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.

FIGHT THE STIGMA!

FIGHT THE STIGMA!
Rosemary Reeves, Blogger, standing on Philadelphia Skyline

Mar 10, 2013

Part 5 of Liddonfield: One Neighborhood’s Struggle With Public Housing


By Rosemary Reeves

Part 5: Where Did Liddonfield's Working White Families Go?
 
If you missed the first four parts of this series click on the links below:
 

This part in the series explains how the real estate lobby and government mandated redlining imposed forced evictions of working white two parent households in Liddonfield and other housing projects in the US.   Most people think that whites willingly left public housing as they became successful.  Some did, but many were forcibly evicted and then given a government-backed FHA mortgage loan.  

Special interests and public policy makers had a hand in the gradual deterioration of housing projects, including Liddonfield.  Neighborhoods like Upper Holmesburg in Philadelphia's Far Northeast and project tenants were left struggling with the consequences as their quality of life diminished. 

Liddonfield children circa 1961
The original tenants of Liddonfield Homes Public Housing Development were working families with a variety of incomes, as was true of most housing projects during the Eisenhower Era.  Public housing was meant to provide temporary affordable apartments to ease the financial burden of struggling working-class families as they strived to become middle-class, as well as to help poor families become upwardly mobile.  In the 1950s the U.S. government desired to create a large middle-class that would include most Americans and built public housing projects such as Liddonfield as a vehicle toward accomplishing this goal.  

At first, public housing was a great success.  In Philadelphia, filthy slums and tenements were torn down, replaced by comfortable, modern housing projects for poor and lower working-class families.  There were policies put in place to control it.  Tenants were carefully screened.  To qualify, most families had to have at least one working adult.  Income requirements allowed for flexibility, so that tenants who were eventually able to get higher paying jobs could do so without fear of becoming immediately disqualified from public housing.  The system was designed to ease them into upward mobility so they may one day leave the housing project to enter the middle-class.  

There was a viable, working public housing system in place when Philadelphia Mayor Joseph Clark had housing projects built across the city in the 1950s, but those early policies that ensured public housing’s success were whittled away over time by special interests and new administrations.  Old policies were dumped and new ones put in their place with disastrous consequences to neighborhoods across America.   

Real estate lobbyists opposed to public housing because it interfered with their profits were unable to eradicate it, so they put pressure on legislators to change public housing policy.  They lobbied successfully for forced evictions of public housing tenants whose income rose above the poverty line.  My parents were directly affected by this new policy when in 1967 my mother secured a clerical job in Center City.  Soon after, my parents received an eviction notice from the Philadelphia Housing Authority saying that our family was no longer eligible for public housing because we had a raise in income.  I wrote about how I found my father crying over the letter in part 7 of the series, The Liddonfielders.  Here is an excerpt: 

Me and Mom inside public housing unit circa 1965
It was late at night and all of us children had gone to bed, only I woke up thirsty and wandered into the living room toward the kitchen for something to drink.  All of the lights were out, except one.  My parents were sitting at the kitchen table where a lit bulb hung over them from the ceiling.  My father was weeping.  “Eileen, where will we go?” he asked my mother as he buried his head in his hands, “What will happen to us?”  I thought the world must have ended for my father to be in tears.  She held him to her bosom and comforted him.  It was frightening to see Mom and Dad so distraught and without direction.  Something told me not to disturb them so I tiptoed back to bed, wondering what terrible thing was about to happen to my family.

I soon learned that the Philadelphia Housing Authority had sent a notice to vacate the premises.  Mom and Dad’s successful attempts to better themselves financially created a bureaucratic catch twenty-two.  The rise in household income made the family ineligible for public housing and we were being evicted. 

The forced eviction rule took away the incentive for poor families in public housing to try to raise themselves out of poverty.  To get a job or a higher paying job was to risk being evicted.  The real estate lobby wanted Americans to buy homes and one way to increase their base of home buyers was to force working families out of public housing.  To accommodate this move toward home ownership for people who might otherwise not be able to afford it, at the urging of the real estate lobby the government established little to no money down, low-interest FHA mortgages.

