Officials defend program that renovates public housing near toxic dump sites

Monday, October 2nd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TOXIC TRAPS: Swipe here to find out if there are EPA sites near your home.

Story by

Craig Flournoy

and Randy

Lee Loftis

Photography by

David WooResidents of Chester, a gritty working-class suburb of Philadelphia, suffer high rates of cancer and other diseases because of toxic air pollution. The federal government documented this. Yet it has committed $40 million in recent years to rebuild three of the community's public housing projects.

The Desire public housing project in New Orleans borders a toxic dump. Families who unwittingly bought homes on the dump suffer disproportionately from breast cancer, according to federal research. The government has pledged $62 million to rebuild Desire.

All of these projects are overwhelmingly black.

What is happening in Chester and New Orleans is not unique. The Clinton administration has committed more than $4 billion for a program that will rebuild public housing in some of the nation's poorest, most polluted neighborhoods, an investigation by The Dallas Morning News has found. Records from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development show that the vast majority of residents of these projects are minorities.

Elizabeth K. Julian, formerly the top civil-rights lawyer at HUD, said the failure to provide minority families with a way out of the ghetto threatens to put thousands at toxic risk.

"At the end of the day, many of the residents will have gone into a segregated environment with no more opportunity than before," said Ms. Julian, who also served as the nation's top fair housing enforcement official during her years at HUD from 1994 through 1996. "The environmental implication of that is a tragedy."

Federal and local officials are remaking Desire and more than 100 other housing projects across the country under the HOPE VI Urban Revitalization program.

A computer analysis by The News found that half of the 131 projects approved for HOPE VI renovation money through 1999 are located within a mile of factories that report emissions of toxic air pollution to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Dozens of these projects are located in neighborhoods where the amount or type of emissions could raise health concerns, an examination of government records found.

Elinor Bacon, the HUD official over HOPE VI, said she is confident that the agency has enough safeguards – such as environmental reviews of each project – to prevent forcing families to live in poor, polluted neighborhoods.

"We have done what we need to do from our perspective," said Ms. Bacon.

However, records obtained by The News under the federal Freedom of Information Act show that in some cases, the environmental reviews fail to note the existence of hazards next door to these projects.

Ms. Julian said that while she was at HUD, officials approved HOPE VI money for projects such as Desire that they knew would put residents in segregated, environmentally questionable neighborhoods.

"We knew what the results would be," said Ms. Julian. "The local political reality was this: It may be a hellhole and toxic dump, but it's our hellhole and dump."

HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo and other officials say HOPE VI represents the most dramatic transformation of public housing since its inception more than 60 years ago. Ms. Bacon called it a "visionary program" that is "absolutely changing the face of American cities."

Three of the nation's 10 most toxic HOPE VI projects are in Cleveland. The government has approved $72 million to rebuild Carver Park, Outhwaite Homes and the Riverview Apartments.

Most of the residents are minorities. Along with the rest of the city, the projects are located in census tracts that rank in the top 5 percent nationally for risk of cancer from toxic air emissions, according to an analysis of government data by Environmental Defense.

"You might not want to stick a lot of people in a census tract that's among the worst 10 percent," said David Roe, an attorney with the environmental advocacy and research group.

Environmental Defense says the neighborhood information it provides, which includes data from the EPA, is intended to give people a perspective on the magnitude and sources of toxic air pollution, not to specifically predict an individual's risk of getting cancer or other diseases. The EPA urges caution in using its exposure estimates for particular neighborhoods, saying they might not be accurate enough to guide local decisions.

In the HOPE VI program, Ms. Bacon and a handful of other housing officials in Washington make the final decisions about grants. There is no formal review process between the environmental agency and HUD on the location of government-subsidized housing projects.

A top urban environmental health official said public health professionals should be involved from the beginning.

"Unfortunately, those who are not public health experts – but rather are public policy people – are making these decisions," said Dr. Rueben Warren, the director of urban programs for the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Barbara Muhammad is not a public health expert. But Ms. Muhammad, the resident council president at a housing project in Chester that is being rebuilt with $15 million in HOPE VI money, said she wishes the government had paid more attention to health concerns.

"The government allowed Chester to become a dump site for toxic waste and air pollution,'' said Ms. Muhammad, whose project, Lamokin Village, is located in one of the most polluted residential neighborhoods in the country.

"It makes no sense to force people to live in a town that the government's own studies have found is a hot seat for cancer and other diseases."

Identifying problems

HUD's environmental checklist is supposed to identify potential toxic hazards before the agency authorizes construction or renovation. Ms. Bacon said each environmental assessment accurately reports potential problems and how they were remedied.

"Where problems were identified through the environmental assessment, they have been corrected," she said.

That is not what happened at Lamokin Village. The environmental checklist for the project reported no nearby incinerators, heavy industry, power plants, trucking terminals or heavily traveled highways that might have an impact on the project.

