Donald Trump and the GOP Are Expanding a Controversial Obama-Era Public Housing Program

Originally published in The Intercept on April 2, 2018.
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The most recent spending bill passed by the Republican Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump includes a massive expansion of a controversial program called Rental Assistance Demonstration, or RAD, which privatizes public housing to preserve physical housing units. Despite the program’s threat to public housing in general, beleaguered affordable housing advocates have reacted with cautious approval, even as a government watchdog recently affirmed their long-term concerns, finding that the Department of Housing and Urban Development has insufficiently monitored the program and may be exaggerating its benefits.

In a 72-page report issued on March 22, the Government Accountability Office concluded, among other things, that HUD has not sufficiently monitored tenants’ experiences; has not ensured tenants can exercise all their rights; has dramatically exaggerated the amount of private capital generated through the RAD program; and has not done enough to ensure the long-term affordability of the units. The report issued five recommendations to improve the program, all five of which HUD said it agrees with.

Many affordable housing advocates are open to RAD, which works by allowing private companies to rehabilitate and manage public housing in exchange for tax credits and subsidies, but they have voiced concerns for years about what they consider to be wholly insufficient oversight for the federal program and potential risks for low-income tenants. GAO has now affirmed some of those fears with an independent assessment, yet lawmakers are moving to expand the program, accelerating the upending of traditional public housing.

At least one member of Congress has been skeptical of the program for years. “I have long expressed concerns that the conversion of public housing, under RAD, will risk the long-term affordability of this important housing resource and this GAO report serves as confirmation that RAD is in desperate need of reform,” Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said in a statement about the GAO assessment. Waters, the ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee and one of the most outspoken critics of RAD, sent a letter to GAO in 2015 requesting a formal review of the program. A year earlier she had sent a letter to former President Barack Obama asking him to reconsider his RAD support, saying she believes it “may very well do more harm than good in diminishing a crucial public asset.”

RAD was one of a number of affordable housing programs to get a boost in the omnibus spending bill that Congress passed last month. The Obama administration first launched RAD seven years ago, and the program now boasts support from Democrats and Republicans, including HUD Secretary Ben Carson. It was conceived to address the biggest problem facing the nation’s 1.2 million public housing units: $49 billion in backlogged repairs and maintenance, leading to a permanent loss of 10,000 apartments every year.

Under the program, public housing authorities across the country are able to submit applications to HUD with requests to transfer all or some of their public housing stock to the private sector. If their applications are approved, they then negotiate RAD contracts, which are designed to renew every 15 to 20 years and require private developers to keep the units affordable for low-income tenants in perpetuity. Technically, all public housing tenants should be able to live in the private units if they want to, though housing advocates say this “right of return” is not always enforced.

Given the federal government’s refusal to sufficiently fund public housing — even Congress’s new $800 million investment in public housing rehabilitation will only make a small dent in the needed repairs — RAD supporters say privatizing the units is the best way to preserve the physical units over the long haul. Six years ago Congress authorized just 60,000 units, or 5 percent of the nation’s public housing stock, to be “converted” through RAD. Since then, Congress has repeatedly raised that capped number, most recently in the new omnibus bill, which bumps it from 225,000 units up to 455,000. In other words, 38 percent of the nation’s public housing has already been authorized for transfer to the private sector.

The federal government’s track record in privatizing public housing certainly warrants concern: When HUD launched a program in the 1990s to convert public housing units into mixed-income developments, the feds intentionally shrunk the number of affordable units, and thousands of tenants were permanently displaced. Another federal program launched in the late 1960s gave private developers tax credits and subsidies to build affordable housing, backed by 30-year mortgages. When those mortgages started to be paid off, many developers kicked out poor tenants and converted the buildings into middle-class and luxury housing.

HUD officials say they’ve studied their historical mistakes and have worked hard to design RAD in ways that will specifically avoid these past pitfalls. Indeed, RAD comes with a more robust set of tenant protections than other federal housing programs, but enforcement of these rights has been lacking to date. Last October, the National Housing Law Project sent a letter to Carson outlining a host of RAD oversight concerns, some of which were corroborated this month with the release of the long-awaited GAO assessment. For example, public housing residents who paid a flat rent are supposed to be guaranteed a phase-in of any rent increase under RAD exceeding $25, but GAO noted that HUD has not been tracking things like “changes in rent, as well as relocations or displacement of individual households.”

Tom Davis, the director of HUD’s Office of Recapitalization, which oversees the RAD program, told The Intercept that he finds the GAO report useful, but not too damning.

“One of the takeaways from the report is that given the scope of what they were looking at, their recommendations were really narrowly focused, and their recommendations were for things we have been already working on,” he said. “Their feedback is helpful, but these are also pretty on-the-margin kinds of critiques. We have tried to learn from history, and we think we have a pretty good scheme to avoid the risks to affordability.”

