Traditional public housing is out of favor and substantially out of funds. It’s bureaucratic, concentrates the very poor, and is literally crumbling due to a huge backlog of deferred maintenance. Yet despite real catastrophes—such as Chicago’s bleak, crime-ridden Robert Taylor Homes, dynamited over a decade ago—public housing provides low-rent apartments to some 2.2 million people, and much of it is reasonably well run by local authorities.
For half a century, presidents, legislators and housing developers have sought alternatives, involving supposedly more efficient private market incentives. However, these alternatives, too, have been far from scandal-free. The Johnson-era Section 236 program (named for part of the housing code) gave private developers tax benefits and direct payments to build low-rent housing, underwritten by subsidized thirty-year mortgages. But then, as the mortgages started being paid off in the 1990s, many developers kicked out poor tenants and converted the buildings to middle-class and even luxury apartments—taking low-rent units that had been built and maintained with taxpayer money and removing them from the pool of affordable housing.
Attempts to de-concentrate big public housing projects, such as the Clinton-era “HOPE VI” program (Home Opportunities for People Everywhere), ended up evicting thousands. The Robert Taylor site, which at its peak housed 27,000 low-income Chicagoans, was replaced, using over $500 million in HOPE VI funds, with a low-rise mixed-income development of just 2,300 units.
Now comes the latest attempt to save public housing by injecting private capital. The idea is to bring in private developers—drawn by tax breaks and subsidies—and have them refurbish and manage the buildings. The end result is to be some kind of hybrid, where rents will stay low (at least for a time), tenants may have more mobility but fewer rights, and the total stock of affordable housing could shrink yet again. The approach is not cheap, and it may be more cost-effective to just appropriate more direct funds to the program and thereby keep it in the public sector—but Congress is not about to do so.
The new plan, promoted by HUD, developers and some city governments with few alternatives, is known as the Rental Assistance Demonstration, or RAD. It is set to transfer 60,000 public housing units across the country to the control of private developers. While billed as a limited test program, many participating cities are taking far-reaching gambles on their city’s affordable housing stock. In Baltimore, 43 percent of all public housing units will be converted through RAD, and in San Francisco, roughly 75 percent.
RAD is an emblematic case of this era’s intensified push to use privatization in the pursuit of social goals—not because that approach is necessarily better policy, but because it is politically possible. In that respect, RAD is a second cousin to everything from privatized highways to the Affordable Care Act, which keeps the public provision and modest expansion of health insurance mostly private.
Public housing—a program financed through direct government subsidies since its inception in the late 1930s—has been severely underfunded by Congress for decades. The dearth of funds has translated into a housing stock decline: Since the mid-1990s, more than 260,000 dilapidated units have been demolished or removed from the program. And despite long waiting lists around the country, agencies have only built new units to replace about one-sixth of those that were removed. HUD estimates that nearly $30 billion is needed to repair and restore the nation’s 1.2 million remaining public housing units.
“Primarily because of Congress’s failure to fund public housing, and so many long-term repairs and rehabilitation needs going unmet, RAD was an idea to get a new flow of capital and funds into the program,” says Megan Haberle, policy counsel at the Poverty Race and Research Action Council (PRRAC).
RAD alters public housing’s funding and ownership structure to one that experts hope will be more politically sustainable over time. For example, a local housing authority could either sell or lease a public housing building to a private developer; the developer in turn would agree to make certain renovations, and to respect tenants’ rights. The traditional funding mechanism—direct subsidies to local housing authorities—would be replaced by tax credits and housing vouchers under the program known as Section 8. The total subsidy would be lucrative enough to entice the developer yet still maintain low rents for tenants. In effect, RAD turns public housing into something like the Section 8 program: low-rent housing that is privately managed or owned, and publicly subsidized.
