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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Donald Trump’s Civil Rights Office for Housing Has Found the Real Problem: Pets

Originally published in The Intercept on March 23, 2018.
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The Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at the Department of Housing and Urban Development was designed to confront discrimination, segregation, and poverty. Instead, under the Trump administration, the agency is gearing up to confront a much stranger boogeyman: The emotional support snake.

For media and lawmakers, the idea of pet owners selfishly and fraudulently exploiting legal accommodations for Americans with disabilities has proven irresistible. It’s a story that hits all the right buttons: entitled and oversensitive pet owners, smitten with ridiculous animals, lying to befuddled businesses, and, with the weight of federal law behind them, forcing workaday Americans to endure the presence of an unwanted critter.

Fear of phony pups and fraudulent felines has been percolating for years. The idea got a big boost in 2014, when the New Yorker ran a piece featuring its author successfully testing the proposition that she could bypass many “no pets allowed” policies with a phony doctor’s note. She brought a 15-pound turtle into a museum, a 26-pound turkey into a restaurant, a snake into a movie theater, and an alpaca on a train. The journalist showed how easy it was to convince confused business owners to let her in with her exotic animals, since the cost of denying someone their legal accommodations is quite high.

The public got another dose of outrage this past January, when a woman tried to board a flight out of Newark International Airport with a peacock named Dexter. The passenger insisted her bird was an “emotional support animal,” which, under the Air Carrier Access Act, passengers can legally bring on planes. United Airlines didn’t buy it and refused to let her on. A few days later, United announced that it would be  tightening its policies around companion animals and now requires new documents to verify an animal’s health and training. Delta Air Lines did the same thing, and both companies say they’ve seen nearly double the amount of passengers flying with animals in recent years. “Dexter, unwittingly, may have struck a blow for sanity,” wrote New York Times columnist David Leonhardt in a recent piece titled, “It’s Time to End the Scam of Flying Pets.” Leonhardt said he hopes to see all airlines adopt “fairly strict” rules soon, and that the whole scandal is a “fascinating case study of how mass cheating can become acceptable.”

But while peacocks and “mass cheating” among pet owners make for juicy stories, civil rights advocates worry about where all this self-righteous anger is heading. Sources connected to HUD, helmed by Ben Carson, say that Anna Maria Farías, the federal assistant secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, has said cracking down on assistance animals is a “priority,” and that HUD may issue new guidance restricting access to emotional support animals as early as the beginning of April.

The federal housing agency has been meeting with representatives from housing industry groups, including the National Apartment Association, but it has so far ignored entreaties from fair housing and disability rights groups to hold similar meetings, representatives of those groups say.

“The National Fair Housing Alliance has reached out to HUD about accommodation verification, but HUD has declined, thus far, to confer with us regarding this particular matter,” said Morgan Williams, the group’s general counsel, in a statement to The Intercept. “We expect HUD would meet with fair housing and disability rights advocates in the course of any consideration of guidance on reasonable accommodations and assistance animals under the Fair Housing Act.”

Brian Sullivan, a spokesperson for HUD, told The Intercept that the agency has no comment at this time on whether it plans to issue further guidance on emotional support animals.

The agency’s refusal to publicly comment on the issue, combined with its meetings with housing industry groups, has advocates bracing for things to get worse. Under federal law, individuals with physical or mental disabilities can bring assistance animals with them on planes or keep them in their homes, and they can also bring trained service dogs to other public places. But in just a few short years, 21 states have moved to criminalize the misrepresentation of such animals, with another 13 drafting similar legislation to take up this year. Advocates note that evidence for a supposed fake assistance animal crisis has been extremely limited, and many times outrage can be traced back to mental health stigma more generally.

“There are unfortunately people who take advantage of laws intended to protect people with disabilities, but I think the problem has been blown completely out of proportion,” said Marcy LaHart, an attorney in Florida who represents individuals denied reasonable animal accommodations. “What I see far more is people who have legitimate mental health issues — things like depression, anxiety, and panic attacks — who are harassed because they don’t know what they need to do, what they need to provide, to verify their legitimate need. They’re automatically assumed to be frauds because they don’t ‘look disabled.’”

In the popular consciousness, service dogs and emotional support animals are essentially interchangeable. But legally, they’re very different things: the former protected by Americans with Disabilities Act and the latter coming from the Fair Housing Act.

The Americans with Disabilities Act and related regulations say that service dogs, which have been “trained to do work or perform tasks” related to a specific disability, must be given broad access to public places where pets are typically not allowed. The ADA sharply limits inquiries related to the animal. All that can be asked of the owner is whether their dog is needed because of a disability, and what tasks it has been trained to perform. It’s illegal to request documentation for the service dog or to inquire about the owner’s disability.

In some ways, the protections of the Fair Housing Act are much broader. The FHA (in combination with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act) gives individuals the right to keep “emotional support animals” in their homes, provided they can produce a letter from a trained professional that says an animal could help them cope with mental or physical issues, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Unlike the ADA’s service dogs, emotional support animals do not have to be specifically trained to perform specific tasks, and they do not have to be dogs.

The confusion over these differences stems in part from the fact that, while people are generally restricted to keeping their emotional support animals at home, they can also take them on planes. It’s not a coincidence that many high-profile complaints about ostensibly ridiculous support animals involve encounters during air travel: that’s the only public place the law requires them to be allowed. (Even then, there are some exceptions, such as the case of Dexter the peacock.) But planes are about the extent of it: People who rely on emotional support animals can’t take them into restaurants, schools, and movie theaters, all places where trained service dogs are allowed entry under the ADA.

Now, civil rights advocates say they hear that HUD plans to issue new guidance soon, in an effort to rein in alleged emotional support animal fraud.

Mary Rosenberg and Ken Walden, two disability rights lawyers who work at the Chicago-based Access Living with connections to HUD, told The Intercept  their sources say the forthcoming guidance might place new limits on acceptable breeds of emotional support animals (barring pit bulls, for example), erect new hoops for who can verify a disability, and prohibit certain exotic or non-traditional animals.

“What we heard was that Anna Maria Farías essentially thinks emotional support animals might be appropriate for armed military veterans with PTSD, but not really for people beyond that,” said one national fair housing advocate, “based on nothing more than her personal whim.”

Indeed, this past fall HUD filed a charge against a West St. Paul, Minn., apartment complex that ordered an army veteran to get a cat instead of a dog. “Assistance animals play a vital role in helping our veterans cope with service-related disabilities,” said Farías in a press release, that exclusively referred to the tenant as a veteran. HUD declined to make Farías available for an interview.

