The Johns Hopkins Gazette: January 27, 2003
January 27, 2003
VOL. 32, NO. 19


A Measure of Hope

MPP students assess the impact of city's pricey public housing makeover

By Kevin Sottak
Institute for Policy Studies

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Last fall, in what has become an annual rite of passage in the Johns Hopkins master of public policy program, 32 first-year students went out to test their mental mettle on the streets of Baltimore. Working in teams of six or seven, the students analyzed data and gathered observations on five public housing developments throughout the city being reconstructed as part of a multibillion-dollar federal initiative known as HOPE VI.

Under HOPE VI, Baltimore has received more than $150 million in federal funds to replace antiquated, substandard housing projects built in the 1950s, '60s and '70s with newer mixed-income townhouse-style communities. The developments--Pleasant View Gardens, The Townes at the Terraces, Heritage Crossing, Broadway Overlook and Flag House Courts--are scattered across downtown Baltimore, from the steps of the Johns Hopkins medical campus to west of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Rachel Brash, Michael Harrison and Kristen Engnell, master of public policy students, at Pleasant View Gardens, one of the five Hope VI projects their class examined in Baltimore.

The students' task was to determine whether the new developments have produced any "spillover" effects--positive or negative--on the immediately adjacent neighborhoods.

The effort is the latest installment of the Baltimore Policy Project, a graduate student research project that is a signature of the Introduction to Policy Analysis course taught by Sandra Newman, director of the Institute for Policy Studies. Newman designs the project and shepherds the students through the data collection, analysis and reporting of results. She is quick to emphasize that the project is more than just a curricular tool: The findings are disseminated to community leaders, city planners and policy-makers, along with specific recommendations to help guide future policy and program development.

"This is a classic example of learning by doing," Newman says. "Students can read all year about methodology, theory and practice of public policy, but it is only by actually grappling with a real policy problem that they begin to achieve mastery."

The theory behind HOPE VI is that the newer communities, which contain a mixed-income population and look and feel more like traditional urban neighborhoods, will be more resistant to the damaging social pathologies that had become endemic to their predecessors. In the best-case scenario, the benefits of revitalization would spill over into adjacent neighborhoods, creating an upsurge in property values, economic activity and civic pride.

Student Rachel Brash, an editor of the report, says, "We did see evidence of beneficial spillover effects, particularly in the quality of the physical environment and the neighborhood's image, as represented in local media." In neighborhoods surrounding the Townes at the Terraces there also was some evidence of increased economic activity, including the opening of several new businesses and a sharp jump in the median sales price of new homes.

However, as the students discovered, well-intentioned public programs that look great on paper can have unexpected, even damaging, consequences in the real world. Douglass Homes, a housing project located along Broadway and Fayette streets, saw its violent crime and unemployment rates spike when the nearby Lafayette Courts project was demolished to make room for the less densely populated Pleasant View Gardens.

"They may have just displaced the problems into the surrounding neighborhoods," Brash says.

The students concluded that the development's "footprint"--how far it extended into surrounding, and typically distressed, neighborhoods--seemed vital to success. The larger the footprint, the greater the chance of positive spillovers.

According to co-editor Kristen Engnell, the Baltimore Policy Project was a remarkable learning experience. "Within weeks of our first semester of graduate school, we were already empirically testing long-standing theories of urban revitalization."

The hardest aspect of the work, she says, was sifting through reams of data to tease out the most important and relevant elements. Learning this skill, Newman says, will be indispensable as students move out of the classroom and into the world of public policy.

The students presented their initial results in December to a standing-room-only audience that included three former Baltimore housing commissioners and the heads of several local nonprofits and community agencies. The final report will be published in the IPS occasional paper series. Copies can be ordered by contacting Laura Vernon-Russell at or 410-516-7180.