WHAT IS CHANGING THE NARRATIVE?
Changing the Narrative is a resident-centered, place-based community engagement project whose mission is to expand the discussion around the public housing program and perception to be more inclusive of residents’ voices and lived experience. The project seeks to place the resident at the heart of the story about public housing life. CTN aims to create spaces within public housing developments by organizing workshops for residents to discuss their individual and collective histories about life, family and community in public housing. Workshops allow us to organize residents and build community while pushing back against the notion that there is not much more to these communities. They also serve as a way to empower residents to own their narrative and share their stories while working toward shedding the stigma attached to public housing; which is borne mostly from outside reporting. The majority of outside reporting about public housing focuses heavily on the deteriorating structures, crime and drugs, unsanitary conditions, federal disinvestment, and the effects of concentrated poverty. Those stories are one dimensional; lacking the depth, complexity, and rich texture that actual residents provide when their voice is included. Learning from the resident’s perspective provide insight into the organic community building and organizing, leadership, policy impact, and resistance that is crucial to the sustainability of these communities. Those are the stories that we want to hear and share in order to help change the way we perceive the program, the residents, and the communities.
WHAT IS PUBLIC HOUSING?
Public housing is a federal rental-assistance program that provides rent subsidies for low-income residents. The program is managed by local housing authorities under the Department of Housing and Urban Development. There are two crucial pieces of legislation that helped to develop the public housing program. The first was the Wagner-Stegall Housing Act of 1937 which sought to improve housing conditions through the demolition and clearance of slums, increase the supply of decent and affordable housing for low-income families, reduce unemployment, and create the United States Housing Authority. The second was the housing act of 1949 which was responsible for the creation of the FHA. There is a lot of history to unpack between these two acts, lots going on and too much to enter here; however, the takeaways are that what started out as a program for the public good has turned into something else entirely.
WHAT ARE THE THEMES OF THE CURRENT NARRATIVE?
Most discussions are centered on how bad the living conditions are, how poor the people are, or the lack of financial resources the housing authority needs to operate and manage the developments properly. In the early days of the program, public housing was touted as a cause worth investment, however, now most of the talk is negative. The words and images currently in circulation seem to validate the theory that public housing is a failure, the communities are in peril, and that most residents don’t work and just want to live off of the system. This stigma is attached to the residents and their communities and over time has been internalized to where residents often point to one another for the current conditions. This story is incomplete and has largely been told without much input at all from the people who live there.
WHY IS THIS PROJECT IMPORTANT?
There are many housing advocates fighting for the protection of safe, decent, and affordable housing. They are fighting for rent reforms, tenant’s rights, ending homelessness, and housing justice. Many of the community organizations that fight for housing justice do not have a targeted mission for public housing. Even though public housing can respond to many of the housing insecurities and injustices that so many community organizations fight against, there are a limited number of community organizations that advocate primarily for the public housing program.
Public housing is a vital resource for the nation’s densely populated, urban centers because it provides families with rent stability, housing security, and decent, affordable housing. The security of public housing includes affordable rents so that residents are not burdened with making crucial choices between rent, food, and medicine. Urban centers, where public housing is often located, employ attractive features such as transportation and employment hubs, culture and entertainment, and familial, social, and racial diversity. Even though it can provide all these amenities and provide much needed security, it is stigmatized and allowed to continue to deteriorate and remain under-funded. Government disinvestment has been blamed for the insurmountable challenges to public housing authorities, who need sufficient capital and operational funds to manage housing effectively. The absence of this funding has put this sorely-needed resource at risk.
This project is important because it provides a space for the inclusion of resident’s voices at a time when new strategies and policies are being created to reposition public housing. Understanding what residents need and want can help inform new policies that could improve their lives and communities.
This timely project is a by-product of the current housing crisis in New York city and the country. A plethora of activism from community groups, residents, and housing advocates are doing the work of fighting for housing justice in all its forms. The crisis is widely reported as a shortage of affordable housing; meanwhile, public housing stock in New York requires about $32 billion for capital improvement and repairs. To some housing advocates, public housing provides a solution to the shortage of affordable housing, but recognize the need for capital funding in order to transform and expand public housing units. In New York the narrative is centered around raising capital to repair existing stock and build more affordable housing (which is very different from public housing). The mantra leading up to new neoliberal policies to save NYCHA was persistent and resolute in its message that in order to save this housing stock for the next generation, officials would need to think strategically and form unique partnerships to help achieve those goals. Policy makers are deciding to move forward without giving much consideration to the fears and concerns of the residents who will, in the short term, benefit from these decisions, but may prove to be detrimental in the long term. Most administration officials believe that the amount of money needed for public housing can only come from forming public-private partnerships. Residents, however, are skeptical about the fate of their communities, and rightfully so. Throughout the country they have heard, and often experienced, the story of demolition and displacement, urban renewal, mixed-income developments, deconcentration of poverty, and other mobility programs. Case studies have shown that outcomes were not always great. Before we embark on that journey again, it is important to hear residents’ account of what these communities mean to them beyond the physical structures before they become subjects of new case analysis. It is urgent that we create an awareness and record accounts of resident history and experience in order to counter the current discourse.
Public housing in New York City is currently being repositioned under the Housing and Urban Development Department. (NLIHC) The four policies used to accomplish this are: the Rental Demonstration Program, demolition, conversion from housing to vouchers, and the retention of assets. With this valuable resource under attack, it is important for residents to be heard before we lose this valuable commodity.