If HUD does decide to issue new guidance around emotional support animals, how it will comport with past HUD legal interpretations is not yet clear. In 2013, HUD issued guidance that civil rights groups viewed favorably, which clarified housing providers’ legal obligations in relation to the Americans with Disabilities Act. (More than half of all fair housing complaints concern individuals with disabilities, and nearly half of those involve animal-related issues.)

“One issue with new guidance from HUD is there are a lot of people who already have emotional support animals, and this could send them into a limbo,” said Rosenberg. “Whatever the guidance is, it might make it seem like individuals are not allowed to have the animals they already live with, which could fuel a lot of anxiety and confusion.”

“It remains unclear to us if new guidance would supplant the old guidance, contradict it, or complement it,” added Walden.

Federal guidance does not carry the same legal power as statutes or regulations. However, like the Obama-era guidance on transgender bathrooms in public schools, the promulgation or repeal of federal legal interpretations can carry political implications and shape policy.

One major reason critics say there’s an urgent need to crack down on alleged fraud is because of the growth of new websites that sell inexpensive documentation that falsely identify pets as service dogs or emotional support animals. Even in apartments where pets are allowed, buildings often charge tenants a monthly or annual pet fee. But if an animal is considered an emotional support animal, not a pet, landlords (and airlines) can’t charge tenants (or passengers) for their animals. Many suspect that non-disabled individuals are using this new cottage industry to bypass pet fees, or policies that prohibit pets. The New Yorker article noted that the National Service Animal Registry, a commercial business that sells certificates, vests, and badges for helper animals, signed up 11,000 emotional support animals in 2013, up from 2,400 in 2011.

But civil rights advocates say there are major misconceptions about these websites and those who turn to them. While writers like Leonhardt characterize customers as selfish and intentional cheats, advocates say plenty of people who turn to these sites have real needs and may not understand that what they’re doing is illegitimate.

“Just because someone uses one of these websites doesn’t mean they don’t have a disability,” said Williams, of the National Fair Housing Alliance. “They may have no concept that they’re using a website that other people might deem problematic.”

“Sometimes I have people come to me who have already gotten a certificate from an online vendor and generally we’ll explain to them that those aren’t sufficient under the Fair Housing Act,” said LaHart. “We’ll ask them to get a letter from a provider who can truly verify their need, and that’s pretty much it, and we’ll proceed from there. Some people don’t have doctors or were just mortified at having to discuss mental illness. They might think they’re weak because they suffer from depression. I find that particularly in the older generation.”

LaHart calls the online companies selling fake animal support letters “crooks” and says governments should be going after the sellers, not the buyers. “There’s a way to go after those providers and not throw the baby out with the bathwater,” she said.

Aside from pointing to how easy it can be to obtain fake certification and swag, disability rights lawyers emphasize that there’s been very little proof of actual widespread fraud. They suspect that housing providers are more likely looking for ways to limit their liability under the Fair Housing Act. One major difference between the Fair Housing Act and the Americans for Disabilities Act is that individuals who have been discriminated against can only sue for monetary damages under the former. Matthew Dietz, a disability rights lawyer, told The Intercept that in his practice, the Fair Housing Act has a lot more teeth. “When I sue a condo association, I sue the association itself, I sue the property manager, and I sue each and every individual on the board of directors,” he said.

The Intercept asked the National Apartment Association for statistics or survey data it uses to show that there’s been an increase in problematic requests for animal accommodation.

Nicole Upano, the NAA’s senior manager for government affairs, responded by pointing to the 2014 New Yorker article, and added that as of this week, the National Service Animal Registry had registered 181,984 service and emotional support animals. “To put this number in perspective, NAA is aware of more than 20 websites or online providers that offer documentation to their customers in exchange for a fee,” she said.

Though it is possible that some of those websites also sell fake doctor’s notes, these figures don’t shed real light on alleged fraud in housing because certified animals — fake or not — are not relevant for securing accommodations under the Fair Housing Act. In the housing context, emotional support animals don’t need certification. Tenants just need a third party to verify that they have a disability and could benefit from living with an animal.

In addition to lobbying for new federal regulations that would crack down on alleged fraud, housing industry groups have also been pushing for legislation on the state level to limit access to emotional support animals. While many of these efforts are framed as ways to better protect the rights of those with legitimate disabilities, civil rights advocates worry the new statutes could have the adverse effect of preventing or deterring people from receiving accommodations to which they are legally entitled. For example, new legislation signed this month by South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard requires tenants seeking to live with an emotional support animal to provide verification that comes “from a licensed health care provider.”

But under HUD’s 2013 guidance, for example, legitimate third parties include social workers, not all of whom have clinical training. In some cases, animal trainers, case workers, or even guidance counselors have testified to an individual’s need for an assistance animal. “We worry these laws could have a chilling effect on tenants and anyone who was called upon to verify their need for assistance,” said Walden, a disability rights lawyer.

Florida passed a law in 2015 that makes it a crime for people to falsely claim that they need service dogs. LaHart, the attorney, notes that even though the law doesn’t apply to emotional support animals, condominium associations have sometimes pointed to it as a way to scare tenants seeking accommodations.

“Condo lawyers and sometimes board members will try to use the new law as a way to intimidate people who have asked for a housing accommodation,” she told The Intercept. “I think there is definitely potential for a chilling effect. And I never even see the people who don’t come into my office who get those kind of letters [from condo associations] and just give up.”

Proponents of the new restrictions say they don’t necessarily want to lock people up for their cats and dogs, but that there needs to be more societal pressure and social stigma on non-disabled individuals who break the laws. “The moral compass is gone from people,” one Minnesota resident who wants to see her lawmakers crack down on animal fraud told a local news outlet.

But at the end of the day, advocates say, much of the debate stems from people questioning both the legitimacy of an individual’s disability, and an individual’s preference to use animals as their preferred coping mechanism. National media has certainly done its part to fuel public distrust. While existing research on the benefits of emotional support animals is mixed and limited, recent stories have nonetheless taken to casting assistance animals in a notably negative light. “Therapy animals are everywhere. Proof that they help is not,” read one Washington Post headline from last summer. “The Surprisingly Weak Scientific Case for Emotional Support Animals” read another recent story in Vox.

Dietz, a disability rights attorney, says these kinds of articles are missing the point. “As a society we treat medication, like Xanax or Prozac, as a more acceptable response to anxiety and depression, even though the costs are so much more and the efficacy may not be as much,” he said. “Just as you wouldn’t ask someone, “Does your Prozac really help you?” — you shouldn’t be arguing with someone about if their dog really does provide them with mental and emotional support. The person with the disability should be the one in charge of their own health and the way they care for themselves. And as long as it doesn’t bother anyone else, an accommodation should be made.”

