TOPICS > Politics

Extended Interview: Former HUD Chief Alphonso Jackson

April 1, 2008 at 12:00 AM EDT

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Mr. Secretary, I’d like to begin to ask you to describe what the federal government’s vision of the future of public housing is.

ALPHONSO JACKSON, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development: I truly believe that we can no longer begin to build the kind of structures that we’ve seen in the 30s, 40s, 50s and the late 60s. I think we must integrate people both socially and economically. Because to build again like we did by putting low income people out of sight, out of mind, really creates a serious problem, because they have no incentives to do anything better than what they’ve seen in their respective communities.

Secondly, almost in every one of those communities that we built in the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s, they were crime-ridden, drug-ridden environments and I don’t think that’s very conducive for kids to be brought up in. So my plans for the future are the plans that I implemented when I was running housing authorities in St. Louis, Washington D.C., and Dallas. That is to integrate people both socially and economically into the fabric of that society, to make life much better for them.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And how is that working with the mixed income projects?

ALPHONSO JACKSON: Not as well as I had wanted it to work, especially in some of the HOPE 6 developments. They have not brought as many low income people back to the developments as I would have hoped they would when we first talked about creating housing opportunities for people everywhere. And that’s the name for HOPE, is Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere. And during the process we were really talking somewhere about 30, 40 percent of the residents returning. Most of the developments — of the 75 that have been done, probably at the most 25 to 30 percent have returned. So one of the things that we’re going to stress in New Orleans is to make sure that somewhere between 35, 40 percent of the residents who are in good standing have the opportunity to come back. Because if we’re going to integrate those developments, both socially and economically, we must have more of the residents back to give them opportunities to better their lives.

Section 8 problems, advantages

BETTY ANN BOWSER: You brought up one of the major criticisms that we've heard from the housing advocates in New Orleans and around the country -- that it's fine to replace these public housing projects with mixed income, but very few of the people that originally live there have been able to come back. I wondered what you think the barriers have been? Is it not enough building units?

ALPHONSO JACKSON: I don't think that's a barrier. In many cases that's a very positive thing because they get a Section 8 tenant voucher and they have the opportunity to live where they want to live.

Now let me give you some of the examples. I was just in Chicago with Mayor Daly and met a number of residents who don't want to come back to traditional public housing. They want to live in an integrated environment in the suburbs and with the voucher they have that opportunity. The same thing in Atlanta.

So many of the people do not want to return. It's not a barrier, and I think we have to give them the same options that we give other Americans, and in many cases the advocates don't want to do that. They want them to come back to drug infested, crime infested environments. And I think that's absolutely wrong. And I will not participate or be a part of that. I want them to have the same opportunities that you and I have, to go and live in peace, have the amenities to be able to shop where they want to shop. But if they choose to come back, I want them to have that option also.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Where do you think people have gone that have not been able to return? I mean where are all these people?

ALPHONSO JACKSON: Every person who did not return to traditional public housing has a tenant voucher to live where they want to live and I think this is a mistake on the part of those groups who are saying that many of these people are displaced and have nowhere to go. There is not one single person who was in public housing in New Orleans that is not in housing today being paid for by the government. And in many cases in much better housing than they were in the public housing developments that they came from. And I have had the opportunity to visit many of these people in Dallas, Fort Worth, in San Antonio, and Baton Rouge, and they're living much better.

And one of the things that I think is important to know is many of them said please tear down those buildings and when you rebuild them I'd love to come back but I don't want to come back to what I just left. I was afraid to go out on my porch. I was afraid for my children to play in the yard. I think it's really up to us to make the environment they come back in as fair and open as we can for them to have the ability to live like we live every day.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: A lot of the housing advocates that we've spoken to tell us that people who are living with Section 8 are having problems. They're having problems getting units because there's a stigma attached to the voucher, that they're having problems making ends meet because of utility bills and the like that they didn't have in public housing. What has been your experience?

ALPHONSO JACKSON: That's not my experience at all. And I think I'm in a better position than most to make this statement, having run three major housing authorities. I have never seen a problem with any of the residents with vouchers. In fact one of the criticisms that were getting is that we need to spend more money for the voucher program because of the high utility bills.

Now, it's important to understand that the Section 8 budget has gone up every year. We're not serving more people. We're serving the same number of people. But in order for us to make sure that they can stay in their apartments, its costing us more. So in many cases we are paying many of the recipients of the Section 8 voucher to stay in the voucher program. That is we're paying their rent, we're paying the utility bills. We're basically subsidizing.

Now I can't understand how the advocacy groups can say these people cannot make ends meet. We're doing everything in our power to make sure that they stay in their units and I have not seen that in Houston, Dallas, Philadelphia, anywhere around the country I have been. I have not seen people having the same problem. I hear the same arguments that you make. But I will say this to you, being in a very unique situation, I am the only HUD Secretary that's ever ran a housing authority. So I make it my business to travel to cities to see how housing authorities are functioning and our residents are living. And I think that's very important to get a sense of what is going on. And I can tell you that in many housing authorities around this country, residents are doing extremely well.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: In some of these cities we've been told that the waiting list for Section 8 vouchers was cut off. For example, in New Orleans, we were told there were like 20,000 people on the waiting list and that they ran out of money for the voucher program and so many people never got vouchers.