The News, using readily available Internet sites, found each of these near the project. In fact, the government identifies 51 industrial facilities or toxic waste dumps in the neighborhood.

In a written response to questions from the newspaper, HUD said the environmental review "speaks to the impacts of industrial facilities on specific sites – not their existence. Simply because there are industrial sites in Chester, PA does not mean the city fails EPA guidelines or is unsuitable for habitation either by public housing residents or others."

HUD has never rejected an application for HOPE VI money based on environmental problems, according to Ms. Bacon.

She said she was unaware of a single approved HOPE VI project that faced an environmental threat.

"We would have to look into that," she said.

In 1998, HUD turned over responsibility for environmental reviews to local agencies, usually a city or county government.

HOPE VI was born in 1993 to address what a congressionally appointed panel described as a "national disgrace" – the shocking conditions in the country's worst public housing projects.

The three-year study found that of the nation's 1.4 million public housing apartments, some 86,000 – 6 percent – were unfit and unsafe.

The HOPE VI program has focused on the reconstruction of mostly big-city projects. A typical grant allows the demolition of existing units, rebuilding of a smaller number at the same site and the addition of new private housing meant to draw higher-income renters or homebuyers to the neighborhood.

Critics say HOPE IV – like the congressional committee that led to its creation – has failed to address persistent de facto segregation in public housing. The worst projects, the ones initially targeted for rebuilding, are overwhelmingly minority. Many tend to be in dreary, industrial neighborhoods.

"The fundamental problem was an intentional failure to maintain public housing for minorities," said Lenwood Johnson, a member of the congressional panel and a longtime public housing tenant leader in Houston. "But the commission did not want to deal with the racial issue. I kept saying that if you do not deal with race, you will duplicate the problem."

The bleak surroundings of these projects were no accident, former HUD secretary Henry Cisneros said.

"They were purposefully isolated," he said.

The housing agency's own 1994 study found that most minorities in public housing lived in desperately poor minority neighborhoods and that the worst racial segregation in public housing was in big cities.

Rather than solving these problems by helping the residents move to better neighborhoods, critics say, HOPE VI is cementing the problems in place.

Asked how the program addresses segregation, Ms. Bacon replied, "I'd like to think about that answer and get back with you.'' In a later interview, she said: "It is really about economics, and it is not about race."

Ms. Bacon said the housing department wants HOPE VI to foster racial integration, not reinforce segregation. She added that no one had ever raised the issue of racial discrimination and HOPE VI.

But a Yale University study done for HUD this year concluded that HOPE VI would not work unless the program became a tool for fixing the root cause of poor public housing conditions: racial segregation.

The author, professor Harry Wexler, found that officials are choosing the "very worst residential sites" for HOPE VI projects "as a concession to the existing array of local economic and political interests."

"Whatever the reason, the failure to confront issues of racial discrimination jeopardizes the success of HOPE VI," he wrote.

Mr. Wexler declined an interview request. HUD has not released his study, which the agency says is being revised. The News obtained a copy from another source.

Meanwhile, Mr. Cuomo, the HUD secretary, recently condemned what he called the "persistently high levels of racial segregation and poverty concentration" in public housing. He said that the nation's 3,200 housing authorities must desegregate their projects or face a range of penalties.

In Baltimore, American Civil Liberties Union attorney Barbara Samuels says she has seen little evidence that HOPE VI will help desegregate that city's public housing. As she prepared to sue over segregated and decrepit public housing, Ms. Samuels discovered that Baltimore, with HUD's approval, planned to use HOPE VI money to rebuild thousands of public housing apartments in one of the poorest black neighborhoods in the city.

"It was shameful," she said.

Public housing in Baltimore is almost entirely occupied by minorities, while most of the community's poor whites live in housing built or renovated under the federal Section 8 program. The News found that 90 percent of the minority families in Baltimore's housing projects lived within a mile of one or more toxic dumps, compared with about 10 percent of whites in Section 8 housing.

When Ms. Samuels sued in 1995, alleging that HOPE VI would perpetuate segregation, officials in Baltimore County resisted a settlement provision that would have allowed almost 1,400 poor families to move to the suburbs.

Ms. Julian, a key figure in the negotiations, said she and other supporters of the settlement were subjected to intense political pressure.

"It was the most overtly racial discussion that I ever saw," she said.

The opponents prevailed. The final settlement stipulated that a maximum of 360 families could move to the county.

'Horizontal ghettos'

The controversy over decades of segregation in Baltimore's public housing did not stop the flow of HOPE VI dollars. HUD has given Baltimore $171 million, making it the second-largest recipient. Ms. Bacon, a developer in Baltimore who worked on the redevelopment plans for two HOPE VI projects before coming to HUD, said Baltimore has gotten so much money for a simple reason: "They know how to put together good applications."