For Dietz, service animals are just the latest in what he sees as a long history of challenging accommodations for people with disabilities, and he says it certainly won’t be the last. “A couple of years ago, the biggest issues were parking spaces,” he said. “People debated whether a person was really disabled enough to need the parking space, and how visible does the disability need to be. In five years, it’s going to be whether the person can really smoke marijuana in their house or is that an unreasonable request? As time goes on, how we choose to treat people with disabilities and the accommodations available to them change.”

For all the hype and chaos, one team of researchers noted the lack of objective data surrounding the public’s understanding of service and emotional support animals, and decided to administer an anonymous online survey to those who do not have one of their own. Their study, published last year in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Healthfound that “despite the media’s focus on abuses and false representations of these dogs, most participants reported feeling the majority of people are not taking advantage of the system.”

Draft Legislation Suggests Trump Administration Weighing Work Requirements And Rent Increases for Subsidized Housing

Originally published in The Intercept on February 1, co-authored with Zaid Jilani.
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Draft legislation obtained by The Intercept suggests the Department of Housing and Urban Development is eyeing a proposal to overhaul the federal government’s administration of subsidized housing, through measures such as rent hikes and conditioning aid on employment.

This change would significantly impact those who rely on public housing and housing choice vouchers, often referred to as Section 8 in reference to Section 8 of the Housing Act. The news comes just weeks after the Trump administration announced that states could start imposing work requirements as a condition of Medicaid eligibility.

When asked about the document, Department of Housing and Urban Development spokesperson Brian Sullivan would not confirm its existence, but he suggested more would become clear when the Trump administration announces its budget later in February. “I think what you’re talking about is going to be expressed publicly in the budget coming up, so prior to that we would have nothing to say,” Sullivan said. He did not return multiple requests for further comment.

Document metadata reveals the name of the author of the document; she is listed as an HUD employee on a number of department web pages between 2013 and 2017.

It is unclear at this time whether the draft legislative language, dated January 17, will be proposed as a standalone bill or included within existing legislation. There are many parts of the 28-page document that are vague and even contradictory. However its text strongly suggests the administration is considering rent reform.

Under current regulations, most households that receive federal housing subsidies pay 30 percent of their adjusted income as rent. Adjusted income is a household’s gross income minus money taken out for four mandatory deductions: dependent deductions ($40 per month per dependent), elderly and disabled deductions ($400 per year), a child care deduction, and medical and disability expense deduction. This 30 percent threshold, which has been the standard for most rental programs since 1981, is based on a rule-of-thumb measure that estimates a household can devote 30 percent of its income to housing costs before it becomes “burdened.”

The draft legislation eliminates all four deductions, effectively making the changes most burdensome on households with children, the elderly, or people with medical problems.

If the draft’s proposals are enacted, those families would have to pay the higher of two figures: Either 35 percent of their household’s gross income, or 35 percent of what they earn from working 15 hours a week for four weeks at the federal minimum wage. A comment in the margins of the document notes that the latter would equal $152.25, something housing advocates say is effectively a new minimum rent floor.

Additionally, the draft legislation would allow public housing authorities to impose work requirements of up to 32 hours a week “per adult in the household who is not elderly or a person with disabilities.” According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, more than half of all recipients who lived in subsidized housing in 2015 were elderly or disabled, and more than a quarter of all households had a working adult.

Diane Yentel, the president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, expressed alarm at the possible changes.

“HUD’s proposals could raise rents on millions of low-income households that receive federal rental assistance, with some of the largest rent increases for families and individuals that have the greatest difficulties affording housing,” Yentel said. “By raising rents on some of the lowest income and most vulnerable families in HUD subsidized housing, HUD would jeopardize family stability by increasing the financial burdens they face through higher rents.”

Civil Rights Group Sue Ben Carson For Delaying Anti-Segregation Housing Reform

Originally published in The Intercept on October 23, 2017.
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A coalition of civil rights organizations filed a lawsuit on Monday against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and its secretary, Ben Carson. The suit is aimed at stopping a move by Carson the civil rights groups say will only further racial and economic segregation.

A policy known as the Small Area Fair Market Rent rule was set to go into effect on January 1, 2018, after years of advocacy, research, and public debate. In August, however, HUD abruptly announced it would be delaying the rule’s implementation for two years, claiming that further study was needed.

Brian Sullivan, a HUD spokesperson, told The Intercept that while his office cannot comment on any pending litigation, the delay of the Small Area rule does not represent any change in agency policy. “I gather there are some who believe this is a change of policy, or that it might signal a change in policy, but there is no change in policy,” he said. Sullivan also referred to a blogpost HUD posted on August 25 reiterating this point, specifically that the delay was a decision “informed by research” and that waiting until next summer when the pilot’s final report is released will allow for more successful implementation.

More than 5 million people in 2.2 million households use federal housing choice vouchers — colloquially referred to as Section 8, referencing the statute that created the subsidies — to help afford rent on the private market. The subsidies, however, are based on metropolitan-wide rent formulas, meaning that many low-income families are often relegated into communities with few job opportunities, poor schools, and high crime. The rule change would have required — or will require — public housing authorities to calculate so-called fair market rents based on ZIP-codes instead.

While tweaking a rent subsidy formula sounds minor and technical, the policy could impact millions of low-income people, especially African-Americans, who represent a disproportionate number of voucher-holders.

“The delay of this rule will have a segregative effect, denying these primarily African-American families who would want to move out of their neighborhoods the chance to do so,” said Ajmel Quereshi, a senior counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit. “This case is about more than just housing. Of course they hope to live in a higher-quality residences, but it’s really about people who want to move to better and safer neighborhoods but they can’t because of the value of their voucher. It’s about schools and transportation and doctor visits and grocery stores that people want to be able to access to support their families.”

One such voucher recipient is Crystal Carter, an African-American woman living in Hartford, Connecticut, and a plaintiff in the suit. Carter had been looking forward to January, so that she could finally move herself and her five children out of their low-income neighborhood into a safer, nearby suburb.

The Small Area Fair Market Rent rule would, in effect, make housing vouchers worth more in more affluent areas, and worth less in poorer communities. As it stands now, most voucher recipients like Carter can’t afford to move into nicer  neighborhoods because their subsidy isn’t large enough to cover rent.  Landlords in segregated neighborhoods can, in turn, price gouge their voucher-holding tenants, who have little choice but to pay up.

The lawsuit — brought by attorneys with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Public Citizen, and Relman, Dane and Colfax — argues that HUD’s failure to implement the Small Area rule violates the Administrative Procedures Act, the statute which governs how federal agencies propose and implement regulations. The attorneys have called on the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia to temporarily and permanently enjoin the suspension of the rule.