One of the findings of the GAO report was that HUD exaggerates how much private capital RAD generates. The federal housing agency claims that for every $1 in public money spent, RAD leverages $19 in private funds, while GAO estimates $1 in public money yields just $1.23 in private funds. Davis said the disparity results from a difference in methodology.

“We chose one methodology, the GAO chose another one, and we don’t think theirs is the best indicator of the impact of the program,” Davis said. “Theirs is legitimate, but we think ours is as well.” Their disagreement centers on issues like whether money that comes from private banks in anticipation of federal tax credits should be considered public or private dollars.

GAO also conducted some tenant surveys, reporting that RAD residents across its 14 focus groups said they had very mixed experiences in terms of transparency and assistance.

Davis said focus group data can be helpful in “identifying concerns” for HUD’s consideration, but noted the hazards of relying on anecdotal information. He pointed to a more formal survey HUD has commissioned on tenants’ RAD experiences, which will be released in late 2018 or early 2019. “A rigorous social science survey based on the evaluation of a statistical pool of participating tenants will give us a really strong sense of whether RAD is working for residents or not,” he said. “I think those lessons are going to be really important, so we’re really looking forward to that study.”

Aside from the GAO report, HUD published its own interim RAD evaluation in the fall of 2016. The study, conducted by a management consulting firm called Econometrica Inc., deemed RAD initially successful based off metrics such as the number of applications for conversion it processed, the amount of private financing it generated, and the number of RAD transactions closed. The interim report did not investigate the early impact of RAD on tenants.

Davis said the interim report “was very clear in affirming our view that this is a program that brings new sources of money to solve the problem of deferred capital housing needs.” While he acknowledged that GAO had identified some risks to affordability, he said they are not major risks, and expressed confidence in his agency’s ability to address those concerns. Davis also emphasized that not having RAD at all would pose far more risks to long-term housing affordability.

Jessica Cassella, a National Housing Law Project staff attorney who focuses on tenant protections under RAD, told The Intercept that one important issue highlighted by GAO is that HUD has been relying largely on local data collected by housing authorities and property owners. “As the GAO recommended, and as we think as well, HUD should have its own set of data,” Cassella said.

Last fall, HUD started requiring property owners to certify information about tenants’ experiences to the federal government. For the first time since the program’s inception, owners must now report how many residents came back to a converted RAD property and how many former public housing tenants did not return. To incorrectly certify information could be criminal fraud under the False Claims Act, punishable by thousands of dollars in fines and even prison sentences. Advocates view this new requirement as an improvement to the RAD oversight and monitoring process.

“Things always take longer to stand up than you think when it’s a government program,” said Davis. “Certification wasn’t initially required — [private companies] had to certify certain things at closing, but they didn’t have to come back after the project was complete to certify what actually happened [to tenants].”

Davis told The Intercept that this newly required tenant information has not yet been made publicly available because his team is “working through kinks and tweaking” data. He said HUD “discovered in the first few months of the reporting that some people interpreted questions differently, and we want to align that so the data is good when we make it public.”

But Cassella noted that HUD’s new certifications still fail to monitor all the rights that tenants are guaranteed, such as the right to relocate with a choice mobility voucher. Under RAD, tenants are entitled to request a voucher to move to any unit on the private market after living one or two years in a RAD-converted property.

“We have anecdotally encountered situations where housing authorities do not have procedures set up so tenants can exercise that right, and HUD does not have any way to currently monitor whether these moves are actually happening,” she said.

Cassella also pointed to GAO’s finding that roughly one-third of the public housing units chosen for RAD did not report making any capital repairs at the time of their conversion. “Given that there’s a $49 billion backlog, it’s hard to imagine how a third of those properties don’t need any repairs,” she said. “Maybe some of those repairs will be deferred to a later time, but when the stated purpose of RAD is to physically improve the properties, we would hope to see a lot more of those repairs happening early on.” It’s not clear how the federal government evaluates RAD applications that claim no immediate physical repairs are necessary.

Even if Congress one day lifts the cap on RAD to make all public housing units eligible for conversion to the private sector — as some groups have been advocating for — it is unlikely that every building in the public housing stock would make for a viable RAD candidate.

Some public housing units are in such bad shape that experts suspect not even tax credits or other federal subsidies will be enough to entice private developers to take over certain decrepit buildings. There’s a risk that, as RAD expands and most public housing units are converted to the private sector, those that aren’t converted will be the ones in the worst condition.

“If people had a bad image of public housing before, it’ll just get even worse,” said Alex Schwartz, a professor of urban policy at The New School, when I interviewed him about RAD in 2015. “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.”

Though HUD and affordable housing advocates don’t exactly see eye to eye, even the advocates are convinced that there might be no better option available at this time but to push for stronger HUD oversight.

“We’ve seen a number of problems, such as tenants being improperly discouraged from returning, owners or developers not accommodating people with disabilities, or the new construction not being suited to family needs,” said Brenda Castañeda, an attorney at the Charlottesville, Virginia-based Legal Aid Justice. “The RAD process could clearly benefit from active HUD oversight, as the GAO suggests.”

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