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Housing policy disagreements persist

Howard Husock thinks the Morrison’s experiment in social engineering — mixing together working-class residents with tenants who previously were chronically homeless — is doomed to failure. The reason, says Husock, vice president of the conservative think tank Manhattan Institute and author of “America’s Trillion-Dollar Housing Mistake,” is history. In Husock’s view, 80 years of government-subsidized housing in this country shows that working-class tenants won’t stay in subsidized buildings very long. So counting on their rents — $695 a month for a single renter in the case of the Morrison — to keep operable a building that also houses tenants who pay little rent is shortsighted. According to Husock, large-scale government subsidized housing began in the 1930s not to help the poor, but as a way of keeping working-class families in cities. Large-scale public housing projects worked in that regard for a while, Husock says, with working-class families paying substantial rent that kept the buildings well-maintained. But after World War II, economic prosperity allowed many working-class families to leave public housing projects and find market-rate apartments and suburban homes. By the 1960s and 1970s, Husock says, the projects were increasingly left to the poor, who could not pay enough rent to keep the buildings in good repair. And that, Husock says, resulted in a downward spiral, with more and more working-class residents fleeing and rental incomes diminishing. In the end, most of the country’s public housing projects became dangerous and decayed, and housed only those who could not afford to escape. Husock says he can imagine a similar fate for the Morrison. And he says he is leery of housing as a form of social engineering. “We have no idea whether that works or not,” Husock says of mixing economic classes in single buildings. “There’s no particular reason to believe that by exposing the chronically homeless to middle-class graduate students, they’re going to become middle-class graduate students.” Steve Rudman, executive director of the Housing Authority of Portland, says that mixing Portlanders of different economic classes is a goal of his organization. “We believe mixed-income, mixed-use housing is a good idea if it’s done with good design, management and supportive services,” Rudman says. Husock says that if housing and city officials had simply wanted to help the homeless, they would have been better off subsidizing a smaller building to house the 45 chronically homeless who now live at the Morrison. Extra money, he says, could have been used for extra services to support the tenants in their efforts to make better lives for themselves. Husock also believes cities should not get involved in trying to encourage diversity through housing policies. “The city finds ways for people of diverse backgrounds to mix,” he says. “The housing authority doesn’t have to set out in a self-conscious way to engineer that. They’re in the utopia business, and I’m just not sure it’s going to last.” Tom Cody, in charge of the overall Morrison apartments/Civic condominiums project for Gerding/Edlen Development Co., also has studied the history of government-subsidized housing. But he takes a different lesson away from the failed projects of the 1960s and 1970s. Lesson No. 1, he says, is that isolating the poor doesn’t work. “Environment influences behavior,” Cody says. “If people having challenges in life are in depressing, uninspiring environments, it’s going to add to it and things are going to get worse.” In Cody’s view, the Morrison represents a particularly Portland approach to government-subsidized housing. “You’ve got here different populations living in very close proximity and peacefully coexisting,” Cody says. “We’ve always been very forward-thinking in that.” Cody has as much to lose as anybody if the Morrison doesn’t remain a valued and attractive apartment building. The Morrison and Gerding/ Edlen’s Civic condos are separated by just a pedestrian walkway. If the Morrison were to become run-down and lose its appeal, the Civic probably would lose value as well. But Cody says he’s not concerned. He says he trusts the Housing Authority of Portland to do whatever it takes to make sure the Morrison — even with its population of chronically homeless residents — does not fall into disrepair. “It’s a brave concept, and it’s one we should support,” Cody says of the Morrison. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.