Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Public Housing Needs an Overhaul

Last Thursday I attended the American Planning Association symposium on the last 100 years of the planning profession. Adolfo Carrion, the Director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs, attended and spoke on the President’s agenda related to urban issues. I had a chance to ask him my burning question…

“I live East of the River where there is not only a high percentage of the City’s poor and recipients of public assistance, but also high percentage of residents who have been receiving public assistance for multiple generations. What performance standards can we set for the Federal and local government to assist these residents with becoming self-sufficient?” First, I was impressed that Mr. Carrion, who just relocated to DC to serve in his position, knew what I meant when I said East of the River. Mr. Carrion stated that is something that is on their agenda to tackle.

I will be the first to admit that I am not an expert on social programs and funding. However, from my observation, the current system is not working and unsustainable economically and socially. I think there are two key issues at play…

One, the District Housing Authority may not have the right performance measures. They may not even have performance measures at all. I could not find any on their website, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that they must have something in place. However, perhaps they are not measuring the right things. For example, let’s say their metric is number of families served. Is that really the right metric? I think the metrics should be based on number of families/people they assist in becoming self sufficient within a defined timeframe. They should have a goal to have a certain percentage become self sufficient each year.

Two, the current system creates a disincentive for residents to earn more money. Residents are required to pay up to 30% of their salary towards their household expenses. As your income goes up, so does the amount you are required to pay. Then if you income goes above the limit you are cut off. The cut off point is so low, that you would probably be considered working poor.

So what is the solution? I’m not entirely sure, but I do know that many urban issues are interwoven with other issues. Maybe if the education system was better there would be less poverty. Maybe if there were more working class jobs that were closer to the working class people (note: most jobs are on the west side of the DC metro region, which is why Prince George’s County has a high traffic congestion rate). I think that the solution has to start with a leader of the City that cares about these issues, because it is going to take a true interdepartmental effort.

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