Remaking Public Housing
Reviewed by Karen Ceraso
Charter Oak Terrace: Life, Death and Rebirth of a Public Housing Project, David Radcliffe. 194 pp. Hartford, CT: Southside Media, 1998.
As housing authorities across the country attempt to transform public housing developments into the working class communities they were at their inception, the question looming large in the minds of many affordable housing advocates is whether that is possible without displacing large numbers of very low-income people. It's one of the questions raised in Charter Oak Terrace: Life, Death and Rebirth of a Public Housing Project by David Radcliffe.
The history of public housing in the United States is embodied in the story of Charter Oak, originally a 1,000 unit development in Hartford, Connecticut, built as "war housing" (inhabited mostly by white families working in the defense industry during WWII). Radcliffe's book traces the evolution of Charter Oak and details recent attempts to remake the project from worn, outdated barracks-style units into a new development of single-family and duplex homes. It also looks at demographic changes in Charter Oak, where for many years the Hartford Housing Authority (HHA) maintained a policy of controlled integration, limiting the number of black families who could live there. Later, after more black families moved in and many whites moved from public housing into suburbs that were closed to blacks, large numbers of Puerto Ricans who had migrated to Hartford moved to Charter Oak.
Though Charter Oak deteriorated greatly over the years, the words of the author and residents show what the development has meant to the many who called it home, who watched movies and played with friends in its community center, and who experienced it as a tight-knit community. Even those who lived in Charter Oak when it became mired in gang violence in the 1980s and 90s felt an attachment and were sad to see their homes demolished. Charter Oak Tenants Association President Carmen Lozada describes:
I felt like crying at the demolition. Before they emptied it I went for a walk. I could see the people hanging out the window in the summer, having their barbecues in the lawns. I had this terrible empty feeling like I lost my family. A part of us died. Then I thought, okay, some of these houses have many bad memories. We just had to do this, make the place more open.Lozada had been involved in a controversy over the HHA's plan to demolish the nearly 700 units (some of which were already vacant) in Charter Oak to make room for a commercial development park. The idea was to create jobs along with better housing. But residents felt that HHA Director John Wardlaw and Hartford Mayor Mike Peters had not involved them in the planning, and Lozada and others were livid when they first read about the plan in the Hartford Courant. Some leaders of Hartford's Hispanic community accused Wardlaw of intentionally allowing Charter Oak to deteriorate in order to justify demolition, Radcliffe reports. After the Hartford Courant report appeared, Wardlaw and Mayor Peters met with residents to assuage their fears. Lozada had later discussions with Wardlaw that led her to accept the authority's evolving plan.
Some, however, remained opposed to HHA's approach. Ramon Arroyo of the 3rd District Democratic Town Committee commented, "In Charter Oak, it's not that I was against the plan, but the process. You would have to be crazy not to want a better house. The Housing Authority never involved the community"
Charter Oak Terrace presents a comprehensive view of the different perspectives involved, although the author appears to favor the redevelopment plan. As an organizer for Hartford Areas Rally Together (HART), he helped organize Charter Oak residents at the height of its troubles in the 1990s. HART also convened meetings with residents of Rice Heights, a neighboring state-funded development managed by HHA, and Radcliffe's book details a disagreement between the state and HHA over plans for redeveloping Rice Heights along with Charter Oak. What's not entirely clear is what position HART took in those controversies.
More importantly, for all its detail, the book doesn't fully explore what happened to residents who were displaced: how many tenants found other, better affordable housing elsewhere and how many didn't? Radcliffe does include anecdotes from departing residents discussing the difficulty of relocating, including one Rice Heights tenant who surmises that most won't be able to afford to stay once that development is rebuilt, and he quotes a Hartford Courant article reporting that many residents opted for rental subsidy vouchers. Radcliffe also notes that the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union (CCLU) brought a lawsuit against HHA, on the grounds that some Charter Oak residents were relocated to substandard units and not given a choice of neighborhoods. It isn't clear, however, whether many former Charter Oak residents would be able to move back into the 130 units in the new development.
Today, Charter Oak Terrace as described by Radcliffe is an obvious physical improvement over the dilapidated structures that preceded it. Augmented by a $41 million HUD funding package, the development's "Campus of Learners" setup, in which residents receive training in new telecommunications and computer technology and participate in job training and educational programs, has been hailed as a national model. Nevertheless, only closer study of what happens to all the families displaced as a result of such redevelopment plans will give advocates and public housing residents a definitive answer to their question of whether such plans are worth it.
[Editor's note: The CCLU case against HHA, filed in 1997, was settled in March 1998 with the creation of the Charter Oak Terrace Mobility Program, a new mobility and housing counseling program that will survey former residents to determine their current housing conditions and whether they would like a second chance to move to lower poverty neighborhoods. The Housing Education Resource Center will run this three-year program under contract with the HHA.]