Last spring, I got an invitation to appear in a documentary about the evolution of public and mixed-income housing in St. Louis. I lived in St. Louis when I was a teenager and have vague memories of the demolition of the infamous Pruitt-Igoe development. But while I know a lot about public housing transformation and HOPE VI in general, I knew very little about what had happened in St. Louis.
The film, Envisioning Home, tells the story of Richard Baron and Jean King and their involvement in a tenant rent strike that changed U.S. housing policy. In the 1960s, housing authorities in many cities were rapidly building large, new developments to house low-income families, but received no federal funds to operate or maintain these new properties. These high-rise towers had complex electrical and plumbing systems and elevators, all of which required significant upkeep. With tenant rents their only income stream, housing authorities continued to raise rents, even while failing to keep up with maintenance needs.
Jean King was a tenant leader, organizing a rent strike to force the St. Louis Housing Authority to improve conditions; Richard Baron was a legal aid lawyer representing the tenants. The two formed a partnership that eventually led to changes in federal law that capped tenant rents at 25 percent of income and created a system for providing operating subsidies to housing authorities. Baron went on to become a developer of low-income housing, and his firm—McCormack, Baron, Salazar— became one of the leaders in developing the kind of mixed-income communities that have replaced distressed public housing across the nation.
Baron and his partners saw that tenants needed employment assistance and other services, so they helped create Urban Strategies, a nonprofit that provides supportive services in communities across the nation. Sandra Moore, also featured in the film, is the director and driving force behind Urban Strategies; Jean King is one of their case managers and continues to work with low-income tenants in mixed-income housing developments in St. Louis.
So the invitation to be part of this film was not only a fun opportunity, but also a way to learn more about the history of public housing in the United States. It also gave me the chance to form new connections with Richard Baron and Sandra Moore. I am now working with Sandra Moore and her staff to bring St. Louis on as a fifth site for the Urban Institute’s HOST Demonstration. HOST is testing innovative two-generation case management models to provide intensive support to vulnerable families in public housing to help improve the life chances for children and youth as well as to help stabilize the community. Urban Strategies will bring their years of experience in delivering services to HOST, greatly enhancing what we can learn from this demonstration.
Envisioning Home will be screened at an event cosponsored by the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution on January 30.