Filler Poor Relations

There's A Debate Underway Over What To Do About Tucson's PublicHousing.
By Dan Huff

THE NEIGHBORS ARE ticked, City of Tucson officials are defensive, and everybody seems to be dancing ever so gingerly around questions of race, culture and integration--issues, some say, that could affect our community for generations to come.

The specific problem: What to do about Tucson's dilapidated Connie Chambers Public Housing Project, 1070 S. 10th Ave. A public hearing to discuss the matter is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday, April 18, at Carrillo Elementary School, 440 S. Main Ave.

The city has been using a $379,000 federal grant to study the possibility of improved housing for the 600 residents of Connie Chambers, who are among the poorest of the poor. Many are single mothers who make less than $6,000 a year.

The city's next big step, following the public hearing and a consensus-building process, will be to apply for $20 million in federal Housing and Urban Development money to carry out whatever plan the Tucson City Council approves in early June, according to city officials.

But representatives of the nearby Santa Rosa and Barrio Historico neighborhood associations are upset, charging the city is fast-tracking a plan which, they claim, seems already focused on spending most of the $20 million to remodel 150 apartments at Connie Chambers and placing 50 additional homes for the poor in the nearby Barrio Santa Rosa, while adding a wellness center, library, park and drug treatment clinic nearby.

Improving Connie Chambers and installing services for the poor, neighborhood residents argue, will only bring down their housing values by increasing poverty levels. They point to federal studies which show neighborhoods surrounding large public housing projects suffer from far greater poverty levels than other areas. And they also point to studies showing increasing poverty forces area merchants to flee, leaving the poor more isolated than ever.

Jody Gibbs, a longtime local civil rights activist, complains the city and local politicians are too eagerly bowing to the wishes of the politically powerful Pima County Interfaith Council (PCIC). The group's membership consists of 40 local Christian and Jewish congregations representing more than 60,000 parishioners. PCIC bases its methods on the teaching of legendary social activist and organizer Saul Alinsky; and critics complain part of Alinsky's strategy involves preserving poor and minority neighborhoods as a means of concentrating political power.

Instead, Gibbs says, the city should be looking for ways to integrate the poor into neighborhoods across Tucson, giving them more housing choices instead of forcing them into what amounts to isolation.

But Frank Pierson, PCIC director, says the people in Connie Chambers chose their particular strategy in this effort, and they've determined what's in their own best interests.

Image "I'm not real big, personally, on broad social policy decisions made abstractly by bureaucratic minds," Pierson says of arguments that housing projects are bad because they isolate people. "These things should be determined on a case-by-case basis. We should look at neighborhood conditions, what's going on in the schools, is there adequate infrastructure. Ultimately, it should come down to families making their own decisions about what they want to do."

It's a sentiment echoed by Tucson City Councilman Steve Leal, whose district includes Connie Chambers. Regarding the isolation argument, Leal suggests a reporter check with city officials to see if Connie Chambers residents were free to request other public housing elsewhere in the city.

"If folks in Connie Chambers wanted to live in some other part of the city, I'm sure they could have put in a request through Housing Services for something when it becomes available," Leal says.

But Karen Thoreson, the city's community services director, says: "By and large we don't let people just move because they want to move." She adds, however, changes in family size, or an urgent medical need, would be adequate reasons to allow a public housing resident to move. "But we've got about 1,600 units city-wide, and we don't want to be spending all of our time and resources moving people around."

City-wide, the turnover rate for all of Tucson's public housing units approaches 25 percent a year, Thoreson says.

Leal notes federal housing money for the poor is drying up, thanks to the Republican-dominated U.S. Congress. And he maintains the city can conserve increasingly scarce housing dollars--plus money spent on transportation and other services for the poor--over the long run by owning the buildings in which some of the poor live and locating services nearby.

But Gibbs says it's wrong to let a small group of people determine integration policy for a whole community, and he accuses Leal of catering to the whims of the powerful PCIC, a charge Leal denies.

Meanwhile, Thoreson says neighborhood representatives who complain they've been left out of the process are wrong--the process simply wasn't finished as of early this week, and neighbors were still being surveyed. Results will be available at the April 18 meeting, she promises, adding there should be about 10 options for Connie Chambers residents and their neighbors to discuss.

"There will be discussion about what should be the most important criteria to make these decisions," Thoreson says. "We'll be asking them to define the most important factors, and we'll take that to the City Council and ask them to endorse that."

Beyond all of this, however, there's no guarantee Tucson will be awarded the federal money. TW

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