Bad ideas, if they were ever widely accepted, have a curious way of
sticking around. That's because they give rise to institutions that
have a momentum of their own. We've long known there are better ways to
fix blighted neighborhoods than simply pressing "reset" -- that is,
letting the government tear down old buildings and put up new ones. But
we remain saddled with a system of public housing that keeps looking
for ways of, well, pressing reset.
And now that bad idea is
coming to Watts, with an estimated price tag of $1 billion. What we
have, then, is not just a bad idea but a really expensive bad idea.
what we know so far. The Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles
-- with the support of the mayor, the City Council and Rep. Maxine
Waters (D-Los Angeles) -- plans to tear down the 700-unit Jordan Downs
housing project and replace it with a 2,100-unit, mixed-income
development -- one with stores, restaurants, perhaps even an elementary
school. There are also plans to refurbish nearby Jordan High School. In
the end, it is hoped this ambitious project will not only fix Jordan
Downs but set the stage for a recovery throughout Watts.
the idea of getting rid of Jordan Downs isn't intrinsically bad. Nor is
the idea of spending a billion dollars on Watts. But specifics matter.
I might want a necktie, and I might want $1 million, but I don't want a
With $1 billion, we could give each of the
roughly 700 families in Jordan Downs $1 million and still have $300
million in hand. Of course, the actual $1-billion plan includes housing
and amenities for 2,100 families. But even if we allowed, say, $400
million for retail and infrastructure (or the price tag for the massive
Americana at Brand in Glendale), the per-unit cost would still be close
to $300,000. Meanwhile, perfectly habitable three-bedroom houses in
Watts are going unsold at prices of $150,000 or less.
there's the question of who's overseeing the redevelopment. That would
be the Housing Authority, which many residents of Jordan Downs
distrust. That's understandable. The agency has for decades treated
them -- and taxpayers' money -- with highhanded neglect or worse. In
the 1990s, for example, a multimillion-dollar renovation left residents
with sewage in their kitchen sinks. In 2004, the agency's top two
officials left abruptly -- one after a scandal involving overpayment of
subsidies and the other after a federal audit uncovered $1.7 million in
overbilling, improper spending and unsubstantiated costs.
the agency has new leaders but, sadly, many old habits. In 2007, a top
manager, Victor Taracena, was fired for allegedly directing more than
$800,000 worth of contracts to family members. In August 2008, the
federal Department of Housing and Urban Development found that the
Housing Authority had improperly used more than $27 million in
restricted funds to cover its operating losses. And in November 2008,
63% of Housing Authority-subsidized, privately owned units that HUD
inspected "did not meet housing quality standards." Added to all this
is a striking lack of transparency. For instance, Housing Authority
officials declined numerous requests for interviews about the financial
details of the Jordan Downs project.
Supporters of the
redevelopment acknowledge these concerns but consider the idea of a
fresh start for Watts too inspiring to refuse. They point to places
such as Atlanta, where government renewal projects revived dangerous
neighborhoods. They also mention Boyle Heights, where the Housing
Authority's redevelopment of the Aliso Village projects had a positive
But such projects also included the dispersal of many
of the residents. While this was often carried out in an ugly and
unfair way, it at least cleared out many tenants who were dangerous or
otherwise undesirable. (Fewer than 300 out of 1,200 displaced families
returned to Aliso Village, for instance.) The Jordan Downs plan calls
for no one to be displaced. That's good news for the residents, but
it's unlikely to replicate the revival in Atlanta.
has other choices with Jordan Downs. City officials seem to believe
that clearing away blight is the key to attracting jobs and reducing
crime, but couldn't it work the opposite way? In New York in the late
1990s, when crime rates dropped, neighborhoods quickly saw the economic
benefits. In Brooklyn, according to City Journal, after crime dropped
by 45% along blighted Franklin Avenue, 22 new stores opened in 16
months. In Harlem, where shootings were once daily occurrences, the
turnaround has been so dramatic that people now complain about new
arrivals like Starbucks.
In Watts, the Los Angeles Police
Department, partnering with groups such as the Watts Gang Task Force,
brought homicide rates down by 50% between 2006 and 2008, and
community-police relations have significantly improved. This is a
promising foundation on which to build -- with increased community
policing and incentives for businesses -- and it wouldn't involve the
Housing Authority spending millions on the construction of new housing
amid a housing glut.
Not that Jordan Downs and its inhabitants
should be left behind. Here's a better way to spend $1 billion in
Watts: Have the agency buy every family in Jordan Downs a $300,000
renovated house nearby, and you've spent $210 million. That leaves a
clean $790 million for more law enforcement, new and improved schools
and so much more.
As for Jordan Downs itself, the city could
help plug its deficit and get additional residential units into Watts
by selling the complex to a builder who comes up with a blueprint for
pleasant, affordable, market-rate housing. Or it could help create
tenant-owned cooperatives, much like what the nonprofit Jacobs Center
for Neighborhood Innovation has been doing in San Diego. Or it could
convert the land into a much-needed park.
I know: Urban renewal
doesn't work this way. While it would be nice to have $1 billion to
divvy up creatively, redevelopment depends on existing funding
mechanisms, such as tax credits, federal assistance and a bureaucracy
locked into hitting reset. But this only underscores what a
straitjacket our public housing system has become.
this is to deny that, by supporting the Jordan Downs plan, many
officials are fighting honorably to help an area in need. But that
doesn't make the project a sensible answer to the question of how to
revive Watts. The potential for waste and perhaps even fraud, the lack
of a truly imaginative plan, the indications that the Housing Authority
is very much as it ever was -- all of this suggests we're about to
misspend a lot of dollars at a time when dollars are scarce. The plan
for Jordan Downs is, in short, a very bad idea. And today, good ones
are all we can afford.