In wealth's shadow, public housing offers hope
8/10/2017 3:29:26 PM

By Glenn Stevens, NCHM President

At a recent meeting of the American Academy of Housing and Communities, I was told by a member about a movie I should watch called "Class Divide." Now, I must disclose that I am something of a moviephile. My wife and I make a habit of seeing every Oscar-nominated film, so I was a little skeptical. I also must say that I am not in the habit of writing movie reviews, so please cut me some slack.

I was particularly interested in writing about the movie not only because the topic is so, well, topical, but also because NCHM is now under contract with the New York City Housing Authority to train all of its staff.

The HBO documentary was a pleasant surprise. At its core, it covers the complex issues of pubic education, immigration, employment, gentrification, and, of course, affordable housing.

The Elliott-Chelsea public housing development (where, incidentally, Whoopi Goldberg was raised) sits directly across the street from the elite Avenues World School, a $45,000-a-year private school that prepares children from Manhattan's 1% "for international life." Largely told through the eyes of children, the film juxtaposes the staggering economic disparity between the private school students and those living in public housing, where a family of four's average annual income is about half the tuition of a single student at the World School.

The heroine, eight-year-old Rosa, lives in Elliott-Chelsea. She is bright and beautiful, and her father, an undocumented alien, is a dishwasher who keeps quiet about his substandard working conditions for fear of getting fired or deported. Rosa, a normal if especially articulate kid, views the World School as her potential ticket out.

The school is well aware of the position it is in. At the end of the block are $20-million-dollar condominiums and the famous New York City High Line. A more blatant example of the growing chasm between the haves and the have-nots would be hard to find.

At one point, one of the World School students creates a program to bring the two worlds together called 115 steps. That's exactly how far it is from the front door of the school to Elliot-Chelsea. This helps bring public housing kids on tours of the World School. The kids are amazed. They've never seen anything like it New York City's public schools.

At the heart of the film, really, is the stress that kids on both sides of the street encounter on a daily basis. The public housing kids struggle with poverty; the World School kids struggle to gain admission to an Ivy League school. There is tremendous pressure all around, and the consequences are often heartbreaking.

The movie ends on a hopeful note as the World School opens up some slots for Elliott-Chelsea kids. Rosa applies and is not admitted, yet there is the distinct sense that she will be just fine.

As a lifelong advocate for assisted housing, I found it encouraging that Elliott-Chelsea is portrayed as part of the solution, not the problem. Economic inequality lies at the heart of so many of our nation's ills, and assisted housing plays a crucial role in bridging the gap.

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