PITTSBURGH -- Three years ago, Sharon Allison's decaying 1940s-era public housing complex was demolished to make way for a new mixed-income community that would include homes for the city's poorest.
Public housing officials told Allison that if she temporarily moved her family of six she would get a new house, complete with a dishwasher and a backyard, in a new community. With barely two months to find a rental, Allison reluctantly moved her family out of the neighborhood that had been their home their entire lives.
When gangs harassed her son in their new but still high-crime neighborhood, Allison, a Pittsburgh preschool employee, thought of the suburban-like townhome that would one day be hers. But in January, the dream burst; the housing authority informed the family that units in the newly built community weren't big enough for them.
"I'm not happy," Allison said. "I thought it was a temporary move."
Over the past 15 years, Pittsburgh's housing authority and dozens nationwide have spent more than $5.8 billion through the federal Hope VI program replacing crime-ridden, dilapidated, high-density projects with smaller mixed-income communities. The grants are complemented by private funding and loans.
The Hope VI legislation passed in 1993 stated that tenants whose homes were demolished would see "an improved living environment," which was meant to include better homes in safer neighborhoods.
The theory: breaking up large concentrations of poor people and providing low-income families with better homes would cut crime.
For the 30 percent able to get in, the new communities, in Pittsburgh and other cities across the country, have largely been deemed a success. But housing experts say many of the original tenants of the razed projects, especially the poorest, are not much better off than before.
The new communities are usually home to a few hundred residents -- a mix of the old public housing tenants, private
renters and homeowners.
Only about a third of the 149,000 or so public housing units demolished nationwide have been or will be replaced, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank in Washington. In the case of the Allison family, fewer than half of the 400 units at their old project were rebuilt.
Some families were relocated to newer but still traditional public housing. Others, like the Allison family, received vouchers to use in the private market but often had to move out of their communities. Vouchers ensure residents pay no more than 30 percent of their monthly income in rent.
The idea behind Hope VI was to improve living conditions for all public housing tenants by putting them in better homes and in lower crime areas, according to the Center on Budget and Policy, the Urban Institute, another Washington think tank, an architect of the Hope VI program and other housing experts.
However, that hasn't been the case for many of those shut out of the mixed-income communities, housing experts say. Requirements such as holding a job, completing a list of housing authority courses and having a good record in paying the rent have made it hard for the poorest to get in.
Tenants who received vouchers may have ended up with newer homes, but typically remain in high-crime, high-poverty neighborhoods, the experts and researchers say.
Many of those who moved into alternate public housing ended up with units only slightly better than the ones demolished, those experts say. Today, much of that housing has fallen into disrepair as well.
"In many cases, they can end up in neighborhoods that are not so much better off than what they left behind, and it forces them to leave their social and family network," said Lawrence Vale, the head of the urban studies department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Bruce Katz, an architect of the Hope VI program who now works at the Brookings Institution, said his biggest disappointment is that more wasn't done to ensure that displaced residents "had the opportunities to move to areas of low poverty with quality schools and quality jobs."
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Urban Institute estimate that nationally only about a third of the original tenants of the razed projects have, over time, made it into the new housing.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development doesn't dispute the figures, but says nearly all the original tenants enjoy better conditions in their new homes, including those living in private rentals with vouchers or still in traditional public housing.
Today, the government says, there are about 1.9 million vouchers available, up from 1.5 million a decade ago. Thousands of units have also been built by private developers who receive tax credits.
"We believe that the Hope VI program is producing sufficient public housing units as well as affordable housing units," said HUD's Dominique Blom, who works in the department's Office of Public Housing Investments.
Under the voucher system, Allison was able to move into a five-bedroom house with a yard and greater privacy. But she said crime is still high and the location inconvenient, and she wants to move -- even if it isn't into a new mixed-income community.
"The area I live in wasn't exactly a choice that I would have made," Allison said.
Barbara Sard, housing policy director at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said that kind of experience is not unusual.
"For all the good that was done in getting rid of terrible housing and reducing crime, there was harm done to the original families," she said.
Housing advocates say concentrating the poorest, including the unemployed and substance abusers, in the same housing developments makes them more vulnerable to crime and other problems and less likely to ever pull themselves up out of poverty.
The best solution, they say, is to mingle the different groups, as has been done successfully in both mixed-income communities and traditional public housing in New York, Chicago and Boston.
When Viola Sowell's Pittsburgh housing complex was demolished in 2005, the single mother of four assumed she would be moving into one of the new homes. But work requirements mean the 34-year-old high school dropout, unemployed for over three years, will likely have to remain with other jobless families in rapidly deteriorating public housing.
"You sendin' all the crime to one project, basically," Sowell said.
More Hope VI mixed-income housing could be the answer for families like the Allisons, but competition for grants is fierce. Funding has been cut from $600 million a year to $100 million during the Bush administration, which advocates using more vouchers.
In January, the House approved a bill that could allocate up to $800 million for Hope VI and require a one-for-one replacement of any future housing that is demolished in the nation's inventory of 1.2 million public housing apartments. The bill is now in Senate committees.
Federal housing officials say Hope VI has been too expensive and too time-consuming, and that about $1 billion remains unspent because projects have taken so many years to complete. Requiring one-for-one replacement requirement, they say, would make the program far too costly.
The government touts vouchers as a more efficient, cost-effective way to cut crime and poverty, and give the poor flexibility and anonymity.
But many families using vouchers struggle in the private market and are strangled by rising utility costs, according to the Urban Institute. In the nation's capital, the institute said, vouchers have been so unsuccessful the city has a self-imposed requirement to replace all public housing units demolished.
Sheila Crowley, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Low Income Housing Coalition, said the loss in traditional public housing units combined with the difficulties that come with vouchers have made life more difficult for many of the most disadvantaged.
Tens of thousands of people across the country are also still waiting to receive vouchers.
HUD's Blom praises the mixed-income communities for cutting crime and for being sustainable. But rather than rely on Hope VI grants, she said, housing authorities should borrow from banks or through bonds.
Pittsburgh is doing exactly that. It has been so pleased with its mixed-income communities -- open plans of suburban-like townhouses with lush green lawns, patios and backyards -- that the city's housing authority has raised money to build another community without federal aid.
The need is still huge. Fifteen years ago, Pittsburgh had about 9,200 public housing units, nearly all occupied. Today, there are fewer than 6,000, just over half occupied. Hundreds wait for traditional public housing.
Nationwide, tens of thousands of poor people remain in complexes like Burns Heights in Duquesne, a former steel town southeast of Pittsburgh. Allegheny County would like to demolish it if it could get the federal money to build replacement units.
At Burns Heights, aluminum downspouts and siding have been replaced by plastic and vinyl to stop metal from being stolen and sold as scrap. Vacant units are boarded up. Fences surround the community in an attempt to keep out armed drug dealers. The manager says more than 90 percent of families are headed by single mothers.
Rosemary Reed, who is disabled, lived under similar conditions in a nearby project but moved to a Hope VI community about five miles from Pittsburgh, with walk-in closets and central air conditioning.
"I love the fact that when my neighbors on both sides of me, when they flush their toilet ... you can't hear 'em," Reed said. "Sometimes I have to ask myself ... am I in public housing, because it's so quiet, it's so nice and serene."