New York City's Oases of Safety Found in a Variety of Locales, 'The Projects' Have Received Top Marks for Management. INTERVIEW: PUBLIC HOUSING CHIEF
Lucia Mouat, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
THE number of families waiting to get into New York City's public housing - some 189,000 - is every bit as large as the number already there.
That strong demand for what is usually considered housing of last resort is partly due to problems most cities share: growing numbers of low-income and homeless families and the lack of public-housing construction in the 1980s.
In New York City's case, the location of projects in a wide array of neighborhoods, sturdy construction, and good management are also key. This city was a pioneer in experimental public housing in the 1920s and as recently as three years ago was rated tops among large cities in public housing management, according to a study conducted for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
An unusually broad economic mix of residents is also a major factor in housing demand here. About 40 percent of New York City's public housing tenants are working families. Another third are elderly on fixed incomes. The proportion of welfare families, while higher than a decade ago, is an atypically low 28 percent. By contrast, some 80 percent of the residents in Chicago public housing rely on welfare.
New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) Chairwoman Laura Blackburne argues that many of the more than 300 projects here are actually oases of safety in troubled neighborhoods. "In many instances, public housing is the only thing that's working, that keeps the whole neighborhood from blowing apart," she insists. She points to a crime rate in public housing here only half that of the city as a whole. The homicide rate, however, is about the same as the city's.
Mrs. Blackburne admits that the challenge is strong. A lawyer and civil rights activist who has been in her current job less than a year, she has made first-hand visits to check everything from outside lighting to garbage pickup. In February she accompanied law enforcement officials on a drug raid that led to 20 arrests and the breakup of two crack rings. "Of course it was dangerous, but every day I allow a drug dealer to function with impunity I am in effect putting my residents at risk," she says.
In June she stood with Mayor David Dinkins at a Brooklyn project as he announced new emergency measures against illegal guns. Nearby gunfire interrupted his speech and dramatically underscored the point.
In recent months the NYCHA has set up hot lines to receive anonymous tips on both drug dealing - calls go directly to the housing police - and illegal gun possession. Blackburne describes drug dealers as "two-legged roaches" whose first response to any obstacle is often violence. "These creeps aren't people who ought to be in a decent environment with decent people," she says, but illegal guns are more difficult than drugs to eradicate from public housing. Only about 30 guns have been turned in the six months since an amnesty on illegal weapons was announced,
Involvement with drug activity or illegal guns is ample grounds for eviction in Blackburne's view. …