She moved into the projects 32 years ago, eyes wide at everything that had become hers.
“This is mine,” Yvonne Bridges remembers whispering back then, as a caseworker wheeled her through the door. “Mine,” she repeated, running a hand over the sweating concrete walls and the vents that blew sticky air.
Three decades later, the same concrete walls still surround 88-year-old Bridges. The Edison-Eastlake neighborhood has fallen into disrepair. Thick concrete walls trap in heat that aging swamp coolers can’t dispel, and maintenance teams improvise fixes on 75-year-old parts.
For 32 years, Edison-Eastlake crumbled along with so many of America’s public housing projects. Federal money meant to maintain the country’s 1.2 million public housing units was never enough, and a backlog built up. The National Housing Preservation Database now counts more than 84,000 units in need of immediate investment.
The three Edison-Eastlake projects — Frank Luke Homes, A.L. Krohn Homes and Sidney P. Osborn — were stuck in America’s old approach to public housing. It is an approach that everybody from Yvonne Bridges to U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson want to leave in the past.
“There’s a lot of red tape, a lot of things that perhaps disincentivize people to go out and become self-sufficient,” Carson said in an interview with The Arizona Republic. “But the silver lining is that the old way of doing things, perhaps, encouraged all those things. The new way of doing things is very, very promising.”
The city of Phoenix planned to rebuild Edison-Eastlake the new way. It wanted a community where people could thrive, and to pay for it the city eyed a $30 million grant from HUD’s popular Choice Neighborhoods grant program.
Then the federal government outlined next year’s budget. Its proposals shrank HUD to help pay for drastic increases in defense spending. Among the targets was Choice Neighborhoods.
The Senate proposed the program’s funding be reduced by $88 million. The House suggested cutting it by $118 million.
President Donald Trump’s proposal eliminated the program entirely.
THE NEW HOUSING CRISIS | PART 1: Can’t afford the rent, can’t afford to move | PART 2: 60 days to find a home | PART 3: ‘Here for the eviction’ | PART 4: $200 from home | PART 5: Plans for housing projects threatened
Phoenix feared its grand plans were in line to be slashed in a flurry of politics, that the cuts would strand the residents of Edison-Eastlake in their obsolete homes. So the city has rushed to apply for whatever money may be left.
Bridges watched Edison-Eastlake decay one night at a time, riding her scooter in wide loops as the neighborhood’s first and only Block Watch. When she moved in, the area was dangerous but the buildings were stable, and that was a trade-off she could handle. Now the projects seem like just a silent series of battered buildings, filled with people who live there only because there is nowhere else to go.
In her yellowing apartment, Bridges charged her red scooter and flicked on the single light beside her front door. Below it hung a yellowed sign she printed herself.
Block Watch, the sign read. It works!
“Looks like it’s going to be pretty quiet,” Bridges said, and she pulled into the darkness.
A promising program teeters amid cuts
In the days after the White House released its budget proposal, Phoenix Housing Director Cindy Stotler tried to add up everything the city might lose.
An early draft of the president’s budget showed a $6 billion cut to a department that many believed had long been underfunded anyway. It eliminated a handful of programs that cities like Phoenix used to house its poorest people.
The proposed budget would force Phoenix to stop a program that taught poor families to become financially independent, Stotler wrote in an internal memo obtained by The Republic. The city would lose money it used to build new affordable housing, help people make down payments on their homes and provide rental assistance to homeless children.
Finally, Stotler wrote, the city could lose its chance at a Choice Neighborhoods grant, which would “possibly significantly delay the redevelopment of 577 units of aged, obsolete public housing in the Edison Eastlake Community.”
Choice Neighborhoods had been in the city’s sights since at least 2011, when it was listed as part of a 14-step “master plan” to transform the neighborhoods east of downtown. The Housing Department had visions of a neighborhood reborn, with tree-lined sidewalks, a community pool and central air-conditioning. It would become the city’s great beacon, a brownstone example of the future of public housing.
But without Choice Neighborhoods, Edison-Eastlake would be trapped in its concrete past. The city would have to find its own funding, which Stotler said could take years.
“It would just slow down everything that we’re trying to do,” Stotler said in an interview. “It could have some severe effects.”
Public housing became federal policy with the New Deal, and more than 50 projects were built by 1937. But in Phoenix, the city’s poor lived in segregated slums, with dirt floors and no running water. Affordable housing was set aside for white workers, who were needed to manufacture America’s way through World War II.