This lawsuit is the latest in a series filed over the past nine months against the Trump administration for violating the act. When Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency rescinded a rule requiring dental offices to reduce the amount of mercury they discharged into the environment, anadvocacy group sued, arguing that the EPA violated the Administrative Procedures Act by failing to provide sufficient notice or opportunity for public comment. (The EPA has since reinstated the rule.) When 19 Democratic state attorneys general sued the Department of Education in July forindefinitely delaying rules that would provide increased protection for student loan borrowers, they argued that the department violated the Administrative Procedures Act, again failing to give sufficient notice and time for comment.

“So much about this administration’s violation of norms is about pushing the envelope, seeing how much they can get away with before the courts step in,” said Megan Haberle, a Poverty Race and Research Action Council attorney involved with the new HUD lawsuit.

The new lawsuit was borne out of an earlier HUD case, filed in 2007 by the Inclusive Communities Project, a Texas-based fair housing organization. The group challenged HUD’s policy of setting a single fair market rent for the 12-county Dallas metropolitan region, alleging that its formula violated the Fair Housing Act by effectively steering black renters away from predominantly white areas, and confining them into poorer, segregated ones. The lawsuit was settled in 2010, with HUD agreeing to institute fair market rents at the ZIP-code level in Dallas. In 2014, researchers published an independent study of Dallas’s experiment with ZIP-code level rent subsidies, finding that the new policy enabled many low-income voucher holders to move into more affluent communities and at no net-cost to the government.

Fair housing advocates who wanted to see the Small Area rule expanded beyond Dallas kept up pressure on HUD to revamp its policies across the board. The federal housing agency eventually responded by launching a pilot study in 2012, testing the policy in five states. By 2016, HUD had collected enough data to determine that voucher recipients’ average neighborhood poverty level decreased after switching to Small Area Fair Market Rents and that the moves were relatively cost-effective.

On November 16, 2016, HUD published its final rule requiring 187 public housing authorities across 24 metropolitan regions to adopt Small Area Fair Market Rents. The metro regions — selected for their degree of voucher concentration and their housing vacancy rates — were given until January 1, 2018, to implement the new ZIP-code-level formula.

Advocates were incensed when the Trump administration pulled the plug a little over two months ago, without offering clear explanation why.

“HUD is required by law to go through a process that opens what it’s doing to public comment, to be transparent, and they’ve shirked that obligation very clearly,” said Haberle, the Poverty Race and Research Action Council attorney. “As far as is there a speculative rationale here even if HUD isn’t articulating it? No.”

Haberle emphasized that HUD’s rule drafting process was painstaking, beginning with the Dallas lawsuit, the pilot studies and their evaluations, and many stakeholder consultations thereafter. Moreover, four days after HUD announced it would be delaying the rule, it released its interim pilot report, finding that the Small Area rule was working largely as expected.

The Small Area rule has been opposed by housing industry groups such as the National Association of Home Builders, the National Apartment Association, and the National Multifamily Housing Council. The National Association of Home Builders applauded the Trump administration’s suspension of the rule, which they had urged Carson to rescind in a private June meeting.

Under the Fair Housing Act of 1968, HUD carries an affirmative obligation to reduce racial segregation in federal housing programs. As HUD made clear in 2015, this means it must take proactive steps to “overcome the legacy of segregation, unequal treatment, and historic lack of opportunity in housing.”

“Violations in every Administrative Procedures Act case sound so boring, but this lawsuit is significant not only because it challenges the way the Trump administration tries to break the law, but also because of what’s actually at stake for the people who were counting on access to these vouchers,” said Allison Zieve, an attorney with Public Citizen. “This will have a concrete effect on real people who were counting on this.”

The Hopes and Fears Around Ben Carson’s Favorite Public Housing Program

Originally published in CityLab on April 21, 2017.

When Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren asked Ben Carson what he would do as HUD secretary to address the condition of U.S. public housing, Carson enthusiastically singled out one program for praise—the Rental Assistance Demonstration program (RAD), a five-year-old federal initiative that has gone largely under the radar. He said he’s “very encouraged” by RAD’s early results, and “looks forward to working with Congress to expand this worthy program.”

RAD works by transferring public housing units to the private sector, so that developers and housing authorities can tap into a broader range of subsidies and financing tools to rehab and manage the units. Given Congress’s refusal to adequately fund public housing and the billions of dollars needed for backlogged repairs, supporters say RAD is the best available option to preserve the affordable units, lest they become too uninhabitable for anyone to live in at all.

Roughly 60,000 public housing units have been converted to project-based Section 8 rentals through RAD since its launch in 2012, and Congress has authorized 185,000 units to be converted in total. Technically, all public housing tenants should be able to return to the private units if they want to, though housing advocates fear the RAD statute has loopholes that could prevent this goal from coming true.

It’s little surprise that RAD—a revenue-neutral program that leverages the private sector—might appeal to leaders like Carson. RAD has garnered strong bipartisan support among Republican and Democratic legislators alike, and many expect its congressional cap to be lifted altogether in the coming years, potentially setting the stage for a radical change to much of the nation’s public housing.

But there are housing advocates concerned about how fast RAD is moving, and they warn that oversight and transparency remain mixed at best. For some tenants, the conversions have been a nightmare.

Katrina Jones, a single mother of three, had been living in public housing for a decade when she learned that her subsidized building in Hopewell, Virginia, would be razed through RAD, and new affordable apartments would be built in its place. Jones, who has one daughter confined to a wheelchair, was thrilled by the prospect of long-overdue housing repairs and upgrades for her 1960s-era building.

However, according to HUD complaints filed in December, the Hopewell housing authority and the nonprofit RAD developer refused to make accommodations for Jones and her family, convincing her to take a tenant buy-out. At the time, Jones’ son was facing criminal charges (which were later dropped), and she needed money to pay his attorney fees. Jones says the housing authority knew about her son’s situation, and pressured her to take the money and leave., half of which went towards paying attorney fees to defend her son against criminal charges that were later dropped. Jones says the housing authority knew about her son’s situation, and pressured her to take the money and leave.

Jones now works at WalMart and pays $1,450 per month for an accessible unit in Chester, Virginia; her public housing rent had been $400 a month. “I’m living a whole new life right now where I’m struggling more every single day just to keep my current apartment,” she says. “These people don’t care what happens to you once you’re out.”

Jones is one of a dozen former tenants named in complaints recently filed by Virginia legal aid lawyers who say the Hopewell RAD conversions violated a wide range of federal laws and regulations—including unlawful threats of eviction and discrimination against families with children and the disabled. HUD is investigating the allegations, but tenant advocates say the problems documented in Hopewell reflect larger accountability issues related to the program.

