Ambivalence among the architects and managers of public housing has been woven into the enterprise almost from its inception. Even as President Lyndon Johnson was pursuing a War on Poverty, Assistant Labor Secretary Daniel Patrick Moynihan proposed that the dissolution of the black family, not barriers to employment, was the cause of black poverty. His 1965 report The Negro Family: The Case for National Action nudged the nation onto a conservative course with an emphasis on personal responsibility. While the focus of the report was the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, or welfare, the charged language in the report would prove to be an early salvo in an often racially tinged debate about whether government assistance perpetuated poverty by promoting dependency.
The same preoccupation with moving poor people from dependency to self-sufficiency animates Housing Authority of Winston-Salem CEO Larry Woods today.
“There is economic stagnation of non-elderly, non-disabled families living in subsidized housing resulting in unnecessary lengthy stays, generational poverty, increased demands for governmental subsidies and lengthening of waiting lists,” Woods testified before the US House Ways and Means Committee in July 2013. “Current policies, rules and regulations provide for unconditional, open-ended housing subsidies that discourage self-sufficiency and nurture generational poverty.”
Woods’ characterization of some of the residents did not spare tender sensibilities.
“In surveys taken of non-elderly, non-disabled residents in Winston-Salem’s public housing, residents stated that they liked living in public housing because they were on their own and taking care of themselves,” he said. “They have reached their goal of independence. Many have no intention of furthering their education or finding employment. When asked how long they plan to live in public housing, the answer is forever. There is no understanding by the residents that someone is supplementing their ‘independence.’”
Notwithstanding Woods’ concern that current policies “discourage self-sufficiency and nurture generational poverty,” the number of Winston-Salem residents living in public housing has hardly budged since the first 1,085 units were introduced with the construction of Happy Hill Gardens, Piedmont Park, Kimberly Park and Cleveland Avenue Homes. The Housing Authority of Winston-Salem currently houses 1,100 traditional public- housing residents, along with about 4,000 people who receive vouchers to subsidize private housing, according to numbers provided by the agency. While the number of public-housing residents has remained constant, the overall population of Winston-Salem has more than doubled from 111,135 in 1960 to 236,441 in 2013.
The image of public housing in the popular imagination often fixates on towers as a symbol of concentrated humanity and a compounding of problems associated with poverty. But in Winston-Salem, the first four public-housing communities for families that were built in the 1950s — similar to counterparts like Smith Homes in Greensboro and Carson Stout Homes in High Point — were one- and two-story brick buildings.
Whatever the challenges of Happy Hills, Smith Homes and Carson Stout, they paled in significance to massive public-housing towers like Cabrini-Green Homes and Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago, which became synonymous with drug infestation, gang warfare and disrepair. (Both have since been demolished.) The fictional towers in the television series “The Wire,” set in Baltimore, function as a setting for the Barksdale gang’s drug sales. Their demolition in Season 3 doesn’t even merit a backstory; audiences could be expected to implicitly appreciate their dysfunction. The towers’ demise merely serves as a plot device to push the drug sales out into the street. Lexington Terrace, the real-life inspiration for the towers in “The Wire” was also demolished, representative of a nationwide trend.
In the late ’60s, with the Moynihan Report framing public-policy debate, the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem pioneered a much-vaunted program to transition residents from public housing to homeownership. But while the idea of dispersal and “scattered” housing was gaining favor, the agency was also gearing up to build its most concentrated projects ever.
An August 1968 article in the Winston-Salem Journal about a new program called Turnkey III included only a glancing reference to additional federal funds for Sunrise Towers and Crystal Towers, two 11-story projects that would soon be on the drawing boards.
“The scattered housing idea will be a new twist on local public housing,” the article reported. “Until now, all of the public housing has been concentrated in a few large projects. Through scattered housing, the federal government hopes to break up segregated housing patterns.”
As the article explained, private developers would build almost 1,000 single-family homes and then sell them to the housing authority, which would in turn rent them to people who met the eligibility test for public housing. Eventually, if the tenants’ income increased sufficiently, they could buy the house from the agency.
Almost as an afterthought the article mentioned, “Only a week ago, the housing authority received the go-ahead from the federal government to build 400 units of high-rise housing for the elderly.”
Public-housing construction created a massive infusion of real-estate investment in Winston-Salem from December 1969 through October 1970, with the Twin City Sentinel reporting that projects of the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem accounted for almost half of residential construction during that period. Of $10.7 million in building permits secured by the housing authority, most were obtained for 792 Turnkey III homes, but the construction of Crystal Towers accounted for $3 million. Tenants were already moving into the newly constructed Sunrise Towers, the newspaper reported, and Crystal Towers was expected to be ready for occupancy by late 1971.
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, people were living longer. Increasing geographic mobility and women moving into the workforce in greater numbers, leaving them less time to care for aging parents, conspired to increase the need for public housing for the elderly. Compared with the conditions of fiscal austerity that prevail today, federal funding was more flush. A boom in senior housing was on. The Greensboro Housing Authority built Gateway Plaza with 221 units in 1974, and the High Point Housing Authority erected the 11-story Elm Towers in 1977.
With the completion of Sunrise Towers in East Winston and Crystal Towers on the north end of downtown in the early ’70s, the construction spree enabled by a $5.6 million bundle of US Department of Housing and Urban Development-approved loans wasn’t completed. The shorter, six-story Healy Towers, located off Stratford Road near Forsyth Medical Center, went up in 1978.