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The Fayetteville Housing Authority board, ostensibly a front line in the eternal battle against poverty and homelessness, right now resembles the conditions in some of its federally subsidized housing. Its numbers are short of where they need to be. Its members and staff wish their circumstances where better. And sometimes, they're at the mercy of forces beyond their control.

The last few months in Fayetteville have put the topic of public housing front and center when it comes to public policy debates. When was the last time a respectably large number of people got together with the elected City Council and mayor to focus on the challenges of public housing? We've been around these parts for years and we don't remember it.

What’s the point?

Even among tensions and hurt feelings, housing advocates in Fayetteville must respond to an intense level of attention on the plight of public housing.

The ins and outs of federally funded public housing typically play out without fanfare or, truthfully, much concern from either the public or local elected officials. But the Housing Authority's plans developed in recent years have stoked the level of attention, primarily because of the board's desire to sell off Willow Heights public housing units to a private developer and relocate of residents to newly built apartments at Morgan Manor, further south.

The Housing Authority, which like most public housing entities working with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is woefully underfunded. It hasn't been able to take adequate care of the properties it has. Selling Willow Heights and expanding Morgan Manor seemed to be an option that would upgrade the living conditions of the Willow Heights residents.

That plan's development initiated what was, essentially, a slow-simmering level of concern among residents, some others in the community and city leaders. A few weeks ago, that came to a head with a lengthy City Council meeting in which the mayor and City Council members let everyone voice their concerns, on the record and out in the open.

For a Housing Authority board used to operating without much attention, the spotlight was intense. One board member resigned in July. Then the chairman of the board resigned, complaining of "vicious" treatment by those who disagreed with the Housing Authority's direction. They're volunteers who watched a thankless job under the best of circumstances turn into a tense and antagonistic one. Having operated within the options they felt were feasible when nobody was paying attention, the intensity of public focus and second guessing was no doubt frustrating.

This week, the remaining board members began the process to reorganize. They need a new chairman and new members. And, it seems, a new attitude that wipes aside angst felt as a result of public scrutiny. Now, when everyone is paying attention, is the time for advocates for public housing to take advantage of that attention, to marshal the forces available to them.

Aldermen and the mayor say they want a compassionate community that delivers on "attainable" housing. That can't just be for middle-income folks. The safety net represented by public housing, just like in communities across the nation, is tattered and too small. So far, solutions have been left to a volunteer Housing Authority board and staff and the stingy whims of federal public policy and budgeting.

In Fayetteville in particular, people awakened to an issue can be aggressive in reacting. Politically astute people know that's part of the public process. It's vital that public input be viewed not as an the enemy, but as a critical component of the process.

Hopefully the remaining board members and any new additions can get over hurt feelings and talk clearly and with passion about the very important issue of public housing. If that's not possible, as it seems some board members realized, it's time to step aside and let someone else give it a go.

There is no question the federal government has been almost antagonistic to public housing in recent years, and local officials everywhere have a tendency to think of public housing as just a federal issue. But it's not members of Congress or anyone at the White House looking neighbors in Fayetteville in the face. It seems meaningful reform of Fayetteville's public housing situation will have to come from the people who living in Fayetteville. Maybe our congressional representatives will pay attention if local officials are involved.

Will these issues fade back into the background, where they've simmered for years, or will it be different in 2018 and beyond? Was that City Council meeting just a one-time "we care" dog-and-pony show or an expression of city leaders' desire to be difference makers for the low-income people whose lives can be dramatically changed by the availability of housing options?

If city leaders have awakened to the plight of the Housing Authority and its residents, it can only be viewed as a positive step toward community-based solutions.

Sometimes, when the spotlight unexpectedly turns, the only response for the people caught in its bright illumination is to perform like never before.

Commentary on 08/10/2018

Print Headline: Welcome the spotlight

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