Some cities, like Chicago, Philadelphia, Tampa and Charlotte, applied to convert thousands of their public housing units through RAD, but given the program’s demonstration cap, they’re stuck, for now, on a waitlist. (Chicago had the largest RAD application in the country, with nearly 11,000 units.) Other cities that were approved for conversion have taken a more cautious approach: Omaha will convert only 306 units, and Houston just eighty-nine.
Tenants and housing rights activists share deep concerns about RAD. These include the risk of increased rent costs, the fate of tenant legal rights, and the need to ensure affordable housing for generations to come. In addition, building trade unions see the potential for eliminating unionized middle-class jobs under these new private deals. Yet no formal national coalition has formed to address all these fears, in part because of the highly localized nature of the program. Since the RAD legislation was designed for regional flexibility, the risks and stakes for tenants and workers can vary considerably from city to city. The strength of local housing activist networks, civil rights lawyers and unions will ultimately shape RAD’s impact.
“Everyone is working on their own programs. Some of them are doing things this way or that way, some are a little bit more transparent, others are not,” says David Prater, an attorney at the Maryland Disability Law Center. Prater has been involved with the RAD program in Baltimore, fighting to ensure that protections for disabled tenants are preserved under the new regime.
Tenants of public housing protest in front of the Baltimore Housing Authority on June 13, 2014.
RAD has garnered great controversy in Baltimore—the largest East Coast city to participate—due to its cagey rollout. While Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul T. Granziano has pitched RAD as the only feasible way to salvage the old units, advocates are left with many questions and few details. In mid-June, some sixty Baltimore tenants and union workers organized a protest against RAD outside the Housing Authority of Baltimore County (HABC). Demonstrators raised concerns of resident displacement, middle-class job cuts and public housing loss.
“We’ve been at a number of residential information meetings that [the Housing Authority] organized, and they’ve yelled at residents who have tried to ask questions about long-term affordability and said it was inappropriate for them to even ask those questions,” said Jessica Lewis, an organizer at the Right to Housing Alliance, an advocacy group led by low-income Baltimore residents. At another public meeting, residents invited Karen Wabeke, a lawyer working for the Homeless Persons Representation Project, to ask legal questions on their behalf, but the housing commissioner refused to even take her questions.
Cheron Porter, director of communications for HABC, says that they are proud of the efforts they have made to engage residents and housing advocates throughout the RAD process. Porter adds that Baltimore’s version of RAD “goes far beyond the requirements under the federal law and is much closer to public housing than programs in other parts of the country.”
In other cities such as San Francisco, RAD has met less opposition. The San Francisco Housing Authority, with a $270 million backlog in deferred maintenance costs, has been in a state of organizational tumult for years. Its last director was fired in 2013 after alleged involvement in a host of corruption and discrimination scandals. While some activists and union workers have raised questions, ultimately the Bay Area pushback has been mild in comparison to Baltimore. Many residents eagerly welcome the promise of improved physical conditions.
Deborah Thrope, a lawyer with the National Housing Law Project, a policy organization concerned with preserving affordable housing and tenant rights, says the response was tamer in part because everyone agreed the status quo was untenable. While Thrope hopes to safeguard tenant rights in San Francisco then disseminate those principles nationally, she acknowledges that San Francisco is different than the rest of the country because of its well-mobilized advocacy organizations that collaborate with the city in ways unique to the northern California progressive scene.
Despite significant concerns, many housing policy experts remain cautiously optimistic. One promising feature of the program is a “mobility” option not currently permitted for tenants in traditional public housing. For example, some families that want to move and switch school districts could do so using a voucher obtained through RAD. “We see [RAD] as an opportunity not only to inject capital,” says Phil Tegeler, executive director of PRRAC, “but as a break with that whole history of residential segregation and concentrated poverty.”
Given the funding crisis, the large public housing authorities are among RAD's most enthusiastic boosters. “This was not something that was a brainchild of a developer,” stressed Sunia Zaterman, executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities (CLPHA). “This is very intentional in its approach as a preservation and reinvestment strategy.”