In Chicago, the largest beneficiary of HOPE VI funding, hundreds of tenants displaced by the demolition of some of the country's most notorious high-rise housing projects were given certificates and vouchers that they could use to rent privately owned apartments.

Most stayed nearby, in polluted neighborhoods.

Four of every five families moved to neighborhoods that are impoverished and overwhelmingly black, according to a study last year by Dr. Paul Fischer, a professor of politics at Lake Forest College in Illinois.

"These families are ending up in census tracts where there are very few jobs, inadequate public services and high crime," said Dr. Fischer, a HUD official during the Carter administration. "All they are doing is replacing vertical ghettos with horizontal ghettos."

Housing officials have begun demolishing the projects, such as the 3,600 apartments at Cabrini-Green, to make way for smaller, mixed-income developments on the same sites. The News found that eight projects are within a mile of six or more factories that emit toxic air pollution. One project is within a mile of 15 such factories.

HUD officials said residents may often stay in the same neighborhoods because local officials are not required to help families find housing outside the ghetto. Ms. Bacon said the agency is in the process of changing that policy. "We feel this is a terribly important issue," she said.

Officials with the Chicago Housing Authority said they do everything possible to help residents find apartments in desirable neighborhoods.

"We never steer a resident anywhere," said CHA spokesman Francisco Arcaute.

Mr. Cisneros, who oversaw HOPE VI during its early years, said the Chicago findings are troubling.

"It would undermine what we were seeking to do, what the families were promised and what ought to be," he said.

In San Antonio, Mr. Cisneros' hometown, residents of the Victoria Courts public housing project did not have to contend with toxic air emissions or polluted dumps. Victoria Courts provided easy access to jobs, public transportation, social service providers, health-care facilities, a well-regarded day-care center and an award-winning elementary school.

Abt Associates Inc., a highly respected housing consulting firm, examined Victoria Courts a few years ago. It said the project was in good shape and "appears to provide the greatest potential for revitalization via rehabilitation."

Norma Farmientos doesn't need a consultant to sell her on Victoria Courts. The mother of five could walk from her apartment there to her job downtown at the Social Security Administration.

"It was a great place to live," she said.

Ms. Farmientos and the rest of the more than 600 families at Victoria Courts were recently evicted and moved elsewhere to make way for wrecking crews.

Last year, HUD gave San Antonio $4.2 million in HOPE VI money to tear down Victoria Courts. HUD recently turned down a request from the San Antonio Housing Authority for $35 million to rebuild part of the project.

Victoria Courts is part of a new trend in HOPE VI.

Initially, federal and local officials concentrated on demolishing the nation's worst housing projects – such as Desire in New Orleans – and replacing a significant number. Now, the program is being used to demolish some of the best public housing while replacing far fewer apartments.

"In too many cases, they are doing exactly the opposite of what they should be doing," said Ms. Julian. "Desire and Victoria Courts are the poster child for 'what's wrong with this picture?' They are like babies switched at birth."

Program grows

Ms. Bacon disputed that. She said the agency made the right decisions at Desire and Victoria Courts and that HOPE VI is used solely to demolish obsolete projects.

The watchdog agency over HUD found otherwise.

In 1997, auditors with the inspector general's office said HUD approved $269 million for HOPE VI projects in 31 cities though auditors found that not a single city had documented that its projects were obsolete.

Auditors also found taxpayers being charged what they termed "extremely high" prices. Investigators reported that the cost to provide 100 poor families with new public housing apartments at a HOPE VI project in Chicago is $248,432 per apartment.

The HOPE VI program continues to grow. Vice President Al Gore has said HUD will demolish 70,000 public housing apartments by the end of President Clinton's second term, more than double the number razed during his first term.

Long waits

How many will be replaced, either with new units or with rental vouchers for private housing, is hotly contested. Ms. Bacon said HUD potentially could replace all of them. Critics said the government's own numbers show that fewer than half will be replaced; they point out that the administration supported a law that overturned a requirement that the government replace each demolished apartment with a new one.

According to the most recent figures available, HOPE VI has demolished 27,606 public housing apartments and built 5,640, or one in five.

In many cities, families who apply for public housing can expect to wait several years before getting an apartment.

Auditors who surveyed 10 HOPE VI projects across the country found that at six, fewer than half of the displaced families wanted to return to the rebuilt projects. At four projects, one in six families said they wanted to move back.

Mr. Wexler, the Yale professor, wrote that the finding suggests that HUD should abandon the rebuilding of public housing in many distressed neighborhoods. Instead, he said in his report, the government should concentrate on helping families use certificates and vouchers to find housing in other areas. Ms. Bacon rejected that idea.

"'Hard' [new] units are needed." she said. Besides, she added, "We don't rebuild in areas where housing is not desirable."