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"Public Housing and Job Training,"

by Jacqueline Leavitt & Mary Ochs November/December 1997 issue of Poverty & Race

For many, public housing is synonymous with welfare, but not all public housing residents are on welfare and not all welfare recipients live in public housing. By definition, public housing residents are poor, with annual median incomes that hover between $6,000 and $7,000. Privatization trends in portions of the public housing stock receive scant attention compared to the Clinton Administration's welfare reforms. PRRAC funding led to research that reveals similarities between public housing and welfare policies; both "reforms" reflect a punitive manifestation of public policy, and both rely on misleading assumptions about available jobs at living wages and adequate job training.

In 1992, when public housing residents were paying on average $194 for rent, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) proposed privatizing and deregulating the public stock. Through local housing authorities, HUD is carrying out demolition and reducing units in selected developments and restructuring the amount and length of time covered by Section 8 vouchers (which pay the difference between 30% of a resident's income and an area's fair market rent). HUD's intent is to "graduate" public housing residents into the private real estate market. At the time, the average rent in private housing in the city of Los Angeles was about $650. Public assistance for a family of three was barely higher, at $663 a month. A public housing resident wanting to move into an apartment in the private market would have had to hold a job and receive a salary of about $822 a month. Even so, finding low-rent unsubsidized units in decent physical condition would have been difficult, as the city's affordable housing stock has shrunk since the mid-1970s.

In the wake of HUD's policy to transform local housing authorities into economic development agents, piecemeal programs are being set up, and they are likely to replicate inadequate job intervention strategies.

Strategies for Job

Of four major job intervention strategies, only one has direct bearing on public housing. The preferred state and federal strategy, Enterprise and Empowerment Zones, offers business people incentives by reducing regulations over businesses within target areas. A second strategy establishes a financial entity -- in Los Angeles, the Community Development Bank -- to bring otherwise unavailable capital to enterprises in specific areas. The third strategy, microenterprise, targets individuals or groups who require funds to start up businesses. A fourth strategy -- the one tried in public housing -- is tantamount to a public works program and relies on first-source local hiring preferences tied to expenditures of public monies. Each intervention may include job training.

Since 1983, the largest federally funded program is JTPA (the Job Training Partnership program). National evaluations have found this program seriously flawed. With PRRAC funding, we examined the impacts of JTPA on Los Angeles public housing residents. We interviewed 30 participants (all but one public housing residents) at five developments; directors of Community Service Centers (CSCs) at the five sites where on-site JTPA training was available; conducted more than 30 interviews with staff in various job training programs across the country; and reviewed existing reports on private and public job initiatives. Virtually all the participants confirmed JTPA's failure in obtaining permanent employment. A review of State Enterprise Zones in Los Angeles found it was not a better strategy. The Watts Enterprise Zone created few jobs and none that employed public housing residents living in five nearby developments. Only the aggressive efforts of one local nonprofit led to some local hiring and offset poor marketing and recruitment strategies in the Central City Zone. The Community Development Economic Hank is too new to evaluate, but few jobs are expected to reach public housing residents. Micro-enterprise programs may raise the standard of living among a few more entrepreneurial-oriented households, but the vast majority of the poor do not benefit.

Our study suggests that the most promising strategy is first-source local hiring preferences; this occurs through government-enacted ordinances and/or negotiated agreements. The primary example affecting public housing is the amended Section 3 of the 1968 Housing and Community Development Act. Up until now Section 3 has suffered from weak enforcement powers and temporary job placements. In L.A., the lengthy process for a workable Section 3 program was initiated with public housing residents, and followed through by advocates inside and outside the Housing Authority of the City of L.A. (HACLA). Tangible results include Housing Authority and tenant joint ventures related to in-house construction, modernization and relocation.

