare state and the rifle-shot interventions that defined it had obscured the real tragedy:

For those living in public housing, the whole of these interventions-food stamps, income supports like AFDC and later TANF, and others-was far less than the sum of its parts.

Indeed, the fundamental mistake was not to see things as a whole.

Not to see distressed families in the context of distressed public housing.

Not to see distressed public housing in the context of distressed neighborhoods.

Not to see integrated problems as requiring integrated solutions.

And so, HOPE VI wasn't just about tearing down buildings - it was about tearing down ossified social policies.

The genius of the program-and of Henry's leadership of it-is that we went back to the future in many ways - to champion integration and the holistic thinking of those who first called attention to the scourge of concentrated poverty.

Combined with the innovations of Senator Mikulski and the Cleveland Commission on Poverty in the area of complementary supportive services, we began to put less emphasis on output-on the sheer number of units built and cases closed-and more emphasis on outcomes - broad, meaningful outcomes like health, education and access to jobs.

Don't get me wrong - we need more affordable housing opportunities, not less, especially for the lowest income families.

Indeed, a legitimate criticism of HOPE VI is that in some tight housing markets, we lost desperately needed hard units that were affordable to the poorest families - and it is on this point that Chairwoman Maxine Waters has been particularly eloquent.

As we build on HOPE VI, the next generation of housing policy must not penalize an extremely low-income family for the housing market they live in.

We also must acknowledge that some HOPE VI households struggled to use vouchers, while others were perhaps unfairly screened out of new developments - sometimes by procedures that treated families as no more than the sum of their FICO scores.

As important as those concerns are-and just so we're clear, I am committed to addressing them-they should not distract us from the larger truths and undeniable successes of HOPE VI - the substantial declines in neighborhood poverty, in crime and in unemployment, and real, tangible increases in income, property values, and market investment.

The fact is, the majority of families reached by HOPE VI live in safer, healthier neighborhoods today.

For some, opportunity came in the form of greater mobility - of moving to another neighborhood with better jobs, schools, and counseling to help them succeed.

For others, it was a revitalized community - of porches on the street, a regular street grid, and shared public space. Of the smaller structures on a human scale.

But for virtually all of them, opportunity came in the form of a neighborhood with less poverty than the one before.

Before HOPE VI, the Federal government faced the daunting task of building, maintaining and demolishing public housing virtually alone.

It was HOPE VI, people like Henry Cisneros and many people in this room that brought new stakeholders to the table.

As a direct result of HOPE VI development, thousands of low income housing tax credit and market rate units have also been built - as well as community centers, parks and trails, grocery stores, Boys and Girls Clubs, and Head Start facilities.

In all, the $6 billion HUD invested in HOPE VI has leveraged almost three times that amount in additional development capital - $17.5 billion, providing a very good return for the taxpayer, indeed.

Ultimately, an effort to transform public housing developments in cities across America ended up transforming something far greater:

Our very notion of public housing itself.

From HOPE VI to Choice Neighborhoods

It's not a coincidence that the most successful mixed-income, mixed use projects looked beyond the front gates of the new development.

In the case of Murphy Park in St. Louis-the redevelopment of which began with the leadership of Senators Bond and Mikulski before HOPE VI was even authorized-that meant the neighborhood school, Jefferson Elementary, which was avoided by almost every neighborhood family who had the means to opt out of sending their children there.

The project's private developer was Richard Barron of McCormack Barron Salazar, who is with us today and had served on the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing out of which HOPE VI was ultimately created.

Working closely with residents, he not only raised an additional $5 million from private and philanthropic interests to modernize the school - he worked closely with residents and the school board to hire a new principal, with a new curriculum and a new focus on technology, the arts and after school programs.

In the years following Murphy Park's completion, unemployment surrounding the development fell by 35 percent according to a Brookings study. The median household income rose more than four times as fast as the city as a whole. And Jefferson Elementary came to serve 75 percent of the neighborhood's children and children from surrounding communities.

Since HOPE VI's creation in 1993, we've seen these kinds of successes across the country - in New Haven's Elm Haven development, which made a $24 million investment in elementary school.

Charlotte's First Ward Place development not only includes a highly-rated early childhood education center, it is also within walking distance of jobs, services and transportation.

In Boston's Mission Main, with its close ties not only to schools but some of the best hospitals and universities in the country.

Example after example in communities across the country has shown us that the correlation between successful housing and good schools is not just a theory - it's practice.

The same is true of investments in green building technology.

Seattle's High Point development showed that by adding green features we could increase the number of asthma-free days and eliminate mold which often causes dangerous respiratory infections.

This means that instead of having to go on unplanned doctor's visits, High Point children can play in the local park with their parents.

It means, with the right investments, that instead of managing the kinds of chronic illnesses that drive up health care costs for everyone - we can often prevent them entirely.

The Fiscal Year 2009 HOPE VI Notice of Funding Availability we announce today builds on these very innovations - encouraging HOPE VI applicants to also invest in early childhood education.

It also builds on pioneering HOPE VI projects like High Point and the investments of the Recovery Act to encourage state and local governments to increase green building and energy efficiency.

But as much as we want to nurture and expand innovation at the local level, there's a limit to what we can do under current law.

Within a few miles of all of us today, there's an Anacostia neighborhood called Washington Highlands. But it could be virtually anywhere in urban America.