It’s not just in Virginia. John Kelly, a 74-year-old tenant living in public housing in San Francisco, is currently under threat of eviction for not signing the lease of his building’s new RAD landlord, the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (TNDC). Kelly, who has been reaching out to housing nonprofits and HUD for the past six months, says the lease he’s being asked to sign is “illegal, dishonest, unconscionable.”

Kelly describes himself as “not a big fan” of government, and he thinks private organizations could do a better job of managing his building than the San Francisco housing authority. But his experience dealing with RAD, he says, has been terrible.

Terry Bagby, a 58-year-old veteran who also lives in Kelly’s building, agrees it’s been extremely stressful. “A lot of our questions go unanswered by all these different agencies that come and have meetings with us,” he says. “I’m surprised I haven’t had another heart attack or stroke dealing with all this nonsense. I’d move out of this city in a heartbeat if I could.”

TNDC did not return multiple requests for comment, but Sarah Sherburn-Zimmer, executive director of the San Francisco-based Housing Rights Committee, says local groups have been working closely with the city to monitor RAD conversions. Some developers have been responsible, she says; with others it’s been more of a struggle.

“Tenants are distrustful, for real reasons,” says Sherburn-Zimmer, referring to the city’s history of displacement and eviction. “You definitely get some agencies who have young workers, new to town, who tell tenants everything is going to be great. Tenants aren’t stupid; they want everything in writing.”

Whether these are isolated incidents or signs that RAD portends greater risks for tenants in the future is not yet clear. The serious shortcomings of earlier housing programs like HOPE VI and Section 236 loom large. Both Bagby and Kelly expressed fears that their city’s commitment to low-income housing will eventually disappear.

Kim Rolla, a lawyer who helped file the Hopewell complaint, says she and her colleagues got a lot of pushback from other affordable housing advocates after contacting the media about HUD’s investigation. “It was the same week that the budget cuts were announced, and they said, ‘Why would you criticize this HUD program right now?’”

Jessica Casella, a staff attorney with the National Housing Law Project, says that Hopewell is the most egregious complaint she’s heard of, but her organization has documented many kinds of tenant RAD issues over the past few years. She also admits there are many places where nobody really knows how these conversions are going. “One of our major concerns is the level and quality of oversight by HUD,” says Casella. “I think HUD has put its emphasis on getting properties to closing, and much less effort in making sure that after deals are finalized, the transitions go smoothly.”

Transparency around RAD has also been a challenge for advocates, academics, and reporters. Rolla says she and her colleagues faced serious difficulty accessing basic information about the Hopewell RAD deal—and their request to have hundreds of dollars in FOIA fees waived was denied on the grounds that such disclosures were “not in the public interest.”

Tom Davis, the director of HUD’s Office of Recapitalization, which oversees RAD, says his agency is trying to make RAD “the gold standard in terms of protections of residents,” noting that it has far more rules and regulations for tenant treatment than almost any other federal housing program. Davis says there’s also been a lot of work over the last 18 months to upgrade the procedures related to how HUD monitors properties post-conversion, including proactively reaching out to public housing authorities to ensure there are no issues.

“I think if there are any agencies out there meant to protect us, they’re not funded that well,” said Terry Bagby, wearily. “They probably don’t have a lot of people working on their staff, and are underpaid.”

Going forward, as HUD continues investigating Hopewell, advocates hope to make sure that the federal housing agency’s commitment to RAD oversight doesn’t waver.

Ben Carson, the GOP, and Subsidized Housing

Originally published in T’he American Prospect on December 16, 2016.
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Last week, Ben Carson, Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, gave a talk at Yale University. He told students that the rumors that he planned to end housing programs for the poor are “a bunch of crap” and there is “no way” he’d ever do that. But housing advocates shouldn’t relax just yet. Even if Carson and Trump decide not to axe entire programs, they could still implement policies that create all sorts of new hardships for the millions of low-income people who live in public housing and use federally subsidized housing vouchers.

Trump would not be the first president to go after federal benefits for the poor. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which dramatically upended welfare in the United States. The law mandated two significant changes: the imposition of time limits for cash assistance, and the requirement that welfare recipients seek employment.

The welfare reforms of the 1990s have decimated low-income families. Over the past two decades, the number of families living in extreme poverty increased by 159 percent, while the number of families receiving cash assistance plummeted. Though more single mothers entered the workforce, the low-wage jobs they managed to find did little to alleviate their poverty. Moreover, when the economy tanked during the Great Recession, roughly one-fifth of all poor single mothers could neither find work nor access welfare. In 2015, researchers Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer wrote that more than a million U.S. households with roughly three million children survive on less than $2 per day.

Carson, the retired neurosurgeon and failed GOP presidential contender who recently said that he felt unqualified to lead any federal agency, is likely to rely on congressional Republicans who have long sought to adapt Clinton’s welfare reforms to federal housing policy.   

In mid-November, Representative Jeb Hensarling, the Texas Republican who chairs the Financial Services Committee that oversees HUD, spoke at the Exchequer Club in Washington, D.C., and said the federal housing agency “symbolizes the left’s top-down, command and control, centralized planning approach” that measures compassion for the poor “based on how many programs Washington creates” and how much money it spends. He vowed to switch gears, and “bring new ideas to the table” to fight poverty.

Indeed, shortly afterward, in Dallas, he told the J. Ronald Terwilliger Foundation for Housing America’s Families forum that Republicans would “turn the page” on housing come January. “The new Congress will help lift the poor onto the ladder of opportunity by attacking poverty at its roots, starting with work,” Hensarling said. “We will reform our housing programs for the poor to reflect the value of work.”

He added that HUD rental assistance programs, such as Section 8 vouchers and public housing, while they may be helpful, “do not promote economic freedom” and actually stand in the way of upward mobility. He promised to align housing benefits with cash assistance for “work-capable” recipients in order to “encourage” individuals to move towards jobs, careers, and economic independence.

House Speaker Paul Ryan also endorsed these ideas in his “Better Way” policy agenda, released in June. He said the federal government should “expect work-capable adults to work or prepare for work” in exchange for welfare benefits. He also called for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits to align with housing assistance.

These conservative proposals would have a devastating impact on people who are unable to meet work-for-benefits requirements. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, more than half of all recipients who lived in federally subsidized housing in 2015 were elderly or disabled, and more than a quarter of all households had a working adult. Six percent had a preschool-aged child, or a disabled child or adult.

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While CBPP says there’s little evidence available on the effectiveness of work requirements in federal housing programs, there’s ample data to show that cash assistance work requirements have done little to increase employment over the long-term, and have even sunk families into deeper, more severe poverty. This is critical to note given the significant barriers low-income individuals face to accessing stable jobs. As CityLab’s Brentin Mock found, workplace racial discrimination, employment penalties associated with incarceration, entry-level jobs that go to college graduates, and increased automation have all made it even harder for the poor to lock down steady employment.

