Introduction

CHANGING THE NARRATIVE is a public housing project that seeks to change the course of the conversation about the public housing program and its residents toward one more inclusive of their voices and hope for the communities. Through a series of workshops and formal discussions we will gather experiences and histories, as well as thoughts and imagination of a better future for public housing, via audio, video, photographic materials, and critical analysis.

Many studies and reports on public housing focus their lens on maintenance, repairs, and quality of life.  Others highlight disinvestment, concentrated poverty impacts, the overall failure of the program and the need for new types of developments. Some organizations and reports do, however, suggest that not only is public housing necessary, but that we need more, not less, of it. There are far fewer who report on the program and communities through the lens of the residents who live in there. The public housing resident’s voice is a vital component to any reporting that seeks to bring the full story to the public.  The current and dominant narrative is one that paints public housing – the program, its communities and residents – in a negative light, as the focus is often on the crumbling infrastructure, maintenance backlog, crime, and capital improvements.  This gives license to policymakers and other stakeholders to shift gears and advocate for new and different models of housing and programs for low-income people.  The industry appears to be out of touch with the needs of this sector because the affordable housing market is actually not all that affordable for far too many, nor is it nearly enough, which is why we need to make the case to increase public housing stock and reform the program to meet the needs of the 21st century family.

It is clear that the public housing program is currently in a state of crisis. It has been severely underfunded by the government for decades (Community Service Society), which has hindered the Authority’s ability to effectively maintain and manage the stock.  In order to counter this under-funding, the Authority has had to think creatively and employ alternative strategies, programs, and initiatives to keep the program as a viable option for the thousands of families who enjoy its benefits and depend on it to survive; this is exclusive of the thousands still waiting to get in.  However, our government has all but doomed this program a failure; making it unworthy of funding.  In my view, to believe that is to grossly misunderstand this program, the residents, and the community they cultivate within each of these developments. Public housing is a vital resource for the nation’s densely populated urban centers for a variety of reasons. These centers, where public housing complexes are often located, usually employ attractive features such as transportation and employment hubs, culture and entertainment, and familial, social, and racial diversity.  Furthermore, thousands of residents benefit from affordable rents that provide families with a sense of stability, housing security, and a better quality of life. Reducing rent burdens limit the need for crucial choices between rent, food, and even medicine.   Most residents pay only 30 percent of their adjusted gross household income toward rent. (Public Housing 2017, Flat Rent Schedule)  This is just one of the attractive features of living in public housing.  Through this project, our goal is to discuss some of the other benefits as well.

Project Vision

There are many benefits of the public housing program. It is affordable, provides stability and access to a range of programs and services for low-income populations. Benefits are rarely the focus when media reports on public housing but it is implied, implicitly or explicitly, that they report on what’s wrong with it because they want to show it is worth saving. The public housing program does a lot of good for the public. Many of the city’s residents work in retail, tourism, restaurants, public and private schools, colleges and universities, airports, and municipal transit systems. These jobs pay modest wages; hence, the workers need somewhere to live. Many public housing developments are within walking distance of major transportation and employment hubs. This is also something that is reported less often. To understand how important this program and the residents are to this city, we need to hear more of these stories. Changing public discourse from despair to relevance and hope can effectively change the trajectory of the neoliberal policies that are sure to leave further damage in their wake.

Changing the Narrative is a resident-centered, place-based project focused on disrupting public discourse and changing the way we think about the public housing resident. We will go inside the developments and use the residents’ voices to frame a different picture for the general public to see. We aim to conduct resident workshops, incorporating resident leadership and advocates, to discuss shared experiences within and across developments and boroughs. This platform has been created to showcase and archive audio and visual documentation; tools which can be used to inform and educate advocates, policymakers and other stakeholders.

Beyond Public Housing

The Narrative

The narrative about public housing is often negative and repetitive. Mainstream and independent media inform us on a regular and ongoing basis about the deteriorating infrastructure, maintenance and repairs backlog, deleterious effects of concentrated poverty, and the general quality of life issues – crime, drugs, and safety – in these communities. Those stories are one-dimensional; lacking the depth that residents provide when we actually stop to listen.  Residents’ stories and first-hand experiences provide insight into the organic community building, grassroots organizing, and leadership that is crucial to the sustainability of public housing communities (Rosenberg) while sharing insight into policy impacts and a range of social justice issues.

Image and Perception

The concept of public housing has carried a stigma for decades but it is not always obvious to those who share the community and experiences.  It is often discussions encountered with outside residents that can make ‘insiders’ aware of this ficticious difference. Nonetheless, comments made can often invoke shame, embarrassment or even anger.   This difference, however, is not in their socio-economic status which is usually what is attached to this stigma but in the public housing resident’s access to resources.  Many people in public housing do not have access to resources that people of higher income levels do, but that fact is not exclusive to public housing residents because all low-income residents, no matter where they reside, also lack access to those same crucial resources.  Actually, it is often residents from private housing who are displaced the most by gentrification and market-rate development because they cannot access the necessary resources, economically or legally, to sustain themselves.  These factors – access, image, and perceptions – have huge impacts on the residents overall quality of life at intersections of race, class, and gender.

Policy Impact

Housing is the foundation from which many social justice issues emerge and thrive. It is also a determining factor in the path your life leads.  Your zip code determines quality and choice when it comes to education, employment, earning potential and economic opportunities because race was baked into our housing policies.  Policies that led to segregation, urban renewal, concentrated poverty, displacement and mobility, and finally de-concentration of poverty have all had a profound impact on quality of life for residents throughout New York and other major cities. Despite this, residents of public housing have learned to navigate scarce resources and build community in order to lead more productive lives.

Inside Public Housing

Residents and Leadership

Residents internalize and manifest what they see and hear about public housing. This causes them to place blame internally, as opposed to a focus on government neglect where disinvestment started the downward trend.

Community organizing and development in public housing developments often expose the gender disparity in leadership throughout many complexes where women are usually the visual representation of care of the community.  Men are often physically and virtually absent.

Community Engagement

We need to build strong relationships with residents, community organizers/organizations, local leaders, scholars and activists in order to veer our common interests toward elevating a narrative to defend, reform and expand public housing for low-income and poor people of color.

Resources

Facilities located in the developments are often operated by outside groups, for example, daycare centers, community centers. How residents utilize these facilities is an issue we hope to uncover during the workshops we host as we complete this project.