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Looking Back: The town that reinvented public housing, 15 years later

George Parsons is waiting for his flu shot in the Ellis Homes clinic. “Yeah, I just finished my homework, and I’m getting this finished up quickly before I play some basketball with my friends.” For the previous generation, this would have been a fairytale.

15 years ago, George’s parents had to decide between healthcare and a permanent address. George’s father, Paul Parsons, requires continuous monitoring and expensive test supplies. Mr. and Mrs. Parsons wages at Walmart and Opie’s, the local diner, could afford a modest apartment in Grand Island, Nebraska, but when network giant Cisco built their software development campus in the town, thousands of high-paying tech jobs were created.

Former Grand Island Mayor and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Tillman, Clarence “Pudge” McDonough, says, “The construction of the campus raised average income, population, and property value. But it undercut the middle class: suddenly, our town’s service workers couldn’t afford to live here. [Affordable housing disappeared]” In the first three years after the Cisco facility opened, the average rents in Grand Island tripled.

Like hundreds of others, the Parsons faced eviction, unable to afford the rent increases. They couldn’t find alternative housing, so found themselves in temporary housing, which split the family between two shelters. While George, two at the time, and his mother Marsha were allowed to stay at St. Mary’s Women’s Shelter, but Mr. Parsons was forced to live in the YMCA, only being able to see eachother when their schedules aligned.

“We were suddenly running at capacity,” recounts Sister Francesca Lopez, of St. Mary’s. “There was an outpouring of donations, but our parish simply wasn’t designed to hold so many families in the long term.” She remembers, “The public parks were surrounded by tents, and people living in cars and RVs, and it saddened me that we couldn’t take them all.”

The community acknowledged there was a problem and wanted to help. Donations to charities providing basic human services grew by 50% during this period, and Cisco established a “Community Support” program to encourage Grand Island employees to donate, using a donation matching system. “It seemed like it was all my coworkers were talking about, and so I thought, can’t we do something about that?” says Petra Christensen, Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility, who started the program.

Even with the extra support from the community, local NGOs lacked the infrastructure to provide permanent affordable housing solutions to citizens. The NGOs lacked the funding, skills and experience, and precedent within their charter to solve this problem. Grand Island was asking whether the government could step up.

At the time, the Grand Island Public Housing Authority had been allocated about 50 Section 8 Housing Choice vouchers to help families pay rents, but no new vouchers had been awarded to the Authority to meet the displacement. Additionally, several federal statutes prevented the Grand Island PHA from constructing any new public housing, including the 1998 Faircloth Amendment to the Housing Act of 1938, which prohibited construction by a PHA that resulted in a net increase in low-income housing units.

“It was time for a change,” says McDonough, who was at that time a civil servant. In the next election year, he was elected mayor, on a charismatic and involved campaign which highlighted a need for local government involvement in housing solutions.

In office, he created an initiative to construct a locally funded public housing complex, with lower barriers to entrance than the Section 8 voucher program, using the tax dollars brought in by the development of the Cisco campus. The agency maintaining this development also constructed adjacent social services, like clinics, social work offices, and career centers, to aid the financial stability of residents.

The development was christened Patrick Ellis Homes, after a local historical figure who ran a soup kitchen in the city during the Great Depression. While not initially well reported on in the national media, as studies came out showing nearly identical employment, health, and crime statistics between residents of the community and the town of Grand Island at large, it began to gain attention across the country. A quote, attributed to Jessica E. Ford, who lived nearby, was repeated throughout the reporting: “Our neighbors were neighbors again.”

Initial reactions to the news were politically divided: throughout the mid to late twentieth century, public housing was reviled as “poverty concentration” and “modern-day slums.” However, as the months became years, the project’s stability did not falter, and people across the country considered if a similar solution could be implemented to solve a growing national crisis in housing affordability and homelessness.

McDonough gained broad recognition, making media appearances which showcased an honest and lovable attitude. After his second mayoral term, he ran in 2036 Democratic primary, on a platform of housing as a human right, and part of the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” established in the Declaration of Independence.

While he lost to the primary to Peter Tillman, a senator from Massachusetts, he was appointed secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Tillman’s administration and advocated fiercely for the repeal of the Faircloth Amendment and increase of funding to PHAs for the construction of public housing projects.

The nation-wide construction of new federally funded affordable housing with attached locally funded services housed hundreds of thousands, and has been credited with starting the current Reflectionism art movement, which interrogates ones past mistreatment and struggles by way of memory reenactment. It seems absurd to many today that “the projects” used to be a cultural signifier for a miserable upbringing.

Even now, there remain skeptics. George Santos, a pundit at Fox News, has claimed that the proliferation of public social work “spells the death of the private Social Work industry.” But it’s been hailed globally as revolutionary, even by international organizations such as the UN, who called it “one of the 21st century’s most important steps towards Universal Housing.”

Meanwhile, for 17-year-old Parsons, Ellis is simply where he lives. After his shot, he ran right out to the court. When we asked him what life was like before Ellis, he said he couldn’t remember: “Are you kidding? That's ancient history.”