- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 19, 2002

Jessica Wright, 65, won't mind if she outlives Garfield Heights. While she figures she still has good years ahead of her, the heyday of the 40-year-old public housing building is long gone.
"I guess it's all right for some people, but there are quite a few things wrong," said Miss Wright, who has lived on the fourth floor of the 14-story building since 1993.
The building resembles a shoe box with walkways running its length, patches of faded orange, green and yellow paint coating the exterior and an art-deco fence surrounding it. Residents, most of retirement age, say it has little to recommend itself.
It lacks central air conditioning, rattling radiators provide the only heat, and residents must face the elements muggy heat in summer and biting winds in winter to do their laundry or collect their mail.
"It's an old building, you know. It is not the Hilton. What do people expect?" said Lawrence Regan, 60, a gas-station clerk who lives on the fourth floor. "I'd like to live in a newer building. Who wouldn't?"
The occupants of 5330 Fern St. may get that chance. Over the next 10 years, Pittsburgh housing officials plan to demolish all of the city's public housing high-rises six of which house the elderly and replace them with smaller, safer buildings.
The shift is part of a national movement to repair or replace the crumbling and unsafe stock of public housing. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that as many as 100,000 units 7 percent of the nation's 1.4 million public housing units were distressed, most deteriorating or uninhabitable, in 1992.
The change is being fueled partially by HUD's Hope VI program, which provided housing authorities with $293.3 million over the past six years to demolish more than 44,000 units. The program also provided housing authorities with $4.8 billion since 1993 to repair public housing.
As they design new public housing, architects are rejecting towering concrete-slab buildings, popularized in postwar Europe, for the town houses, bungalows, cottages and walk-up apartments of its beginnings under the Works Progress Administration in 1933.
"It slaps in the face the standard institutional core that was the solution 30 to 40 years ago. It is like walking into a little village," said New Orleans architect Ron Blitch, former chairman of the American Institute of Architects' Designing for Aging Center.
As a third of those living in public housing, the elderly should benefit, said Larry McNickle, chief housing advocate for the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging.
In some cases, people 65 and older which the AARP estimates will increase by 55 percent to more than 55 million by 2020 are molding new public housing.
Besides architects including senior centers and clinics in new public housing developments, new housing offers subtle changes made with the elderly in mind.
Curbs are gone, outlets are higher, light switches are lower. Doors are wider, bathrooms larger and closets smaller. Stoves have controls on the front rather than back to reduce the risk of burns. Colors are chosen to account for the yellowing of the cornea as people age, which can make it difficult to differentiate between shades of blue, green and purple.
"For the developer, the trick is how do you accommodate the aging population is it suitable for people as they age?" Mr. McNickle said.
In Pittsburgh, construction of a replacement for Garfield Heights is scheduled for spring. The three-story building will have 60 apartments compared with Garfield's 300 apartments, half of which are empty plus 16 cottage-style apartments, all with air conditioning and enclosed hallways.
Pittsburgh housing officials also plan to begin building a second, four-story building with 40 apartments in 2004. But Garfield Heights will not be demolished until all its residents have moved, either to the new buildings or to other elderly high-rise or private apartments on their own or with the help of housing vouchers.
Rent in the new buildings will cost no more than the current rate 30 percent of residents' monthly income, said Keith Kinard, executive director of the Pittsburgh Housing Authority.
Not everyone is ready to leave. Some are skeptical about whether public housing will be much better. Others are reluctant to move out of the neighborhood in which they have lived for most of their lives. Some don't want to give up the view of the wooded valley surrounding the high-rise.
Frank McGinnis, 65, a retired commercial artist, said his third-floor apartment is just fine. He has enough room for his drawing table, and his $168-a-month rent is one-sixth what his brother is paying for an apartment in another part of town.
"I have heard people are trying to tear it down. I don't want to leave; you don't want to move out of your area," said Mr. McGinnis, who has lived in his Garfield neighborhood all his life.
One floor up, Miss Wright said she was tired of high-rise living and wanted a home more like the town house she left almost a decade ago.
"You know, you miss some places, but I am hardly going to miss this one," she said. "If I live long enough to see the new one, I am not going to miss it."

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