Emmett McLoughlin, a priest, became the first chairman of the Phoenix Housing Authority in 1939, and he pushed the city to build housing for its poorest black and Hispanic families. The first project came to Phoenix in 1941, and for the next three decades the U.S. Housing Authority marked the city with concrete.
A cluster came to Edison-Eastlake, just east of downtown Phoenix. First arrived the low duplexes of Frank Luke Jr. Homes, constructed in 1942. In 1960 the city added the Sidney P. Osborn project, and three years after that came the apartment-style A.L. Krohn Homes.
They were built to hold as many people as possible, with little attention paid to comfort. And then Phoenix’s rapid expansion over the next few decades carved an invisible chasm between Edison-Eastlake and the rest of the city.
Suburbia sprawled outward, and those who could afford to move did so. That slashed the demand for local businesses, which shuttered and took their jobs elsewhere.
Unemployment spiked. Factories dumped chemicals into the ground, and more people fled. Interstate 10 cut through the heart of the city, closing off many residents’ access to jobs and shops along McDowell Road. So much crime and violence swarmed the streets that one mailman told Bridges he would no longer deliver to the neighborhood by himself.
Edison-Eastlake had become an island of poverty in the nation’s fifth-largest city.
“One of the reasons the neighborhood looks so bad is because everybody around it is poor,” Stotler said. “It’s a high concentration of very poor public housing residents.”
Today, more than 80 percent of Edison-Eastlake residents have household incomes less than $11,000, according to city data. The unemployment rate sits at 31 percent, almost four times higher than the city average. Violent crime occurs three times more often than in the rest of Phoenix, spurred by a lack of streetlights.
A bodega across the street advertises “Beer Wine Grocery Smokes Lotto,” but there are few nearby options for fresh produce. There are few obvious job opportunities. Students at the local school, Thomas A. Edison Elementary, score well below the state average on state exams.
Neighborhoods like Edison-Eastlake, new studies have shown, can smother their residents. Children raised in high-poverty areas are less likely to graduate from high school and have lower future incomes than kids raised in wealthier neighborhoods. A lack of safe spaces for physical activity can lead to higher rates of obesity and heart disease.
Those effects are long-lasting, a joint study from Harvard University and the National Bureau of Economic Research found.
“More broadly,” the study read, “our findings suggest that efforts to integrate disadvantaged families into mixed-income communities are likely to reduce the persistence of poverty across generations.”
‘They’re gonna tear all of this down’
Yvonne Bridges’ swamp cooler shut off at the height of a 107-degree day in June. The heat built in her apartment until she passed out. Her cat fell over and wheezed. Bridges awakened, shaking and lightheaded, with paramedics hovering over her.
“I don’t know what they’re going to do,” Bridges said, and the city didn’t know, either. The 70-year-old buildings had started to give out.
The electrical grid is too old to be connected to modern appliances or central air- conditioning. Swamp coolers attached to each unit are so obsolete that no manufacturer offers replacement parts. When the coolers break, which they do regularly, maintenance teams are forced to improvise.
Ground-floor units are plagued with roaches and occasional rats. One resident in a building near Bridges’ apartment moved in and immediately carried her microwave outside to keep the bugs crawling through it from spreading.
The clay-pipe sewers are beginning to crack open. Piles of trash sit on street corners, waiting for pickup that doesn’t seem to come often enough.
“All the systems,” Stotler said. “It just has to go.”
Phoenix spends an average of almost $900,000 annually to operate each of the three projects, according to city records. Maintenance crews paint the apartments every few years, and recently replaced the lighting. In 2010 the sidewalks and playgrounds were repaired.
But Edison-Eastlake has put the city in an uncomfortable paradox: The projects are simply too old to be renovated. They have to be demolished, and everybody knows it.
“They said it was going to be three years, maybe five,” Edison-Eastlake resident Geraldine Harris said. “They’re gonna tear all of this down.”
Everybody in the neighborhood knows Harris, and Harris knows everybody else. She’s on all the boards: the Resident Leadership Council, the action team, the neighborhood team. She moved into the projects with her daughter in 2013, cramming into a unit barely big enough for one person. Something in their apartment makes her allergies worse than ever before.
Harris, 62, hates moving. She likes to stay in one place as long as possible. But she can’t stay in Edison-Eastlake anymore. There’s too much trash piled everywhere. Her swamp cooler can’t handle the Phoenix summers.
Whether Edison-Eastlake becomes a Choice Neighborhood or not, Harris won’t be there to see the result. She’s moving to Washington Manor, a senior public housing complex a few blocks south. She can’t live without air-conditioning anymore.
