Goodbye Public Housing?

AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Part of the Brewster-Douglass housing project site is shown in Detroit, Friday, March 18, 2011. 

In 2013, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) launched the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program—a far-reaching effort to preserve the government’s affordable units by transferring them into the private sector. Rather than have Congress directly fund local housing authorities to support the program, RAD allows private companies to rehab and manage public housing units in exchange for tax credits and subsidies. The contracts, which are set to continually renew every 15-20 years, require developers to keep units affordable for low-income tenants.

While Congress initially authorized just 65,000 units to be transferred—roughly five percent of the nation’s 1.2 million public housing stock—it later upped the RAD cap to 185,000 units, under pressure from the Obama administration and a coalition of public housing authorities, real estate developers, and other stakeholders. In August 2014, I took a deep look at the RAD program, and explored the concerns that tenants and housing advocates shared about its risks.

Last week I spoke with Alex Schwartz, a professor of urban policy at The New School, who has been researching some preliminary RAD data. He presented his unpublished findings at the International Sociological Association RC43 Conference this past September.

One key assumption behind RAD is that public housing was never that politically popular to begin with, and that it’s unlikely it’ll become more popular in the near future. Due to its low level of political support, (despite residents who live there being relatively satisfied), Congress has financially starved the program for decades; HUD estimates that nearly $30 billion would be required to repair and rehab the units at this point. And the longer it takes to make such repairs, the more unsafe and uninhabitable the units will become. Each year, roughly 10,000 units are permanently removed from the public housing program, through demolition or dispositions.

Through RAD, public housing units are “converted” into Project-Based Section 8 rentals, thereby becoming eligible for debt financing, tax credits, and other private funding sources that can be used to help cover rehab and maintenance costs.

While Congress has decreased federal funding for public housing over the past two decades, it has increased funding for project-based rental assistance during this time. Between fiscal year 2005 and fiscal year 2015, appropriations for project-based rental assistance increased by 82 percent, and appropriations for public housing’s Capital Fund decreased by 27 percent.

In other words, by transferring the affordable units out of the public housing program into one that has received more political and financial support, RAD proponents feel they will be better able to preserve the physical units over the long haul, even if they become less “public” as a result.

In his paper, Schwartz explains that:

Historically, because project-based rental assistance is largely used to support low-income properties with subsidy contracts involving private owners, Congress has been reluctant to undermine these contracts by failing to appropriate adequate sums for the program. If appropriations for project-based rental assistance falls short of the need required by the subsidy contracts, the properties would be at risk of foreclosure. At times Congress has delayed its appropriations for this program, and sometimes it has provided funding for less than a full year, but it has seldom cut back support for project-based rental assistance by a substantial amount.

The biggest takeaway, for me, is that there’s a great possibility that public housing will ultimately end in the United States. While RAD is often framed as a way to “save public housing”—that’s not quite accurate. RAD is designed to help fund much-needed capital repairs, and provide financing options to keep the units habitable and affordable in the future. But the only way it works is by transferring the properties out of the public housing program, and into the Project-Based Section 8 world.

Schwartz thinks there are some units that are in such bad shape, located mostly in high-poverty neighborhoods, that not even tax credits, mortgage financing, and other RAD funding streams will be sufficient to attract private developers to fix them up. In light of this, the Obama administration requested that Congress appropriate $10 million to the RAD program, to help repair those units with particularly challenging needs. But Congress was adamant that RAD remain a “revenue-neutral” program, and refused to do so.

What this means is that if RAD expands, which it likely will, then we’ll see most affordable units transferred out of the public housing program, and those that remain will be the ones in the most abysmal shape.

“If people had a bad image of public housing before, it’ll just get even worse,” said Schwartz in an interview. “It’s analogous to the health insurance pool—where all the healthy people leave, and then you’re just left with just those who have the most expensive health needs.” Ultimately Schwartz thinks that whatever properties remain in the program will be left to decay until they are eventually demolished once and for all.

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