As Jared Bernstein, a CBPP senior fellow, told The Atlantic: “I cannot overemphasize the importance of this fundamental flaw in poverty policy, i.e, the assumption that there is an ample supply of perfectly good jobs out there that poor people could tap if they just wanted to do so.”

Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coaltion, took to Twitter last week to push back on Paul Ryan’s proposal to impose work requirements on public housing residents and federal voucher recipients. She urged the House speaker to invest his energy in devising strategies to make housing more affordable for low-income people. Only one out of four eligible low-income renter households even receive federal housing assistance, Yentel noted, and it’s those unassisted families in particular who are “one illness, job loss, or paycheck away” from homelessness.

Congressional Republicans’ interest in imposing work requirements and time limits on federal housing subsidies fit in well with the conservative rhetoric that Ben Carson has spewed over the past several years. During his presidential run, Carson insisted that welfare programs create cultures of dependency, harm poor families, and even “reward” people for having babies out of wedlock. Some have suggested that Carson’s lack of policy experience could mean he’d bring fresh blood and a “blank slate” to the housing agency. That’s doubtful. His dangerous ideas about welfare and work are already deeply ingrained, and, unfortunately, poised for prime time.

When the Poor Move, Do They Move Up?

Originally published in The American Prospect on April 6, 2016.
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When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April of 1968, the bill that would become the federal Fair Housing Act was at risk of stalling in Congress. King’s assassination, and the nationwide civil disturbances that ensued, helped the Act sail through the legislative process. Lyndon Johnson signed the bill into law just two weeks later; today, in recognition of these transformative events, April has been designated National Fair Housing Month.

But the battle over the underlying aims of fair housing remains unfinished. Walter Mondale, one the Fair Housing Act’s primary sponsors, declared its objective to be the creation of “truly integrated and balanced living patterns,” and federal courts have interpreted that phrase to indicate that the elimination of racial segregation is a key aim of the 1968 law. Yet, 48 years later, the federal government still does very little to incentivize racially and economically integrated neighborhoods—chiefly because of the political peril involved, but also because scholars and housing experts have failed to resolve whether promoting integrated neighborhoods would even be desirable or beneficial. A wave of new research, however, is helping to settle the experts’ debate, and may pave the way to fulfilling the Fair Housing Act’s original promise.

Eric Chyn, an economist at the University of Michigan, recently published a housing mobility study that takes a long-term look at children who were forced out of Chicago’s public housing projects in the 1990s. Three years after their homes were demolished, the displaced families lived in neighborhoods with 25 percent lower poverty and 23 percent less violent crime than those who stayed put. Chyn finds that children who were forced to move were 9 percent more likely to be employed as adults than those who remained in public housing, and had 16 percent higher annual earnings. He suggests this could be partly due to the fact that displaced children had fewer criminal arrests in the long run and were exposed to less violence growing up than their non-displaced peers.

His study provides stronger evidence for the idea that moving to higher-opportunity neighborhoods is beneficial for the poor. In particular, Chyn’s study addresses an issue that housing policy researchers have been grappling with since the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) initiative—a large-scale experiment that involved moving randomly assigned families out of high poverty neighborhoods into census-tracts with less than 10 percent poverty. The experiment, which ran from 1994-1998, was devised to see if moving families improved their life outcomes. While relocation substantially lowered parents’ rates of depression and stress levels, MTO did not significantly improve their financial situation. However, researchers found that children who moved under the age of 13 were more likely to attend college and earned significantly more than similar adults who never moved.

Social scientists were left to question why the positive effects of relocation only seemed to appear for younger children. They also wondered whether the families that moved through MTO—all of whom voluntarily applied for vouchers in a lottery—shared characteristics that families who never applied lacked. Just a quarter of all families eligible to move through MTO applied for vouchers, and perhaps the experiment had some selection bias, effectively skewing the results.

By looking at Chicago’s public housing demolitions, Chyn was able to study the impact of moving on all families forced to relocate, not just those who volunteered to do so. Within this less select grouping, he finds that all children, including those who moved past the age of 13, experienced labor market gains as adults. This finding helps to reconcile some tensions in the neighborhood effects literature and suggests that MTO’s findings may be less reliable than previously understood.

Chyn concludes that his paper “demonstrates that relocation of low-income families from distressed public housing has substantial benefits for both children (of any age) and government expenditures.” Based on his results, Chyn suggests that moving a child out of public housing by using a standard housing voucher would increase the lifetime earnings of that child by about $45,000. He also argues that this policy would “yield a net gain for government budgets” since housing vouchers and moving costs are similar to project-based housing assistance.

But Chyn’s study—which focuses on Chicago’s projects in the 1990s—does not tell the whole story. In particular, it tells us little about what would happen if we involuntarily moved families out of public housing to racially segregated, slightly less impoverished neighborhoods today.

A series of economic trends and public policies significantly aided the poor during the 1990s—trends and policies that are nowhere in evidence today. As Paul Jargowsky, the director of the Center for Urban Research and Urban Education at Rutgers, has shown, in the ‘90s, the Earned Income Tax Credit was just being implemented, the minimum wage was increased, and unemployment dropped to 4 percent for a sustained number of years, which lead to real wage increases. The number of people living in high poverty neighborhoods between 1990 and 2000 dropped by 25 percent—from 9.6 million to 7.2 million.

“This [Chyn article] is a nicely designed study, but if you want to understand it, you have to understand everything else that was going on during that time period,” says Patrick Sharkey, an NYU sociologist who studies neighborhoods and mobility. Sharkey buys the finding that in this particular context, a forcible move may have actually helped kids growing up in Chicago in the 1990s, but he says to extrapolate those findings even to the current situation in Chicago, let alone other cities, would be a mistake. Chicago’s public housing during that period was widely recognized as the most violent, and troubled, in the entire country.

In an interview, Chyn says he agrees that Chicago “has some particular features that may limit how we can generalize” his findings, and acknowledges that the city’s public housing in the 1990s “was a particularly disadvantaged system.” He says that his results would best inform policy in other cities that have “high-rise, very dense, particularly disadvantaged public housing.”

Whatever its limitations, Chyn’s study adds to a substantial body of research on the effects that neighborhoods have on the children who grow up in them and their families. Given that most families with vouchers moved to neighborhoods that were only slightly less poor and segregated than the ones they’d left, there is reason to suspect that the labor market gains observed in both Chyn’s study and MTO represent just the lower bound of potential mobility benefits.

For example, 56 percent of displaced families in Chyn’s study still wound up in neighborhoods with extreme poverty, meaning census tracts with poverty levels that exceed 40 percent. The rest, nearly 44 percent of those displaced, moved to neighborhoods that were, on average, 28 percent impoverished—a poverty rate lower than the others, but still roughly twice the national average.