After receiving the eviction notice from the Philadelphia Housing Authority in 1967, my parents were able to get an FHA mortgage loan, right on cue.  Our lives were being orchestrated, shaped and molded by the real estate lobby and so were the lives of our neighbors in Upper Holmesburg where Liddonfield housing project was located.  I also wrote about what happened when my parents got their FHA mortgage loan in part 7 of The Liddonfielders.  Here is that excerpt:

Housing and Urban Development became familiar words to me as my mother cursed HUD to hell and back, so to speak, for days afterward.  In the weeks that followed, my father became very depressed.  There were days when he skipped work and just sat on the couch, brooding and immobilized by fear.  In reality, Mom was the strong one.  She came up with a plan and went to the bank for a home loan.  “Put your signature there, Jim,” she told Dad when she brought home the mortgage application.  She handed him a pen.

“What good will it do?” Dad said, “They’ll never give us a mortgage.”  He had already given up, but at Mom’s insistence, he signed it anyway.  Mom made several more trips to the bank.  Eventually, the mortgage was approved.  My parents bought a house in the lower middle-class neighborhood just beyond the housing project fence and we left Liddonfield forever.

Frantz Fanon once said, “I call middle-class a closed society in which life has no taste, in which the air is tainted, in which ideas and men are corrupt.  And I think that a man who takes a stand against this death is in a sense a revolutionary.”   I was about to find out for myself how closed a society the middle-class can be. The day we moved into our new place on Carwithan Road, I met a little girl in a yellow dress.  She asked where I was from and I casually mentioned the housing project.  We played and everything seemed fine, but the next day she spurned me.  “My mommy told me not to play with you anymore,” she said, “You’re from Liddonfield.  That’s where the poor people live.” 

I ran into the house and asked, “Mommy, are we poor?”  

**To read The Liddonfielders series in its entirety, please go to the True Stories of Project Life page on this website.

These FHA mortgages were available only to whites, however.  Asserting that other races were incompatible with white neighborhoods and to prevent them from buying homes in those neighborhoods, the government inserted a clause in the FHA Underwriting Manual which prohibited approving blacks and other minorities for FHA mortgages. 

As more working white families living in the projects took advantage of the little to no money down, low-interest mortgage loans available to them but not to blacks, they moved out of Liddonfield and other public housing developments across the country, leaving the poorest of the poor behind, many of whom were single mothers on public assistance.  

The government orchestrated exodus of white working families from public housing also drastically changed the racial make-up of formerly white dominated housing projects.  As whites moved out, blacks and other minorities moved in and only those whose incomes were below the poverty line were eligible for public housing.  Threatened with forcible eviction if they tried to raise themselves out of poverty and locked out of FHA mortgages, blacks and other minorities living in public housing had few chances for upward mobility.  The 1968 Fair Housing Act rendered the racial discrimination clause illegal, but many banks in white neighborhoods still refused to approve mortgages for blacks and other minorities for years afterwards.

The gradual but drastic change in the racial make-up of public housing developments was slower to affect Liddonfield, possibly because it was located in Philadelphia’s white dominated Far Northeast instead of the inner city, like most housing projects.  According to Philadelphia Housing Authority records, as late as 1986 Liddonfield was still only 17 percent black.  In that year, the vast majority of tenants were white single mothers.

The single moms and others who lived in Liddonfield at the time of the drug-related double murder had made their outrage and frustration known to Sgt. Mander of the short-staffed 8th District Police Department at the July 26, 1988 meeting of the Liddonfield Tenant Council.  They had complained of slow police response times when the tenants reported suspected drug activity.  Immediately after the murders, a new drug operation was being set up in Liddonfield to replace the one that the two murdered teens were running.  The police kept a suspect under surveillance (which could not be revealed at the meeting) and within two weeks of the meeting, the Far Northeast cops had a warrant and enough probable cause to raid the Liddonfield residence at 8800 block of Torresdale Avenue.  According to the August 11, 1988 Philadelphia Inquirer article by reporter Lisa Ellis, City’s New Push Against Drugs Nets Two Arrests, during the midnight raid on the previous Saturday, August 6,  police seized cocaine and marijuana, a hand gun, $1,500 in cash and “a couple of thousand small containers used to package crack.” The suspect they arrested was James Harris, who claimed to reside at the Liddonfield address where the raid took place.  However, Police District Commander Capt. Roedell said Harris was not the tenant there.

