The HOPE VI Project in Utica, New York
Looking Back Over Five Years
by Tim Eismeier
In 2003 the Utica Municipal Housing Authority successfully submitted a grant proposal to the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Utica initially obtained $11.5 million dollars through this grant, with the intent to secure tens of millions more dollars for city transformation.1
The general goals of Utica's HOPE VI project were to demolish the Washington Courts public housing project, relocate the residents, and to improve the area of Corn Hill with new housing and community facilities. The intentions of the Municipal Housing Authority were good and the reasons behind the demolition of Washington Courts were sensible. The former residents of Washington Courts, however, remember it as a closely-knit community, something that does not exist at their new residences. The story of Washington Courts is one of a once vibrant neighborhood that had eroded economically and a community that was broken up through government intervention.
A VICTORY FOR UTICA
The application for HOPE VI funding was a complex process for the Utica MHA. Hope VI funds are very competitive and difficult to come by, particularly for a small city such as Utica. According to John Furman, it was a "wonderful victory for the city of Utica to obtain and secure this funding from HUD."2
The HOPE VI program in Utica, however, differed from most other HOPE VI projects, in that the new housing would not be built on the same site as the demolished housing project. The MHA determined that, for a variety of reasons, the Washington Courts site was no longer suitable for public housing. First, Washington Courts was costing the MHA millions of dollars. The MHA was unable to lease any of the units on the third floor, as the building was "aging" with "lots of serious issues with long-term maintenance." In addition, feasibility studies indicated that the cost of replacing the units in Washington Courts would have been exorbitant.3
Second, the makeup of the neighborhood had become less suitable for residential purposes, and Washington Courts had become extremely isolated. There had been a large decline in residential population as the neighborhood became increasingly industrial and commercial in nature. There were concerns about the safety of children in the neighborhood and about the quality of life for residents, due to Washington Courts' close proximity to large industrial sites.4
THE PROPOSED PLAN
Utica's proposed plan was to demolish Washington Courts and relocate the displaced residents to better housing in different neighborhoods. These improved neighborhoods would be with mixed-incomes and less racially segregated. The second major aspect of the proposed plan was a revitalization of the target area of Utica known as Corn hill. As Executive Director of MHA Herbowy points out, it made more sense to simply demolish Washington Courts and not to use HOPE VI funds to rebuild on the same site. While the site of Washington Courts was limited in terms of its potential residential uses, it was an area that lent itself more toward industrial use. In addition, there were other areas of the city that were blighted and could use revitalization. Therefore, MHA decided that the most sensible solution was to use the former site of Washington Courts for something industrial in nature, while at the same time relocating residents to neighborhoods that MHA would revitalize through HOPE VI funding. 5
A STRONG SENSE OF COMMUNITY
The Year 1 Program Evaluation for Hope VI – Utica, NY details the specific aspects of the planned revitalization:
"Improvements envisioned are new rentals through renovated and new housing; opportunities for home ownership; improvement of physical appearances of homes, yards, and sidewalks; improvement of community facilities, such as schools and parks; and increased well-being in the lives of neighborhood residents."6
The demolition of Washington Courts and the decision to use the HOPE-VI funds in other neighborhoods of the city made sense, given the statistics and resources available to the MHA. For the former residents of Washington Courts, however, more than a building was destroyed when the MHA chose to demolish the housing project and relocate the residents. During the over fifty-year existence of Washington Courts, its residents had developed a very strong sense of community. This sense of community extended beyond the Washington Courts project itself to the surrounding businesses and schools that once existed in the neighborhood. Even as the neighborhood began to deteriorate, as some of the businesses and schools closed and residential areas grew older, the residents' sense of community remained. Since the demolition of Washington Courts, however, the residents' relationships with their former neighbors has deteriorated, and that sense of community does not exist in their new surroundings.