During a recent visit to the Operation PUSH headquarters in Chicago, new U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Andrew Cuomo offered little concrete about his plans for public housing communities.
In a breakfast speech, radio broadcast and press conference on Sept. 6, Cuomo talked about his concerns for public housing issues but used words that the residents of CHA have been listening to since May 1995, when HUD took over the agency. That’s when residents first started being bombarded with words about what HUD’s plans for CHA were.
Like others before him, Cuomo said HUD now wishes to involve CHA residents in the redevelopment of CHA.
“It’s not for us to do. It’s for the people in the communities to do,” he said at the breakfast.
“It’s for you to build your community as you see fit. That’s what empowerment is all about.”
"Let's not say we're going to get out of the housing business. Let's say we have to get into the housing business and do it right. That's going to be the story of Cabrini, Horner, ABLA and other redevelopments." -HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo. Photo by John Brooks
Cuomo seemed to say that redevelopment in many communities was going well. But he apparently is not aware that many residents in these communities are very suspicious that redevelopment really means land grab. I wasn’t put at ease when he said,
“Let’s not say we’re going to get out of the housing business. Let’s say we have to get into the housing business and do it right. That’s going to be the story of Cabrini, Horner, ABLA and other redevelopments.”
Cuomo said 87 percent of new jobs are in the suburbs and 97 percent of new businesses are in the suburbs. Well, I don’t think that is any surprise to the vast majority of public housing residents that are unemployed. Plus, when residents do go out on a job interview, they often are not hired. Cuomo did not provide specifics about developing new training or job placement programs:
“We just reformed welfare. Amen. But it’s not making them work, it’s about letting them work.”
Cuomo made another statement that the way public housing was set up, it was doomed to fail because of poverty in public housing along with crime:
“A good idea gone bad – that’s what public housing is. You should have known it was bad before you put that first brick down,” Cuomo said at the Operation PUSH breakfast and radio address.
“The mentality was ‘Let’s pack them in there because the more you can get in there, the better. Let’s build public housing and let’s put it all in one place and put it far away and then let’s build a wall between us and them.’
“Of course it failed. It was doomed to fail.”
Later at a press conference at Operation PUSH, Cuomo said public housing was “a good idea implemented by amoral leadership.
“The housing was a good idea but the leadership was perverted.”
But is it the buildings that are causing the problems in public housing or is it the way the buildings are run? Almost all of the residents of public housing are low-income and once a resident of public housing achieves a steady income in the mid range, you can bet that within a year, that person will have moved out. There is no incentive for someone to stay in public housing once their income increases. Why live in an area where your neighbor’s rent is 90 percent lower than yours and some may be selling drugs out of their unit or violating lease regulations by having illegal tenants or participating in other criminal activities?
The problems that go on in CHA are often fueled by people who come from other areas of Chicago and the suburbs. These people would not allow the type of activity in their communities that they support in public housing. CHA raises rent when income increases but living conditions are still deplorable. During the press conference, I asked Cuomo how he could convince the people who have been chased away from public housing by these conditions to stay there. He told me:
“We’re going to improve the community and make it a community that they want to live in.”
We heard the same lines from former CHA Chairman Vince Lane, former HUD Secretaries Jack Kemp and Henry Cisneros as well as President Bill Clinton. But you can tear down the building and the community will still exist along with the problems that are there. You can preach about how putting someone to work will help the community but what good does it do when that someone of good moral standards moves out and another resident who may have an anti-social background moves in? Then we are back where we started.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder of Operation PUSH, was more specific on how to create communities that house both low- and middle-income residents. The way to create these neighborhoods is keep middle-income families from leaving poor areas because they don’t want to be part of those communities.
"What we really want to do is end low0income areas. Isolation and poverty cause the anqiety." -the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Founder of Operation PUSH. Photo by John Brooks
“What we really want to do is end low-income areas. Isolation and poverty cause the anxiety,” Jackson said.
It can be tough living in the shadow of a famous father, especially when your father was well respected by most and held high marks among fellow politicians. When your father is former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, people will have high expectations of the offspring. Which puts Andrew Cuomo in an interesting situation: Does he become his father or break away and make a name for himself.
Though I am not going to compare him to his father or his predecessor, former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, and I am also taking into consideration that he’s been on the job for less than a year, I found his statements to be predictable.
I would advise Cuomo to get down to some serious business. The people of public housing know what has to be done. So let’s do it.