I have lived in public housing for the majority of my life and experienced first-hand how the negative images and perceptions of public housing communities and residents can invoke feelings of shame and embarrassment because of the way media influences public discourse. The communities are portrayed as breeding grounds for crime and drugs and the residents are often characterized as people who don’t work, are lazy and want to live off of the government. Much of what mainstream media writes about public housing often has a negative tinge; focusing primarily on the conditions of the buildings, mismanagement of the properties, government disinvestment, and the impact of concentrated poverty. Residents are sought for comment mainly to add authenticity to reported claims. Rarely are they asked to provide a counter-narrative or about anything other than the housing stock, as if there aren’t whole lives being discounted. It is a personal and professional goal to bring residents’ stories into the light, paint these developments with an air of community and hope and highlight public housing as a stabilizing force in urban communities.
To that end, I am working on a project seeking to change the way we think of public housing as a program and how we perceive the NYCHA developments and residents who live there by centering the resident’s voice as the main narrator of their personal stories and experience. Through a series of informal workshops that foster group discussion and facilitated peer interviewing, we have begun to engage with residents in their community to talk about their history and experience of living in public housing. We documented these discussions using audio and visual aides. This summer, with the help of the DHC, the goal is to create a website to share these materials with the general public – especially housing residents, advocates, researchers, and other stakeholders.
Currently this project has a hyper-local focus; hosting workshops in only two developments in the Bronx and Manhattan; gradually and methodically extending our reach to several developments within and across each borough. Additionally, we aim to corroborate (and build relationships) with other organizations and activists who work on housing issues at the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and criminalizing homelessness and LGBTQ youth and people of color. Our ultimate goal is to bring the project to scale, moving from New York and Chicago to a national and international focus on public housing where other cities and countries are working on creative ways to deal with housing, homelessness, displacement, gentrification, and development.