Providing housing and opportunities
Two weeks after his confirmation as HUD secretary, Ben Carson flew to Detroit for the first leg of what he called a “listening tour.”
Carson’s appointment had alarmed housing advocates across the country. He once called poverty “a state of mind,” and said in his confirmation hearing that the best thing to do for people on government assistance was to get them off it.
A rumor spread that he had grown up in public housing, but Carson dismissed it, claiming his mother avoided public housing because “there was a lot of danger there.”
But now he was in charge of the nation’s housing policy, and he wanted to hear for himself how the government’s housing programs worked.
So over four stops — in Detroit, Dallas, Miami and Columbus, Ohio — Carson visited housing officials and public housing projects. He spoke with a few residents and told the New York Times that compassionate housing meant ensuring people didn’t feel too comfortable in government housing.
He returned to Washington convinced that the traditional method of public housing had stifled generations of lives.
“When people first came up with the concept of public housing, I don’t think they were bad people, but I don’t think they realized the implications of simply maintaining people in a public housing setting,” Carson said in an interview. “Not just year after year, but generation after generation, basically killing the drive that people have to succeed.”
Carson took office at a time of transition in America’s public housing policy. Instead of just housing as many people as possible, housing authorities across the nation have shifted to a more holistic approach.
The change began in the early 1990s. HUD encouraged housing authorities to build mixed-income housing, setting aside some units for families with housing vouchers, some for public housing and some that were open to anybody. Slices of each grant were directed at rebuilding the surrounding area.
“When it comes to creating a healthy environment, it’s not only having clean, decent affordable housing,” Carson said. “It’s also having a place where you can buy groceries. It’s having decent schools. It’s having daycare.”
Using programs like Choice Neighborhoods, local housing authorities have begun to trade mass numbers of low-quality public housing units for fewer units of higher quality.
Under Carson, HUD will further shift federal dollars away from housing and toward its residents. He wants to see housing authorities provide job training and opportunities for education so residents can find housing of their own.
To make up for potential budget cuts, Carson said, HUD will encourage housing authorities to look toward private-public partnerships. Whether that will be enough to make up the gap is unclear.
“We can only provide enough public housing, or affordable housing, for about a quarter of the people who need it,” Carson said. “If we can keep those people moving, moving through, then we can take care of some of the backlog.”
The goal is a generational change. One that was supposed to come to Edison-Eastlake.
Fearing change will never come
In March, a hundred Edison-Eastlake residents filed into Edison Elementary School. They filled plates with food from Baiz Market and filed around a series of survey booths, where they told city employees how to turn public housing into a home.
“Where do you see the community going in 10 years?” asked a blank vision tree hung on the wall, and on paper leaves the residents scribbled their hopes:
Safer. Mas limpios. Grocery store. Mas policia. Sense of community.
“A big part of this Choice Neighborhoods grant is that it’s really feedback-driven,” said Berenice Felix-Baca, a Phoenix Housing manager overseeing the Choice Neighborhoods grant process. “We had an idea of what people would say going in.”
In May the city finalized a resident survey that asked about every aspect of the community. The results confirmed what residents and city officials had long known: The neighborhood was too dangerous, surrounded by poverty and offered little opportunity.
Eighty-six percent of residents said it was “very important” to address high rates of crime and violence.
Eighty-five percent said the neighborhood needed better lighting.
Seventy-five percent wanted better schools, youth programs and recreational facilities.
And just 47 percent of residents expected Edison-Eastlake to be a better place to live in five years.
An 11th-hour bid for funding
On the morning after another community meeting, Stotler cleared the table in her downtown office and rolled open a set of neighborhood sketches. Years of preparation unfurled in front of her. HUD had already awarded the city $1.5 million to plan the neighborhood’s transformation.
“We have a lot of land, so we could do a lot of open space, parks and things like that, to really make it an iconic neighborhood amenity to draw more people in once we start redeveloping the housing,” Stotler said, running a hand along a stretch of green. “That’s what we want to do. We’re really excited about that.”
The city has not finished plans for how it would use the $30 million it’s requesting from Choice Neighborhoods.
Drawing from the community meetings, resident surveys and the city’s parks and transportation departments, Stotler and her team built multiple drafts of Edison-Eastlake’s transformation, complete with grassy parks, soccer fields, computer labs and a community pool. One employee suggested a “cooling tower” be built in the park. The tower would force hot air through a container of cool water and push it out the bottom, like a natural air-conditioner.
If the city was awarded a Choice Neighborhoods grant, Stotler said, the Housing Department could leverage that money into improved streets and new sidewalks. Some of that money would go to local businesses to fix their storefronts. The Parks Department has committed to improve Edison Park.
