Stories about life in Liddonfield housing project and its impact on the Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood of Upper Holmesburg. These true stories reveal how government policy affected the lives of real people, from the project residents to area homeowners during the 5 decades of Liddonfield’s existence. Stories and articles are written by a former resident of the project.


Rosemary Reeves, Blogger, standing on Philadelphia Skyline

Sep 15, 2012

Section 8 and Why You're Not a Role Model

by Rosemary Reeves

If you have a troublesome Section 8 tenant living near you, you can’t handle it by yourself.  That’s because it takes a whole community to deal with Section 8.  When I say “a whole community” I am including the Section 8 residents, because the neighborhood needs their help to make it work.  That means doing the opposite of everything that has typically been done in the recent past.  

Since the first public housing complex was built in the 1930’s, these low-income people have been isolated from the mainstream society in what amounts to urban reservations for the poor.  This was done on purpose, due to a well-intended but mistaken Utopian idea.  It was originally thought by doing so they would form their own communities that would mirror the ones in the surrounding neighborhoods populated by higher-income people.  In other words, it was assumed that the poor folks in the project would see their higher-income neighbors as role models and would naturally copy their norms, traditions, behaviors and way of life, adopting them for their own in a kind of ideal twin social setting.  

The policy makers behind this idea were only half right.  Having been separated from the mainstream society, public housing residents did, indeed, form their own communities.  But instead of adopting the mainstream culture, they formed their own subculture, which in many ways was in stark contrast to the norms of the larger society.  How did this happen?  I will briefly touch on that in this article and will go into more depth in future posts.

When public housing was initiated in the 1930’s, it had society’s approval.  At the time, government officials encouraged members of the press to visit public housing residents and take photos of them cooking, having dinner, washing their windows and watching their children happily playing on the public housing grounds.  The vast majority of the photos were of a positive nature, portraying how greatly the lives of the “deserving” poor were improved by public housing.  The term “deserving poor” was widely used in newspapers and in speeches by government officials to win the citizens’ approval for this new public policy.

At first, their lives did greatly improve, but eventually it became an old story and the press no longer showed up at housing projects with cameras at the ready to take pictures of smiling residents doing ordinary, everyday things.  The public lost interest.  Funds that were originally spent on maintaining the quality of life in housing projects went to homeownership initiatives instead, as the government established mortgage loan agencies like Fannie Mae.  Housing projects deteriorated from lack of maintenance and became eyesores.

Public opinion did a 180 degree turn.  The press only showed up when a crime was committed.  Residents within the projects, in their isolation, became further isolated by hostile public opinion and neighboring communities that had turned against them.  The term “deserving poor” was dropped.  The press and government officials replaced it with the neutral term, “public housing residents” but it was a false neutrality, as the term became associated with many negative perceptions of the poor.  Public housing residents no longer saw mainstream society as welcoming and ideal.  For them it was the opposite – alienating, condescending and hostile –  and since the media and the government reflected mainstream society, journalists and politicians have remained silent rather than challenge the public for its widespread use of derogatory terms to describe the poor.  This practice is so widely accepted that the media and politicians capitalize upon it.  For instance, there have been countless comedy shows where terms like “white trash” are used to get laughs.  Politicians appeal to the public’s hatred by using the terms “welfare queen” and “lazy welfare cheats” as a blatant put-down right in front of television cameras to garner votes.  They do this because they think they are getting away with it.  But they’re not.  Such tactics come with a price and it isn’t the politicians or the television execs who have to pay.  It’s the tax payers who end up holding the bag, in the form of ruined neighborhoods, for the simple fact that what comes around goes around.  You cannot expect positive output from negative input.  If you plant flowers, you will get flowers.  If you plant weeds, you will get weeds.  Compare the tactics used in the 1930s and 40s to the tactics used today in regard to public housing.  There were positive results back then and negative results today.  

Journalists never ask public housing residents how they feel about the way society treats them.  Even if they did, few residents would be willing to talk about it for fear that there would be repercussions, such as losing their housing or public assistance.  This very fundamental question has not been addressed despite what the answers may reveal about why many do not view middle-class people as role models and therefore, fail to assimilate. 

Next week:  What community groups typically do wrong when it comes to public housing and Section 8 housing vouchers.  The result: a powerless community.


What Community Groups Do Wrong When it Comes to Section 8

Businesses Can Save Neighborhoods From Section 8 Blight

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