ALPHONSO JACKSON: Its important to understand that not only do we have waiting lists in the Section 8 program, we have waiting lists in the public housing programs. No matter what we do, we're never going to have enough money to accommodate every person who might need a voucher, or every person who might need to be in public housing.

But one of the things I do think is important is that we should look at limiting the amount of time that people stay on vouchers, giving them incentives to come off of those voucher programs. And as of to date, there is no incentive to come off. So therefore, people can't replace other people. This should be a rotating cycle.

And let me go back and give you a history of the voucher program. When the voucher program started, it was the bridge between going into market-rate housing and leaving public housing. It was never meant to be a substitute for public housing. In many cases that's what it has become in this country, a substitute for public housing. So I think that if we can limit the amount of time that people are on these vouchers, we can turn them over very quickly and serve a lot more Americans who are in need of these programs.

One-to-one replacement

BETTY ANN BOWSER: When public housing officials in New Orleans talk about mixed income developments, they point to River Garden as a success. And critics of course are very upset about that project. Originally it was St. Thomas and I think about 1,510 units. Today, as we speak, there are only 122 units for really poor people. The new projections in New Orleans, with the exception of one of these new projects, are similar to what's happened at River Gardens. A lot of people are not going to be able to ever come back. What do you do about that, because you said in New Orleans your goal is going to be to make the numbers better than they've been in these other places?

ALPHONSO JACKSON: Everything that I've been able to discern, we're working with the developers to increase the number much better than we've had before. And I can't tell you how important that is to me because if the persons want to come back, I think they should be given every opportunity to come back. But the housing authority understands exactly what we would like to see. It's left up to them to make sure that that is carried out.

If you look at what is going to go on with Enterprise and Catholic Charities at Lafitte, they're going to have a one for one replacement for all of those units because we have the necessary property around the city to build on. So that to me is a positive sign, and I would believe that the other developers would follow basically Catholic Charities' and Enterprise's lead. That's what I'm looking at because it is clear to me that not all of the redevelopments, not all of the HOPE 6 have lived up to what I perceive they should be.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: That brings up a very interesting question that's come up as we've done our reporting on this story. And that is, does this represent the privatization of public housing and if so, who is keeping an eye on the developers to make sure that they do these things that you do want them to do?

ALPHONSO JACKSON: I don't think it's privatization. I think that's really not the word we should use. I think were integrating these public housing developments, both socially and economically. And it is the housing authority's responsibility to make sure that the developers do exactly what they had promised, but it's also the housing authority's responsibility to demand more out of the developers.

When we did HOPE 6 in Dallas, I demanded a more proportionate amount of public housing residents coming back into public housing. That is the chief executive's responsibility. There are many cases, some of the housing authorities in this country basically refuse to do that and I think that's a mistake. If they insist that they have a percentage coming back, I still think that every one of the developers -- and really we're dealing with maybe six, seven major developments around this country who can do this work and do it in a timely manner. They would really work with the housing authority. I don't think any of them would not work with the housing authority if asked to do so.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But again, back to my question, how are you going to make these developers change these numbers? I've also spoken at great length with the Lafitte Catholic Charities folks and I know they're the only ones that are doing one-to-one replacement, but there are no plans right now for these others to do one-to-one. So how are you going to encourage these developers to do more of that?

ALPHONSO JACKSON: First of all, I think that's an excellent question. We at HUD cannot force them to do anything because the allocation of these units were done by the local housing authority. They have the responsibility to make sure and in this case, HUD has the receivership. I would hope that our receiver would stress how important it is for them to do this process the way I've just outlined to you.

I think it is important that many of these persons have the opportunity to come back. But as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, I can't walk into a housing authority and say you do X-Y-Z. That's not what our responsibility is. Our responsibility is to make sure that once the housing authority submits us a plan, that they follow the plans that they've agreed to do. If they don't, then at that point in time, we can take the appropriate action. But otherwise, all housing authorities are autonomous in that sense. They're incorporated by their respective states, the mayor usually has the ability to appoint the board only in the case that we take it over do we really serve as the board and that's the case here. So I would hope that the persons that we have down at New Orleans now will adhere to the policy of having more residents having the ability to come back, if they so choose.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: I heard from people when we were reporting this story in New Orleans that the whole mixed income idea and the tearing down of the projects and building these new mixed income developments are really all about this big plot to make New Orleans and cities like it less poor, less African-American.

ALPHONSO JACKSON: I am really disturbed by that kind of tone. And I say that because you know I'm a black American. I would not be part of any action to keep black people from having a decent, safe and sanitary place to live.

You know I haven't always been as affluent as I am. I am the last of 12 kids. My father had a fifth grade education. But he educated all 12 of us. So I am very sensitive to the needs of black Americans and I'm really very tired of these liberals coming in, telling us what they believe. They don't live in these drug infested, crime infested units. You know they don't live there. Why do they want low-income black people living in those kind of conditions? I think it is our responsibility to give them every avenue to live as well as you and I can within their means.