The fact that those who moved did better is not grounds to conclude that they are doing well. The average adult-age annual earnings for Chyn’s sample of displaced children was only about $4,315, compared to $3,713 for non-displaced children. (These numbers factor in the incomes of those who are unemployed.) Displaced children with at least some labor income as adults earned $9,437 on average, compared to $8,850 for non-displaced children.

In other words, while the labor prospects and earnings have improved for those who moved as children, they still remain quite poor.

Writing in The New York Times, Justin Wolfers, an economist, and one of Chyn’s thesis advisers, said these findings“could fundamentally reshape housing policy.” At minimum, they reinforce the growing body of evidence that suggests people who move into lower-poverty, racially integrated neighborhoods do better on a variety of social indicators than those who live in high-poverty, racially segregated ones. If our housing policy moves in a more integrative direction, that would be a fundamental shift.

Both Chyn and Raj Chetty, the lead researcher on long-term labor outcomes for children in MTO, have touted the cost-savings potential of moving families with standard housing vouchers. More important than these savings, though, is the question of whether these findings could spur a new commitment to integrative housing.

We know, based on research from sociologists like Sharkey, Stefanie DeLuca, and others, that poor, minority families are unlikely to relocate to whiter, more affluent neighborhoods without serious housing counseling and support. This kind of mobility assistance requires time and money—which the federal government currently does little to promote.

Over the past decade and a half, there has been a steep increase in the number of high-poverty neighborhoods—whose populations nearly doubled from 7.2 million in 2000 to 13.8 million by 2015. As Jargowsky has shown, this increase began well before the start of the Great Recession, and the fastest growth in the black concentration of poverty has been in metropolitan areas with 500,000 to 1 million people, not in the country’s largest cities.

Researchers are still exploring if it’s possible to improve the life outcomes of families that live in racially segregated, high-poverty neighborhoods through investments in those neighborhoods. For now, the evidence suggests that such investments are much less effective than mobility and integration (though, as DeLuca has noted, many such experiments have been underfunded or poorly designed). Chyn’s auspicious findings, released just in time for National Fair Housing Month, bolster the idea that moving families to neighborhoods with greater opportunity could significantly help the poor.

 

Details Emerge for Baltimore’s Plan to Privatize Public Housing

Originally published in The American Prospect’s Tapped blog on September 9th, 2015.
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A little over a year ago I reported on the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD)—the federal government’s new plan to preserve public housing by turning units over to the control of private developers. Instead of Congress supporting public housing through direct subsidies to local housing authorities—a responsibility which they’ve persistently shirked for decades—RAD would enable private companies to rehab and manage public housing units in exchange for tax credits and subsidies. Developers would have to keep rents low, and their contracts would continually renew to prevent companies from turning affordable units into market-rate rentals.

Baltimore residents learned last summer that their city would be converting 40 percent of its public housing stock through RAD, but up until this weekend little was known about how exactly developers would be subsidized. On Saturday, Sun journalist Luke Broadwater shed some light, reporting that the city will issue tax breaks worth millions of dollars, and will sell its public housing complexes “for far less than their state-assessed value.” The nearly $100 million collected from the sales will be invested back into the city’s remaining public housing stock.

Through public record requests, Broadwater found that ten developers will be excused from paying $1.7 million in local taxes per year for at least the next 20 years. In addition to city tax breaks, each developer who buys a public housing complex will also receive millions of dollars from the federal government, through federal tax credits and “developer fees.”

Baltimore is one of the first cities to finalize its deals under RAD, and community members have mixed feelings about how officials pushed forward with the program. Housing advocates, tenants, and union workers have led protests, raising concerns of public housing loss, resident displacement, and middle-class job cuts. In general, the city has not been forthcoming with concrete details to assuage anxieties.

As Broadwater reports, Baltimore’s Board of Estimates approved the tax breaks—“without details publicly revealed or debated” in April by a 4-1 vote. Baltimore’s mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, controls three of the five board seats. The city comptroller and the city council president hold the other two.

The city council president, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, voted against the tax breaks, citing his general opposition to privatizing public housing. He also worried about the possibility of losing hundreds of public sector union jobs through RAD conversions, like maintenance workers and building monitors.

Carl Stokes, a local councilman, said he’s supportive of the deal because at least the incentives will support low-income people living in buildings that desperately need maintenance and repair. Baltimore has a history of awarding tax breaks to build flashy waterfront developments and tourist attractions.

Nationally, HUD Secretary Julian Castro has called RAD “the answer” to housing issues in many struggling communities. While Congress has so far approved just 185,000 public housing units to be transferred to the control of public developers—out of a total of 1.2 million units—public housing authorities, real estate companies, and other stakeholders have been lobbying Congress to lift the program’s cap. California Congresswoman Maxine Waters sent a letter to President Obama in December urging him to directly fund public housing rather than depend on private developers to save the units. “Put simply,” she said, “if the price of accessing private capital is to put public ownership at risk, then that price is too high.”

As Baltimore’s situation suggests, it might be cheaper for Congress to just increase direct funding for public housing, rather than rely on a costly mix of tax breaks, subsidies, and developer fees. Yet such a move is doubtful to happen any time soon. But while RAD appears to be the most likely way officials aim to preserve crumbling units in the near future, even the most optimistic experts cannot guarantee that it will protect the nation’s public housing units over the long-term.

Will Handing Public Housing Projects to Private Developers Hurt the Poor?

Originally published in Pacific Standard on February 6th 2015.
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On a Wednesday night in early January, 21-year-old Ronald Hunter Jr.—a homeless and mentally ill man living in Buffalo, New York—froze to death. The overnight temperature hit two degrees, but with the fierce wind that night, it felt more like 20 below zero. The medical examiner’s autopsy confirmed that hypothermia killed Hunter. His story is not atypical; homeless people from across the country died last winter from freezing temperatures.

Tragedies like these, especially in the dead of winter, bring the lack of decent and affordable housing into sharp relief. Walk through the streets of any major city (and, increasingly, many suburbs) and you’ll likely see clusters of homeless people huddled under blankets, under folded cardboard boxes, sleeping on sidewalks, on top of park benches. A report released this past fall by the National Center on Family Homelessness estimated that one in 30 American children are now homeless—a record phenomenon attributed to the rising number of families living in poverty, a dearth of affordable housing, and the consequences of widespread domestic violence.

But beyond homelessness, there are other serious, less visible, and less well-understood housing problems with which millions of Americans regularly struggle. The Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard found that, in 2012, more than four-fifths of those earning $15,000 annually—roughly how much a full-time worker makes at the federal minimum wage—spent more than 30 percent of their income on housing; two-thirds paid more than 50 percent. With stagnant wages, the financial burden weighs heavily on the middle class too, and is trending upwards.