Without Choice Neighborhoods, the city would have to think slower and smaller. Its own funding might be enough to rebuild just the housing units, leaving behind the neighborhood improvements. And dropping new housing in the same blighted area could restart the cycle that ruined Edison-Eastlake the first time.
So Stotler decided to make one frantic push. The 100-page grant applications for a slice of that money are due Nov. 22, well ahead of the city’s original schedule. But with an entire neighborhood at stake, the city has little choice.
“We’re just going to have to go for it, before the plan is final,” Stotler said, “because this might be the last year we have Choice Neighborhoods.”
It might also be the program’s most competitive year. Housing authorities across the country are weighing the same decision: Should they submit a rushed application while money is certainly available, or wait and hope the program survives one more year?
The city of Baltimore planned to use Choice Neighborhoods to rebuild 630 public housing units that sit in a sea of gentrification. The Louisville Metro Housing Authority’s website has an entire page dedicated to its once-promising Choice Neighborhoods project. In Newport News, Virginia, dreams of rebuilding the city’s poorest area are temporarily on hold.
About $137 million of Choice Neighborhoods funding still sits in the HUD budget, a department spokesman said. That money has already been set aside and will not vanish, even if future budgets dismantle the program.
If the program is indeed cut, Carson said, its benefits should linger. The HUD secretary expects leftover funds, along with plans to strip out the program’s most effective parts and enhance them, to keep America’s public housing progress going.
“First of all, there’s significant money still in the pipeline of those programs, so they’re not going to disappear immediately,” Carson said. “I don’t think people need to be worried about the fact that we’re making progress and all of a sudden it’s going to stop because the money has dried up.”
Carson did not explain further how Choice Neighborhoods could be improved. HUD, he said, is reassessing all its programs.
A long line for a new home
The future of public housing stands in unavoidable sight of Edison-Eastlake’s past, a clean and proper reminder of what was supposed to come to the entire neighborhood. “New heights in apartment living,” AeroTerra’s website promises, making only a slight mention of what used to fill the space at 18th and Villa streets. “These lovely apartments (sic) homes, formerly known as Frank Luke Addition, were the first 60 units built.”
Edison-Eastlake once held a fourth project, the Frank Luke Addition, built in the same downtrodden style as its cousins to the east. Then the Housing Department turned its attention to the neighborhood, using a $20 million HOPE VI grant from HUD to tear down the old approach and build toward the new.
Choice Neighborhoods replaced the HOPE VI program in 2010.
AeroTerra opened in 2016, offering 250 units of public housing, Section 8 project vouchers and open-market apartments. The apartments are wide and spacious, with linoleum floors that shine like hardwood. Lights and fans hang from the ceilings. Each unit has its own washer and dryer, and central air-conditioning runs throughout.
An entire building is reserved for senior residents, complete with handrails in the hallways and key cards to all the doors.
On any given day, people file into the leasing office, hoping for a spot. They browse a number of floor plans posted in the computer lab and stare at the playgrounds and community garden outside. But few people get in.
The wait list is two years long, even though AeroTerra is still under construction.
The swimming pool hasn’t been finished yet.
‘Where are they going to put these people?’
The battery on Yvonne Bridges’ scooter had started to fade, so she returned to her apartment for a charge and a cigarette. She used her walker to pull herself up and shuffle over the worn-down floors, past a fraying maroon couch where infomercials played on repeat.
She sat at a table, lit a cigarette, then another, then a third. Tonight had been calm. Almost midnight, and nothing of note to report to the police.
A gust of wind, and Bridges’ front door swung open. She leaned across the table and looked outside, swiveling her head in the steady rhythm she’d practiced for three decades. The projects were dark. Silent. She stared out into nothing.
“There’s a lot of people that live here,” she said. “Where are they going to put all those people?”
No answers came.
Bridges stubbed out her cigarette and climbed back on the scooter for another trip around the block. “Mama will be back,” she told her cat, flicking on a turn signal and heading to her right. A horn honked in the distance. The shady pulse of an alarm rang out.
She traced the same familiar path, turning left at the two-story units, then left again at AeroTerra, and now she found herself in the space between: The past on her left and the future to her right, with nothing but her scooter’s headlight to light the path forward.
THE NEW HOUSING CRISIS | PART 1: Can’t afford the rent, can’t afford to move | PART 2: 60 days to find a home | PART 3: ‘Here for the eviction’ | PART 4: $200 from home | PART 5: Plans for housing projects threatened