Roger Starr
An Ounce of Prevention
Autumn 1995

It's almost impossible to evict a disruptive tenant from public housing, thanks to the Supreme Court's 1970 Goldberg v. Kelly decision, which set in motion the due-process revolution. The result has been a cycle of decay: as working families move out to escape the declining quality of life, public housing becomes a shelter for the most dysfunctional of the underclass. By 1988 less than a third of New York City's public housing tenants worked. On a visit to the city's projects two years ago, I saw open spaces littered with papers, bottles, and an occasional stripped car. Graffiti disgraced the brick and concrete walls.

But in 1993 the New York City Housing Authority began trying to break the cycle. Since they couldn't evict problem tenants, officials reasoned, why not screen them out in the first place? The authority now checks criminal records of every member of a family applying for an apartment. Housing Authority staffers interview not only the applicants themselves but their neighbors and landlords. They visit each applicant's home to determine whether it is clean and orderly. And, most important, tenant committees have the power to approve or disapprove potential tenants.

The screening effort is serious, the results tangible. In May the authority rejected nearly 40 percent of the 5,745 applicants with whom it completed interviews. Two months later I led a group of European professors on a tour of eight Housing Authority projects. The lawns were clean, the graffiti gone, the walks and driveways in good condition. Fearing that my visitors would think I had steered them to carefully selected showplaces, I took them to a problem project that I'd criticized severely two years earlier. It too had improved substantially. By screening its tenants, the Housing Authority has proved that it can make its projects places that New Yorkers with middle class aspirations but thin pocketbooks will be happy to call home.

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