Our review of existing job training programs uncovered a set of best practices. These were more costly per trainee compared to JTPA but also led to outcomes which other studies consider more successful. In 1992, JTPA's five-month classroom component cost $1,500 per trainee, exclusive of administration expenses. In comparison the Center for Employment Training (CET), originally in San Jose, California, and now nation-wide, averages $5,000 per trainee; this includes overhead, vocational training, basic skills and English language instruction. Project QUEST in San Antonio reports a higher per student training price of $10,000 but guarantees a job upon completion of their program. The goals of their two-year training program are to secure 650 jobs in health and finance, and to offer participants direct financial and counseling support on a weekly basis, including costs of community college tuition, books, child care and transportation. Such components significantly boost trainees' chances for finding long-term jobs at living wages.

Our interviews, review of other job training programs and two workshops with public housing residents and non-profits suggest a set of guidelines for community-based groups and public housing residents when negotiating for job training. These include programs identifying jobs prior to training; providing on-the-job experience and training in state-of-the-art equipment that is geared to employers' actual needs; encouraging trainees to obtain a high school diploma, enroll in community college or college courses; and providing supportive services such as child care during training and post training.

In L.A., our research is being used by a broad-based Alameda Corridor Jobs Coalition to target the $2 billion rapid rail project administered by the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority (ACTA). The Corridor extends 21 miles, from downtown Long Beach to L.A. ACTA predicts creation of 10,000 construction-related jobs and "an additional 700,000 local jobs" includes representatives from two public housing developments, the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, Greater Bethany Economic Development Corporation, ACORN, AGENDA (Action for Grassroots Empowerment and Neighborhood Development Alternatives), LAMAP (L.A. Manufacturing Action Project) and other community-based non-profits. Negotiations are under way between this Coalition and the Department of Transportation, ACTA and private contractors.

Some Conclusions

Public housing's history lies in its original connection to job creation, first to kickstart the construction industry at the tail end of the 1930s Depression, and second to meet defense workers' needs upon United States' entry into World War II. Private real estate interests viciously attacked public housing, and the number of units were never more than a small fraction of the total housing stock. At different times, public housing residents and advocacy groups organized around physical deterioration, increases in drug and crime, arbitrary evictions and tenant selection policies as well as fighting for community facilities and the need for jobs. In locations such as South Los Angeles, the results of housing site decisions made in the 1940s and 1950s and the overall deindustrialization of the economy combined to create larger concentrations of poverty surrounding the public housing developments. The closure of large and nearby manufacturing firms has meant wholesale departure of jobs that typically provided opportunities for work at steady wages and benefits. No one job strategy is sufficient to overcome such long-standing structural problems. Interviews with the 30 JTPA participants suggest that job training programs housing for convenience and accessibility to children. Participants were most likely to comment favorably about access to onsite Community Service Centers, although satisfaction is mediated by staff quality and stability, hours and availability of child care.

Even with on-site training, a jobs gap exists. Between 1994 and 1996, HACLA created 547 mostly part-time jobs with another 190 job opportunities expected by 1998. Adding jobs created in collaboration with Resident Advisory Councils or management corporations and Housing Authority staff, the number still falls far short of some crudely estimated 7,000 jobs required for public housing residents in L.A. To redress the gap, our study concludes with a series of specific recommendations which may be adapted to other situations. HACLA should not reproduce itself as a mega-non-profit economic bureaucracy, but could be a catalyst and act as a senior or junior mentor to public housing residents and to existing community development corporations (CDCs) with track records in housing and economic developinent. For example, one successful construction training program for neighborhood youths was pioneered by L.A. 's Venice Community Housing Corporation. Adopting this model could mean generating 500 jobs. Systematic devolution of the Housing Authority bureaucracy to residents and neighborhood-controlled enterprises -- a goal that anti-public housing and pro-privatization devotees might find palatable -- can and should be done and is not at the cost of reducing the number of public housing units.

Jacqueline Leavitt is Professor of Urban Planning at the Univ. of California, Los Angeles.
Mary Ochs Organizational Development Specialist in the LA office of the Center for Community Change (1055 Wilshire Blvd., #1600, LA, CA 90017, 213/325-4045).

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