Throughout my experiences, the topic of public housing has been often ignored when housing discrimination is discussed. Is it because when one thinks of public housing, they’re led to think of images of crime and decaying buildings? Is it because the stigma that black people only live in the “projects” and “don’t pay no rent” has created ugly stereotypes that have become all too common?
Gentrification and public housing don’t seem to go together — and even when buildings are demolished, their replacements often impact the demographics and culture of the community. Around this country, we have lost the vast majority of units of public housing to give way to “market rate” housing surrounded by shops selling $5 cups of coffee. But, as an organizer who was raised in public housing and whose family was the first black family in 1967 to move into a building of 200 apartments, my work is to fight for the upkeep of public housing.
When I think of the vision I hold for black lives and the discussion of housing discrimination and gentrification, I know the topic of public housing has to be discussed.
The history of public housing began in New York with First Homes in 1936 and was built to replace the run down tenements of that time. In the 70s, a growing homeless crisis spread across the country. That, added with the white flight of residents of public housing and combined with housing discrimination in the private market, resulted with black folks in public housing. It was even referenced in the intro to the TV show “Good Times” as black youth rode their bikes in front of Cabrini Green in Chicago and turned to J.J. and his family talking about life in “the projects.” It was during that time, as more black people began to dominate the projects, when funding became obscure.
Public housing in areas that were deemed “shady” soon become the “it” spot. Places like Harlem are now products of combined gentrification and public housing.
At its height, public housing housed more than 4 million people — that number is now at 1.2 million. Where did the almost 3 million people go?
I’ve seen people lured from public housing with the offer of a Section 8 voucher to only be told, “we don’t take vouchers” (which is illegal, by the way). And I hear too many friends, from multiple cities in America, tell me “I gotta go cause I can’t afford it here.”
Gentrification has come like a thief in the night to my very own rich West Indian community, and even to the public housing area I was raised in. Recently, it reached my very own building of residence.
Black folks have worked tirelessly to preserve public housing and have pushed back against growing gentrification in areas across the country.
It begins with activists in Chicago, Boston, Baltimore and Los Angeles fighting tooth and nail to preserve public housing.
It begins with a national call for the federal government to fund public housing across the country and to not mask gentrification through clever programing.
It is the understanding that public housing is more than a place to destroy and allow gentrification to move in. The future needs a call to end housing discrimination and it begins with chants of “Black lives matter” and recognizing that many of us call these projects home.