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Sequester Threatens Worcester Public Housing

WORCESTER, Mass. — It’s been about two months since sequestration began, and communities are feeling the impact of the federal government’s across-the-board spending reductions. For people with low incomes who rely on public housing assistance, the cuts are, literally, hitting home.

The sequester slices more than $2 billion from subsidized housing programs across the country. And in Massachusetts, Worcester is one place that could feel the housing squeeze.

The city is not only trying to cope with the housing cuts, it’s also pioneering a pilot project to address the root causes of poverty.

Life In The Great Brook Valley Apartments

A typical row of duplex homes at Worcester's Great Brook Valley Apartments (Bruce Gellerman/WBUR)

A row of duplex homes at Worcester’s Great Brook Valley Apartments. (Bruce Gellerman/WBUR)

To drive down Great Brook Valley Avenue, you wouldn’t guess the poorest of Worcester’s poor live there. The road, curving around rows of two-story brick townhouses, is well paved, the lawns manicured, and birds’ nests in tall shade trees.

“It’s a good neighborhood — quiet, safe, where children are allowed to play safely,” said Adrian, who doesn’t want to use his last name.

He moved with his mother into Great Brook Valley Apartments six years ago. They pay several hundred dollars a month for a two-bedroom duplex. He’s 21 years old and, like half the adult residents there, Adrian didn’t finish high school.

“Dropped out, have two kids, so I had to drop out and get a job,” he said. “For my future I would like to go to school.”

Adrian works food service in a nearby hotel, but he doesn’t make enough to rent on his own. So like the other 2,000 people who call Great Brook Valley home, his apartment is subsidized. This is a federally funded housing project — not Section 8, which provides vouchers for rent in private properties.

Across the road from Great Brook Valley Market, 73-year-old Carlos used a hook on a long stick to fish deposit bottles and cans out of a dumpster.

“That’s what I do, collect cans in the street, you know, make a little money,” he said.

On a good day he makes $30. Nearly 60 percent of Valley residents live below the poverty line.

“I like it. I can’t complain. I’m really grateful that at least I have a roof over my head for my kids and myself,” said Kysha, a 20-something who prefers to go by her first name.

Kysha’s a typical Valley resident in many ways — 75 percent are Hispanic, and women outnumber men 2 to 1. But atypically, she’s married. Her husband works as a driver and she’s studying culinary arts at the local voc-tech. They have two kids — one has autism — and they’ve lived in a townhouse here for about four years.

But Kysha is worried about what might happen if she lost her ability to live at Great Brook because of federal cutbacks.

“Probably I will cry my eyes out cause it’s hard to afford right now something else,” she said. “Because if I have to pay like the gas and the electricity it’s going to be really hard.”

Hard times are nothing new for the tens of thousands of people who’ve made Great Brook Valley their home since 1950. That’s when the federal government built the project to house returning World War II vets and their families.

A Changed Valley, But Stigma Remains?

Raymond Mariano, executive director of the Worcester Housing Authority, points to the second-floor Valley apartment where he grew up. (Bruce Gellerman/WBUR)

Raymond Mariano, executive director of the Worcester Housing Authority, points to the second-floor Valley apartment where he grew up. (Bruce Gellerman/WBUR)

“This is not the neighborhood you want to grow up in; in fact this is the neighborhood you don’t want to grow up in,” said Raymond Mariano.

But it is the neighborhood Mariano grew up in. His father was a disabled vet, his mother a Canadian immigrant. For 20 years they lived in subsidized housing.

Then Mariano moved up and out. In 1993, he was elected mayor of Worcester and served a record four terms. And for the past decade he’s been the executive director of the Worcester Housing Authority. It operates and maintains 24 projects in the city, including the one where he lived as a kid.

“My family was poor even for this neighborhood,” he said. “So I can recall nine children and two parents living in three bedrooms with one tiny bathroom. It got pretty crowded. And yet I became mayor — maybe because of it.

“I was motivated to do something with my life and to get out of the projects. Maybe I wouldn’t have been as motivated if I grew up someplace else.”

Fond memories, perhaps, but Mariano’s goal today is to make these housing projects history.

“These places are too big, first of all. They should have been bulldozed,” he said. “They are listed on the federal juvenile justice code; they have a rating scale of 1 to 10 — 10 being the worst, impoverished — they’re a 10.”

Poverty breeds violence, Mariano says, and multi-generational dependency.

When he became head of the housing authority he got tough: installed surveillance cameras, hired off-duty police, and took down the signs that marked these red brick apartments as projects.

But Mariano says the stigma remains.

“Kids who live here are always identified as being from the Valley. It is notorious,” he said. “There were riots here, and the fire department would not come here without a police escort. There were shootings. And all of it’s been cleaned up — all of it, all of it, all of it. We arrest them and toss them; we don’t fool around. We’re very serious. There isn’t a neighborhood in this country that can say it’s reduced vice crime by 80 percent.”

But the Valley can. Gone are the nights when police ran out of handcuffs making arrests and the days when abandoned stolen cars littered the parking lots.

Now to make room for the 11,000 people in Worcester in need of subsidized housing — on a waiting list that’s 10 years long — Mariano says he’s tackling the larger social problems of poverty and dependency with the same get-tough tactics he’s used on crime.

“It’s all part of developing a program where people follow the rules,” he said. “And so we want them to know the rules matter, all the rules. I believe that every person who is able-bodied and not a senior should be required to go to school or work to receive public housing or leased housing. And we have now have a pilot program in place that we just started that requires them to do just that.

“But don’t work it out on your own. We’ll help you. Let us help you work it out.”

Sequestration Looms Large Over Pilot Program

“Yeah, we’re in the program in housing,” said David Mangabanga. “It’s called Better Life. And they help you. They help you get your own place, your own house.”

Mangabanga is one of the first Valley residents going through the Better Life program. It’s the first of its kind in the nation, and funded by the nonprofit The Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts. The Worcester Housing Authority uses the half-million-dollar-a-year grants to provide lessons in personal finance, health and fitness and job training to residents such as Mangabanga.

He lives in the Valley with his wife and two young daughters, who are 10 and 11. Asked if he wants his kids to live in the Valley, he said: “Hells no.”

“I want them to get a good job and get out of this place,” he said. “Finish school, go to college and get out of here.”

But the Better Life program could have a short half-life. While Massachusetts has recently increased money for state-subsidized housing, 85 percent of Worcester’s $60 million-a-year budget comes from the federal government. So sequestration looms large.

The city’s housing authority recently laid off 15 employees, but so far it’s been able to stave off rental increases. However, in coming years, as the mandated cuts continue, the subsidies will spiral down and ultimately residents — mostly the elderly and disabled — will be paying full-market rates.

These are tough times, says Worcester housing chief Mariano, and require a tough response.

“My job is not to worry about sequestration; that’s somebody else’s job,” he said. “My job is to take what they give me and find a way to figure it out because my worrying, all that does is take my eye off the ball. My job is to plant new trees, to cut the grass, to fix the buildings, and to implement this new program that I’m excited about, which I believe will change public housing.

“Public housing is no longer a stop along the way, it is the way. And the only way to change that is to say, go to work, go to school and get out of here. Go have a happy life somewhere else.”

That somewhere else could be Section 8 housing, Mariano says. He’s a big supporter of federal subsidies for tenants who rent from private landlords.

But sequestration is reducing that voucher program, and with an estimated 80,000 people in Massachusetts on waiting lists for subsidized housing, there is no shelter from the sequester storm.

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