By Michael Reyes, Public Affairs Officer at Opportunity Home
For most people, the words “Public Housing” conjure up images of poor, crime-ridden areas whose residents are lacking motivation and hope for the future.
These stereotypes have formed over decades thanks to Hollywood portrayals, negative media coverage, and the spreading of inaccurate information and perceptions. The truth is, most residents in public housing are hardworking, determined and just need a helping hand to create a better life for themselves and their families. Telling the real stories of these Public Housing residents will help to overcome these unfounded stereotypes over time.
When the United States Housing Authority was created in the midst of the Great Depression, it was really a turning point for the country. There was finally political support to invest in this important program to provide stable and affordable housing to those in need.
Residents who live in Public Housing pay about 30% of their income towards housing costs, and the rest is subsidized. If residents are not able to pay that amount, they can pay what they can afford.
“It is the last remaining housing safety net in this country. Without public housing, we would see a national housing homeless crisis that probably has not been since the nineteenth century or perhaps the early twentieth century,” says Michael Reyes, public affairs officer for Opportunity Home, which administers the Public Housing and Housing Choice Voucher programs in San Antonio.
Despite the positive impacts the Public Housing program has had on so many lives, the unfounded stereotypes still persist.
Dispelling Common Stereotypes
Since the inception of the Public Housing program, negative stereotypes have formed about the communities and the residents who live there. There is a belief that the communities have higher crime rates, and the residents who live there don’t want to work or improve their lives, but are “gaming” the system to continue living in Public Housing indefinitely. This representation could not be further from the truth. If you look at the data, Public Housing communities do not have a higher crime rate than other surrounding areas, and the residents who live there are overcoming incredible challenges with grit and determination.
“The fact is, families living in Public Housing are the opposite [of their perceived stereotypes]. They’re hardworking, they’re optimistic and they’re trying to create a better future for themselves and their children. Public Housing is just a stepping stone. It’s a resource in their long housing journey, and we forget that,” states Reyes.
These families are overcoming more challenges every day than most people realize. They are worried about having enough food in the refrigerator, having enough money to pay basic bills and how to get their children to and from school or daycare. Most have hourly jobs, so taking time off for medical appointments or caring for their children results in a loss of pay and may even put them at risk of losing their jobs.
Despite these challenges, they are taking advantage of the resources and support offered to improve job skills and education levels, increase financial literacy and eventually become self-sufficient. The young people are working harder to achieve success in school despite having fewer resources and more obstacles to overcome than other students.
Reyes himself understands this, as he grew up in Public Housing, and appreciates the determination of his parents and grandparents that allowed him to have more opportunities. “It is such a privilege to come back and serve an organization that provided so much, in my case, to my family and those that came before me,” Reyes says.
Changing the Narrative
What can be done to change the narrative about Public Housing residents, and dispel the myths that have persisted over time? One strategy is for housing organizations to respond to incorrect information with facts to set the record straight, and to tell the individual stories of Public Housing residents. If people could look beyond the numbers and statistics and see how real families have struggled and worked hard to overcome obstacles on their journey to self-sufficiency, their perceptions might begin to change.
Reyes also challenges people who believe the negative stereotypes to have a conversation with someone who lives in Public Housing to gain a deeper understanding of their lives and their stories.
“Many people who have created these stereotypes, whether it’s in Hollywood films, academia, word of mouth, or family stories, for the most part have never met a Public Housing family,” says Reyes.
Public Housing residents are our co-workers, our fellow church members, our first responders and health care workers, our educators, our grocery store clerks and our fellow citizens. They want the best for their families, just as we all do, and they work very hard to improve their lives so their children can have a brighter future.
We have all needed a helping hand at some point in our lives, so we should change how we think about Public Housing families who face challenging times. “It makes our country stronger; it makes it much more vibrant; and it makes it compassionate,” Reyes believes.
Listen to this episode on the “Beyond Housing” podcast where we dive into candid conversations with local and national leaders, activists, and industry experts on issues and policies impacting housing.
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