March 28, 2000
By Mike Krause
The old Arapahoe Courts public housing project in Denver has been demolished; all that remains are six blocks of dirt along Arapahoe Street, from 27th to 33rd streets in Denvers Curtis Park neighborhood. The barracks style project was demolished by the Denver Housing authority with the help of a hefty grant (read tax dollars) from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Having provided the money to tear down a failed public housing project, the federal government is ready to pay for the construction of a new public housing project.
Getting rid of Arapahoe Courts was one of the best things that the federal government has done all year. Whether more tax money should be spent on a replacement, however, is debatable.
The reality of unintended consequences is on display here.While no one at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, or at the Denver Housing Authority, actually intended to blight a neighborhood, that is what they have done. As the federal government and its Denver assistants have flooded Curtis Park with public housing projects, the once-thriving neighborhood of 25,000 has decayed to a mere 8,000, while suffering from one of the highest crime rates this side of Los Angeles.
What public housing policies have done to urban neighborhoods is a national disgrace. What may have started as misguided compassion towards the poor has turned into a hugely expensive and uniquely cruel method of segregating the poor and perpetuating a generationally dependent underclass, with the beneficiaries being the political class that controls their lives. Even current HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo now acknowledges that public housing projects promote dependence and decay: living in the projects is a life sentence. Mr. Cuomo then offers some more of the medicine which has nearly killed the Curtis Park neighborhood: lets go back to the original intent of public housing, but correct the implementation.
The idea that the very same agencies that oversaw the demise of the neighborhood can somehow reverse the course with enough tax money and a new central plan is arrogant folly. It was too many tax dollars and too much central planning that drove the current failure. Denver deserves better.
The new HUD/DHA scheme is to build a mixture of subsidized and market rate housing units. Apparently the theory is if we build it, they will come; if the government builds housing and sells it for the full market price, then people with steady jobs and regular incomes will buy the property. But this presupposes that people are willing to pay market rates to live in the midst of a government project. Who wants to buy in an area where surrounding upkeep and aesthetics are decided by bureaucrats who dont have to live there? If you pay the full price for a house, do you want to live in a neighborhood where many of your neighbors got their house as a gift from Uncle Sam? Do you think that they’ll work as hard to keep their house in good repair, and their front lawn attractive, as you do?
If you currently live in Curtis Park, and would prefer not to have more government housing inflicted on your neighborhood, you should know that the your First Amendment right to complain may have already been taken away. HUD has been quite aggressive in bring civil rights prosecutions against neighborhood groups who have the temerity to question HUD’s decision to force public housing into a neighborhood. (For details, see http://www.reason.com/9510/TAYLORcol.html.)
In 1998 the mayors of Indianapolis, Raleigh, San Diego and Milwaukee in concert with the Cato Institute went to congress to ask for a total reconstruction of federal urban policy based on principles of citizen empowerment, choice, markets, decentralization and debureaucratization. Among other things, they called for a halt to all new government housing construction, the sale of the existing stock to the current residents, and for federal subsidies to be turned into vouchers tied to good character.
The six blocks of infill represents a real opportunity for the Webb administration–which bemoans a lack of affordable housing while boasting of Denvers strong real estate market –to join this call and start to disengage Denver from the shackle of federal urban policy mandates.
This would necessarily require the land be sold off to private investors, as should the remainder of the projects along Arapahoe Street–allowing market decisions and individual tastes to decide the future of the neighborhood. The government had its chance and should not get a second bite at this apple.
Because the biggest housing obstacle for low-income families is not availability but affordability, the remainder of the HUD grant, and any future federal housing money, should be turned into vouchers to supplement housing costs. Besides empowering people and devolving bureaucracies, vouchers are much less expensive than putting a family up in newly constructed public housing.
And as to the question of who will build on the newly vacant land, given Denvers shortage of construction workers, the displaced housing officials could always swing a hammer for a living.
Mike Krause wrote this article for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, https://i2i.org.
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