WASHINGTON — The government unveiled regulations to diversify public housing Thursday, with initiatives to make housing projects more palatable to the working poor and new powers to punish local housing authorities that fail to break up dense concentrations of poverty.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development's new rules are aimed at both achieving racial integration in the nation's housing projects and bringing higher-income poor families into proximity with the most destitute. As modest wage-earners are increasingly housed near the poorest families, officials said, they may serve as "role models" for people otherwise trapped in poverty and hopelessness.
"All too often, public housing has done what private housing has done," said HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo, referring to invisible boundaries of race and wealth in American neighborhoods. "The federal government should lead the way" in integrating towns and cities.
In the future, Cuomo said, local housing authorities will be required to classify both housing projects and tenants by income and to use the data to keep projects with higher-income levels from being magnets for applicants with the most resources.
Higher-income prospective tenants instead will be channeled toward housing projects that they may have tried to shun in the past--those with reputations for greater poverty and chaotic living conditions. To sweeten the pill, the government is promising federal funds for repairs and improvements.
The poorest prospective tenants, meanwhile, may find themselves bumped to the front of long waiting lists for public housing under the new regulations, if vacancies appear in housing projects with high income ratings.
HUD officials said that no one already living in the nation's housing projects, or receiving rent vouchers, will be moved as a result of the new regulations.
The new rules also empower the federal government to punish local authorities that continue sending the poorest applicants into buildings that are already bastions of destitution or that fail to desegregate housing projects that now have high concentrations of one race or immigrant nationality. Housing authorities that fail to show diversification will risk having their federal aid reduced, Cuomo said.
In the most extreme cases, he said, they may have their operations taken over by the federal government.
There are 3,200 local housing authorities in the United States, operating 1.3 million units of public housing. The new rules do not affect the subsidies the federal government pays private landlords who provide low-rent apartments.
To demonstrate the need, Cuomo cited a number of communities where public housing authorities have been found running segregated housing systems.
In Kaplan, La., for instance, public housing authorities in 1998 were found to have put blacks into one set of apartment buildings and whites into another. Residents of the whites-only buildings were allowed to have pets and gardens, while residents of the blacks-only buildings were forbidden to do so. And the buildings where blacks lived received less maintenance service, although residents paid higher maintenance fees.
Similarly, in Biloxi, Miss., in 1997, local public housing officials were found to have steered all black and Vietnamese public-housing applicants into just three of the nine housing projects they operated. And in Blakely, Ga., the local authority built a public housing complex and issued all the apartments in it to white families.
In addition to cracking down on such apparent abuses, Cuomo said the federal government plans to provide funds to help local authorities improve their most dilapidated and undesirable housing projects. He said there would also be stepped-up efforts to "market" housing projects to members of racial and national groups that might not otherwise consider certain buildings.
But HUD officials said they do not know how much money ultimately will be available, since the budget items still must be approved by Congress.