Though the 8th District Police Department successfully stopped a new drug operation from getting underway, Capt. Roedell admitted to reporter Kitty Dumas, “I’m not satisfied that is the end of it.”  The investigation of drugs in Liddonfield was ongoing, he added.  Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode had promised to shut down 500 drug houses in the city and the northeast Philadelphia cops had taken steps to fulfill the mayor’s promise.  Capt. Roedell explained that his department had shifted resources and made drug enforcement a high priority.  

Since the drug-related double murder in July 1988, Liddonfield tenants were also taking steps to deter criminal activity in the public housing development and restore its image as a model housing project.  According to a November 6, 1988 Philadelphia Inquirer article, Hope From Within Liddonfield, by reporter Kitty Dumas, members of the Liddonfield Tenant Council had created positive change.  They started a newsletter, ran a day care program, held flea markets to raise money and organized trash clean-up of the project.  Since the Philadelphia Housing Authority removed its own police patrols from Liddonfield in 1987, the women on the Liddonfield Tenant Council (which included Mary Robinson, Jerri Hemphill, Gwen Brown and others) also took it upon themselves to sometimes patrol the housing project “to discourage drug dealers.”  

Tragically, it was too little, too late.  Some tenants had gotten hooked and young people from blue collar and middle-class families living in neighborhoods near the project started coming to Liddonfield to buy drugs.  A little more than six months later, on June 28, 1989 Pennsylvania Senator John Heinz visited Liddonfield to tour the project, accompanied by 8th District Councilwoman Joan Krajewski.  Minutes after the senator walked past the entrance of the housing project, he had to sidestep a used needle lying on the ground.

Part 6 of this series will be posted next week.

LINKS TO SOURCES:



City’s New Push Against Drugs Nets Two Arrests, Philadelphia Inquirer, August 11, 1988 by by reporter Lisa Ellis

Hope From Within Liddonfield, Philadelphia Inquirer, November 6, 1988 by reporter Kitty Dumas

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5 comments:

  1. I left HUD and food stamps because my mother set up a trailer on her land. Then SSI cut my check back to $480 a month saying that my food and housing was being taken care of. That forced me back on food stamps which as of now will be $45 a month.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm sorry you're having a rough time right now. You are not alone. There are over 44 million Americans on food stamps. As that number grows due to the bad economy and loss of jobs, states are reducing individual food stamp allowances. I know a few people in Pennsylvania who are getting only $16 a month in food stamps. Also, public assistance rules keep people in poverty. Case in point: your mom got a trailer, so they cut your SSI amount. If you and your mom live on your own lot with some ground around it perhaps you can plant a vegetable garden. That may help. Best of luck to both of you.

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  2. I don't know how I am supposed to pay my remaining bills with $480 to live on from now on. Also, I saw a shrink who took one look at me and said I was fine and to stop taking my medicine. I was diagnosed with schizophrenia years ago. The doctor isn't even American. In fact he looks like the Palestinian guy from the gas station that was supposed to have "died." Lord help us all.

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    Replies
    1. If you're not comfortable with your doctor's recommendation, then don't hesitate to tell him that. Explain why you feel uncomfortable with it. Ask him what his reasons are for coming to that conclusion and ask why he thinks stopping your medication might be helpful. You have a right to ask these things. Don't be afraid to communicate freely with the doctor. If you're worried about money and paying the bills, tell him that, too.

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  3. When I heard that the victims of the fertilizer plant explosion in Texas weren't getting help from FEMA, I rememeber Obama promised they would get help. One man was interviewed by the news media and he said "If it happened in another country they would be getting help from the U.S. already!" They were left homeless and lost everything! To think they would be denied help is unbelievable. But you won't hear that much about it because we really don't have the free press people think we have. If we did, people would become angry if they knew the truth.

    ReplyDelete

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