Nonetheless, critics’ concerns about tenant displacement appear justified, given the government’s track record with privatizing public housing. HOPE VI projects deliberately decreased the number of public housing units. Many tenants lost their homes through rescreening and thousands were permanently displaced during the rehab process.
“The housing authorities just didn’t try hard enough to keep in touch with many residents during that year or two that units were getting fixed up, and people were just lost and never had an opportunity to return,” says Ed Gramlich of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
In an effort to avoid the pitfalls of Hope VI, policymakers have tried to design RAD in a way that would prevent some of the worst possible outcomes. For example, unlike in HOPE VI conversions, no tenant will have to be re-screened to establish eligibility to live in RAD properties.
And under RAD, an implicit commitment exists to have a “one-to-one replacement policy,” meaning that any demolished units must be replaced with the same number of units as was originally there. But advocates such as Gramlich worry that developers and local authorities could exploit loopholes in the statute. Exceptions to the one-to-one rule include allowing public housing authorities to reduce the number of assisted units by up to 5 percent without HUD approval, consolidate units (such as converting efficiencies to one-bedroom apartments), and remove units that have been vacant for at least twenty-four months. This last exception is particularly troubling, as housing authorities sometimes intentionally leave units empty in an effort to lessen their administrative fees or anticipate eventual demolition.
Erosion of tenant legal protections also worries advocates. For example, under current public housing law, if a landlord or housing authority mistreats a tenant, the tenant may pursue redress without resorting to expensive and lengthy lawsuits. But under RAD, the contracts will be between private developers and housing authorities, which could make it much more difficult for tenants to hold landlords accountable. Some, like David Prater of the Maryland Disability Law Center, want housing authorities to formally add tenants to the housing contracts as “third party beneficiaries.” This change would strengthen tenants’ ability to pursue grievances.
Prater sees potential for an unholy alliance between housing authorities that want to save money by limiting tenant appeals and private developers who seek to avoid liability. Cheron Porter, speaking for the Baltimore housing authority, says, “While we certainly understand the residents’ point of view,” giving tenants third party status “could potentially lead to unduly lengthened processes and less certainty among the parties’ roles.”
As long as these developers receive HUD subsidies, the units will be subjected to federal audits and monitoring. Still, the regulations leave room for legal sidestepping. “I think legal advocates rightly see that the RAD notice HUD drafted did not completely replicate the protections that people already have under the public housing regulations and handbooks,” says Gramlich.
A further concern is possible changes to RAD under future administrations. For now, the Obama administration has sought to balance developer incentives with tenant protections. But future administrations, facing different political considerations, might opt to shift this balance.
Although this housing experiment was to be tried first on only 5 percent of the nation’s public housing stock, HUD is now pushing to eliminate the program’s cap entirely. (In other words, gut the “demonstration” part of “Rental Assistance Demonstration.”) Zaterman of CLPHA argues that RAD’s long waitlist “demonstrates its demand and feasibility.” Other affordable housing advocates, however, urge for a more gradual approach in case there are unforeseen ruinous consequences.
With cash-strapped cities lacking the dollars needed to renovate, repair and maintain their public housing, many more are likely to apply for RAD conversions in the future.
If implemented carefully with robust federal oversight, RAD may actually advance the goal of more affordable housing. Decrepit and dangerous buildings could be upgraded and more families may have the opportunity to move into the areas they want. However, if the public looks away or if crafty private developers evade government supervision, the state of affordable housing could look even worse than it does today.
“All of these deals between housing authorities and developers are made behind closed doors," says Gramlich. "That’s how deals are done in the private marketplace, and that runs against the whole notion of public assets. It’s hard to assess what might happen, and by the time the negotiations are settled, residents might be stuck with a done deal. And the done deal might be great, or it might not be. The people who have the biggest stake in it are left out."
Correction: This article previously said that the protest of RAD by Baltimore tenants and union workers took place outside the Bernard Mason Senior Apartments. The protest took place outside the Housing Authority of Baltimore County (HABC).