And if we don't do that, we're going back to the same situation. We're effectively really practicing racism in its worst form. We're saying put them back in those units, out of sight, out of mind. Don't worry about them destroying themselves. Don't worry about the killings that occur every weekend. Don't give them any incentives to get out of the developments. I want to give them the same incentives that we give everybody else.

So you know this morning -- I say this lightly -- this morning I got up, looked in the mirror and I was still black and so therefore I don't think I'm going to do anything to try to destroy black families or blacks or to put them in a situation where they can't thrive. I think it's my responsibility to do everything in our power to make sure that every opportunity is given to them.

Homelessness in New Orleans

BETTY ANN BOWSER: There generally has been an increase in homelessness in New Orleans since Katrina. You can see people living under the interstate, just two or three blocks away from the French Quarter.

ALPHONSO JACKSON: We have allocated a large sum of money to New Orleans to address homelessness. Plus they still have the voucher program that they can use. But from everything we have been able to discern, many of the people who were protesting down at City Hall were not even residents of New Orleans or Louisiana itself.

Now I don't know if it's true or not true, but the point is that New Orleans, as other major cities, we have allocated monies to address the issue. Again you have to understand what we do at HUD. We allocate the monies. We can't resolve the problem, the problem must be resolved at the state and local level. And if they are being very proactive, I think you'll see good positive results. And we've seen it in a number of cities.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Back to the developers again. For example, with River Garden, they have a whole new set of rules that are very different from the old days of public housing. Everybody has to have a job, you can't have a criminal background. Some of the housing advocates down there say by doing that, that selects out even more people that previously could live in public housing but won't be able to live in these new developments. Do you think that's a good thing or a bad thing?

ALPHONSO JACKSON: I think it's a very good thing. Let me say this to you. Why would you want a criminal living next door to you that has committed a violent crime? I don't think that makes any sense. And I don't care whether you're black, white, Chinese, Jewish, what have you. You want a decent safe environment to go to bed in and to wake up in every morning. That's what you want. So why would you want somebody who was a major drug dealer living next door to you? I don't want that, and I don't think any decent person, no matter what the income level is wants that. So if they're saying that's wrong, I disagree with them.

I think that you need to have a job. If you're physically capable of working, you should go to work. There are so many jobs to be had in New Orleans at this point in time that people could easily find work to do. So I am saying to you that if the advocates believed that that's a serious problem, I just disagree with them. I think that you want the best living environment that you can have and that's what you see in places like Atlanta, that's what you see in Chicago with the integration of the housing both socially and economically. That's what you see in Charlotte, that's what you're seeing in Dallas and other major cities around this country and it's working. Their living environment is much better than what they came out of. And that's what we should be striving for is to make the environment much better.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Why do you think this has struck such a raw nerve in New Orleans?

ALPHONSO JACKSON: I don't think it's any different than any other city. I really think that once you talk about redeveloping public housing, you're going to always have the advocacy groups who don't want it done. They think that the present public housing is good enough if you just renovate it.

When you renovate housing, you can never anticipate what's going to occur. I've renovated a number of public housing developments and it's always the major cost overrun, whereas if you can demolish the units, rebuild them, you know exactly what you're going to encounter. And so I think it is better to rebuild those units.

But it's not unusual. I don't think this is unique to New Orleans to have these groups arguing about this situation. I mean I have the same situation in Dallas. I had very much the same situation when I tried to move public housing in Northwest Washington. So it's not unusual. They believe that clearly it shouldn't be done and I respect their belief, but I disagree with their belief.

Congress debate, corruption charges

BETTY ANN BOWSER: As you probably know, Senator Landrieu and Representative Maxine Waters have been asking for there to be some sort of legislation to require the developers to actually rebuild one-for-one in New Orleans. Do you support that idea?

ALPHONSO JACKSON: Well that has been an issue for a number of years. At one point it was one-for-one replacement. Then back in the early 90s, Congress said this does not make sense so we're going to eradicate one-for-one replacement. And now we have, as you said, the Congresswoman and the Senator asking.

I don't want to get into an argument or a debate with them. This is a legislative issue just like it was when they decided we didn't do one-for-one. They have to make a decision. If that is what they come to, we will carry their wishes out through the regulation that they put forward. If they don't, we will continue to operate like we do. I think it's just very important that whatever occurs, that no matter who the person is, once they leave public housing that they have the ability to live where they want to live and make sure that we work with them in that process. And we have done that to date. Every person out of New Orleans is living in a decent, safe and sanitary place on a voucher, either tenant voucher or a disaster voucher. No one has been put out on the streets where they can't live.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Finally Mr. Secretary, what do you make of accusations you steered government contracts to your friends? Do you have anything that you'd like to say about that?

ALPHONSO JACKSON: All I can say is this, that there's been a lot of misinformation thrown at this, in this process. I think we should let the inspector do their duties by looking at this and I believe when the air is cleared, I will clearly be cleared of all these, these accusations that have been made. That's the most that I can say.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Great. Thank you very much.

ALPHONSO JACKSON: Thank you all so much.