Taking Initiative

by Todd Avery

"The need for affordable, decent housing is acute," says Leda McIntyre Hall, an assistant professor of public and environmental affairs and director of the Institute for Applied Community Research (IACR) at Indiana University South Bend. "People want to help themselves," she continues. "Because of my work with resident initiatives in public housing and the IACR, I believe that poor people--just like those of us who have had more opportunities--want to work, want to control their living conditions, and want to move out of poverty."

Hall is helping Indiana meet its low-income housing needs. Speaking of IU's ability and obligation to contribute to the improvement of the state's public housing, she says, "The university has many resources that can be tapped to help residents of public housing." This is one arena, she adds, in which faculty members can "take research and instruction out of traditional molds, shatter the traditional town-gown distinction, and go out into the community." Hall points out that, "SPEA has a mandate to be involved in the community. We are training people to become more involved in the community and to make direct ties with the community. All of my research on low-income housing has public policy implications."

Leda McIntyre Hall, Assistant Professor of Public and Environmental Affairs and Director, Institute for Applied Community Research, Indiana University South Bend

Poverty, homelessness, and public housing "became an issue" for Hall when she and her husband, then a United Methodist minister, lived in Detroit's inner city during the early 1980s. At the time, Hall was doing doctoral work in political science at Wayne State University. Witnessing firsthand the church's involvement with poor Detroit residents spurred Hall in her dissertation to "examine the United Methodist Church in Detroit over a thirty-year period--and specifically the church's response to issues of poverty and housing in the inner city," she recalls. Only a handful of researchers are investigating church-based public housing, which works, Hall says, for small numbers of people.

After receiving her degree, Hall taught at the University of Notre Dame, then moved on to IUSB, where she has directed the IACR (formerly the Michiana Urban Observatory) since 1991. During her tenure at the IACR, Hall has focused her attention primarily on issues of resident initiatives in local public housing. Every night, she says, the South Bend homeless shelter is full. "But," she explains, "even if we could wave a magic wand and give homes to everyone in the shelter, there would remain a multitude of other problems. Most homeless families and individuals are people with a long list of needs and problems from transportation to medical care, substance abuse to psychological issues."

Homelessness and its attendant problems increased across the nation during the Reagan administration. Furthermore, as Hall and co-author Richard Hula write in their 1994 monograph, Resident Initiatives in Public Housing, from 1981 to 1989, "federal policy toward existing conventional public housing might best be described as benign neglect." This situation began to change, Hall and Hula write, during the Bush presidency, when Jack Kemp, then Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), "attempted to implement a broad range of reforms in public housing under the rubric of 'resident initiatives.'" Kemp's approach was to "engage residents in the process of improving the conditions in which they live." Following Kemp's tenure at HUD, Hall says, the general mood of workers in and residents of public housing has been "one of empowerment. And the Clinton administration has restored some funding for renovation and rehabilitation of public housing units."
"Empowerment" is a key word in Hall's vocabulary. As a member of the IU community and as a consultant and appointee to such groups as the Economic Development Committee of the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce, the Healthy Communities Initiatives in St. Joseph County, and the Resident Initiatives Leadership Training program of the South Bend Housing Authority, Hall has brought her expertise in and observations of successful resident-managed housing developments from Chicago to San Diego to bear on her efforts to help South Bend's public housing residents help themselves. Through the university, she has taught courses on resident management initiatives to public housing residents at the South Bend Housing Authority. The purpose of this work, she says, is to enable residents to take responsibility for managing their housing development. Their concerns include eligibility determination, rent collection, maintenance, security, insurance, and ensuring regular, efficient public transportation. "These students," Hall says, "are among the best I've ever had."

Hall bases her work on a strong practical-ethical foundation. "We want to help poor people," she says. "However, we must help them by empowering them, not by fiat." Emphasizing the interrelatedness of her academic and community work, Hall says that "through applied research, teaching, and a renewed commitment to our neighbors, the university can facilitate opportunities for residents of public housing and new directions for social policy."