Fifteen years ago, the media spotlight briefly focused on the nightmarish conditions in the neighborhood's large, distressed housing developments - Frederick Douglass, Stanton Dwellings, Parkside Terrace and Wheeler Terrace.

Some of you may remember the report on MacNeil-Lehrer.

To quote a report commissioned by Henry, Washington Highlands presented a "worst-case situation" for HUD.

Did it ever.

As the report stated, "two separate and distinct HUD program areas…[were] alleged to be contributing to the deterioration" of the neighborhood - public housing and Project-based Section 8, subsidizing private developers and owners.

Thanks to HOPE VI, local and national non-profits, the D.C. government and private developers had ready access to a program to develop two of those properties - the plan for which included a new community center, elementary school, public library, and a parks and recreation facility.

But the challenge didn't end there, because the two other housing developments in Washington Highlands didn't qualify for HOPE VI funding.

Not because they weren't distressed.

Not because there weren't the same social problems in those buildings as the ones across the street.

Not even because they were less federally-subsidized.

But simply because they were subsidized by different programs at HUD - programs that Henry's team noted had virtually never coordinated their development and asset-management efforts.

The media didn't make the distinction.

The residents didn't make the distinction.

Gangs and drug dealers certainly didn't make the distinction.

And thankfully, the community leaders who were fighting to turn the neighborhood around didn't make the distinction either. Once again, they moved ahead to work with public and private partners like Community Preservation and Development Corporation and Enterprise Community Partners to secure the necessary funding to redevelop these projects.

So, if no one else made this distinction, why should HUD?

Henry's team noted back in 1994 that the Department had "no ready mechanism" to deal with the problem of high concentrations of public and subsidized housing in a single neighborhood.

And fifteen years later, we still don't.

That's why we've introduced our Choice Neighborhoods initiative, to help public, private and nonprofit partners extend neighborhood transformation efforts beyond public housing - as they are already doing on their own, in spite of the fact that their government is often a barrier.

Choice Neighborhoods will make the Federal government a part of the team, just as HOPE VI did.

I want to be clear:

Even as we expand this mission, public housing transformation is still our priority at HUD. That's why our FY 2010 budget request for Choice Neighborhoods would be $250 million - more than double the funding we have for HOPE VI this year.

But a Hope VI development that is surrounded by disinvestment, by failing schools or by other distressed housing has virtually no chance of truly succeeding.

That's what Choice Neighborhoods is all about. It would expand on the legacy of HOPE VI by expanding the range of activities eligible for funding and capitalize on the full range of stakeholders we know are needed and want to be involved - from local governments and non-profits to private firms and public housing agencies.

And like the successful Jobs Plus Demonstration, residents in public and assisted housing would be eligible to receive work incentives and work supports.

Choice Neighborhoods would also link housing interventions more closely with intensive school reform and early childhood innovations. Critically, the Department of Education is standing shoulder-to-shoulder with us in this effort with its new Promise Neighborhoods initiative.

Together, we want to replicate the enormous success of the Harlem Children Zone on a national scale.

Combined with HUD's Sustainable Communities Initiative to bring transportation and housing planning together at the local level to reduce costs and increase opportunities for working families, we believe Choice Neighborhoods has the potential to revitalize and transform communities across the country.

I believe Choice Neighborhoods will do for our communities what HOPE VI did for public housing - as far as I'm concerned, it must.

Indeed, it must do better. The "technology" of combining housing and supportive services has progressed enormously - particularly for our most vulnerable populations. Back in 1992, it was virtually inconceivable that we could try to help the longest standing, most chronically homeless-whether on LA's Skid Row, the streets in Seattle, or in the parks in New York City-and find that a year later nearly 90 percent of those individuals remain housed. Yet that is happening now, every day.

There is no excuse any longer, if there ever was, to fail to house and support every family now living in a distressed public or assisted housing project.

The simple fact is, today we can house anyone.

Our challenge now is to house everyone.

The Geography of Opportunity

For me, and for our President, it all comes down to a very simple belief:

Whether we live in a city or in the Great American Heartland, every American has a stake in urban revitalization and neighborhood transformation.

Today, America's cities and surrounding communities are increasingly becoming the engine of our nation's economic growth. Ninety cents of every dollar in our economy is generated by our metropolitan areas. These same communities house more than two-thirds of our population.

That's why I was proud to join President Obama yesterday at the White House as he laid out the new vision he's articulated for our cities and urban communities, who have never depended on our ability to work together more than they do at this moment.

Like him, I know change is never easy - that revitalizing our nation's urban communities won't happen overnight. Nor will it happen because of any one policy or the work of any one agency.

Every one of those communities depends on the same thing:


It is the foundation upon which all of us build our lives, raise our children and plan for our futures.

It's the building block with which we forge neighborhoods and put down roots.

If the crisis we find ourselves in today has taught us anything, it is that home is an essential source of stability - for our families, our communities and our country.

If a century of housing policy has taught us anything, it's that if there isn't equal access to safe, affordable housing, there isn't equal opportunity.

And if sixteen years of HOPE VI has taught us anything, it's that building communities in a more integrated and inclusive way isn't separate from advancing social and economic justice and the promise of America - it's absolutely essential to it.

It's inseparable from the idea that, in America, our hopes and our dreams should never be limited by where we live-an idea that, as we speak, Judge Sotomayor-a product of America's public housing-is on Capitol Hill proving to the world.

Our goal today is to ensure that every child in America has the same opportunity. Let us rise to meet it.


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