The housing policy world has a term it uses to refer to the millions of people living in precarious, overcrowded, and unsafe conditions: “housing insecure.” It’s an apt, yet nebulous way to characterize all those who worry about their long-term access to safe shelter. These people aren’t homeless, but they’re vulnerable—often one emergency or missed paycheck away from eviction. Their day-to-day plight, however, is less apparent to the public.

Most people do not get the help they need. Due to high demand, federal housing assistance serves just a quarter of all eligible households. With few vouchers and interminably long waiting lists, more than 2.2 million people rely on public housing to help them get by. But despite the growing need, the federal government has been moving further away from the idea of a state-run public housing system.

Through a new program known as Rental Assistance Demonstration, existing public housing units are slated to be “converted” into something that looks more like the Section 8 voucher program, under which tenants live in privately owned or managed units that are publicly subsidized. Congressional funding for public housing has declined over the years, as support for the program fell and the deteriorating units became more difficult to properly maintain. Consequently, more than 260,000 affordable units have been demolished or removed from the public housing program since the mid-1990s and 10,000 additional units are lost each year because they fail to meet acceptable health and safety standards. Many of these people are forced to double up with family or take to shelters and the streets.

Now with the potential to bring in copious amounts of new funding from private companies, Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro has dubbed RAD “the answer” to housing issues in many struggling communities.

                                                               

But the long-term consequences of RAD are not yet known. When Congress authorized the demonstration program in 2012, 60,000 public housing units were approved for transfer to private developers—just five percent of the nation’s public housing stock. These developers are incentivized to rehab and manage the units in exchange for tax credits and subsidies, codified within contracts that last for 15-20 years. Yet since its original passage, HUD and a coalition of public housing authorities, developers, and other stakeholders have been lobbying the government to lift the demonstration cap beyond the 60,000 units so that any and all public housing authorities can access these new private funding streams.

Their efforts are succeeding. Included in the $1.1 trillion spending bill that Congress passed in December was a provision to raise the RAD cap from 60,000 units to 185,000 units, or essentially every project sitting on the waiting list.

Not everyone is thrilled about how fast things are moving. Many housing advocates and civil rights lawyers worry that the program will fail to ensure long-term affordability and safeguard tenant protections. Their concerns are warranted: In the past, when the government has relied on private capital to fund low-income housing, many affordable units were turned into market-rate rentals once the developers paid off their 30-year mortgages. And in earlier efforts to rehab buildings through public-private partnerships, thousands of public housing units were destroyed without ever being replaced.

California Democratic Representative Maxine Waters, the ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee, sent a letter to President Obama asking him to reconsider RAD. She urged him to allocate more direct federal subsidies to public housing authorities, rather than relying on private developers to salvage the program. “Put simply,” she wrote, “if the price of accessing private capital is to put public ownership at risk, then that price is too high.”

James Hanlon, the director of the Institute for Urban Research at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville and a longtime public housing researcher, has been poring through HUD data to try and figure out if there’s any pattern in the line-up of specific housing projects selected for conversion, or if there are any shared characteristics among the housing authorities that have opted to participate. Hanlon notes that although the private sector has been used to fund affordable housing since the 1970s, RAD is unique in its aim to actually preserve the original units. Previous experiments have promoted demolishing aging housing rather than repairing the old units.

Private financing strategies for public housing are also spreading to cities not formally associated with RAD. New York City’s public housing authority, which lacks billions of dollars in needed capital funds, recently finalized a deal to grant private developers a 50 percent stake in nearly 900 public housing apartments across the city. It also plans to create a non-profit to solicit hundreds of millions of dollars in tax-deductible donations from the private sector.

                                                                

While experts and activists have mixed feelings about RAD, the new federal spending bill also included a significant policy win that everyone who works on affordable housing seems to be excited about. The government finally voted to authorize dedicated funding for the National Housing Trust Fund—an entity established in 2008 to provide annual dollars for building and preserving affordable housing.

However, in its current form, this is unlikely to help revive the flailing public housing program; HUD’s working rule stipulates that Housing Trust Fund revenue can only be used to fund affordable housing that is not considered traditional public housing, unless it’s through the RAD program.

But for those who hope to see Congress allocate more funds to traditional public housing, the most likely way is through the passage of Representative Keith Ellison’s Common Sense Housing Investment Act. This bill would raise a lot of new money by reforming the mortgage interest deduction—a tax break that primarily benefits wealthy homeowners. By changing the deduction into a tax credit, more low- and middle-income homeowners would be eligible for tax relief, and high-income homeowners would pay more. The plan is estimated to raise about $200 billion over 10 years. Importantly, some of this new revenue would be directed into the public housing capital fund; the legislation would also revise HUD’s rule to make traditional public housing eligible to receive Housing Trust Fund dollars.

With Congressional deadlock however, this reality is a long way off. For now, one can expect developers and housing authorities to continue striking private-public deals, with variable levels of transparency and oversight.

It wouldn’t be the first time the government, in a rush to do something, expanded a housing program rather hastily. “Hope VI, a public housing redevelopment program in the 1990s and 2000s, began as a demonstration project that had terrible oversight, assessments, and evaluations early on,” Hanlon says. “I think that there needs to be much more judicious forward movement for RAD because many of its implications are not well understood and won’t be felt for a long time.”

Perhaps RAD will turn out to be the housing panacea millions of people have been waiting for. Or maybe it will lead, once again, to the loss of affordable housing units and tenant displacement.

In this moment of doubt, hope, and desperation, “housing insecurity” just about sums it up.

‘Housing First’ Policy for Addressing Homelessness Hamstrung By Funding Issues

Originally published in The American Prospect on January 27, 2015.
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In an era of shrinking financial resources, policymakers, providers, and activists who work on homelessness prevention and care in the United States have been forced to develop new strategies. There was a time when officials at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) saw it as their responsibility to provide both housing and supportive services for homeless individuals, but now HUD now is refocusing its budget predominately on rent and housing—with the hope that other local, state, and federal agencies will play a greater role in providing supportive care. However, whether other organizations will actually be able to pick up those costs and responsibilities remains unclear.

The first major federal legislative response to homelessness was the McKinney-Vento Act of 1987, which passed both the House and Senate with large bipartisan majorities. The McKinney Act—which Bill Clinton later renamed the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act—provided funds not only for emergency shelter, transitional housing, and permanent housing, but also for job training, primary health care, mental health care, drug and alcohol treatment, education programs, and other supportive services. The consensus was that homelessness is a complex problem whose solution requires more than simply a roof and a bed.

The statutory goal of the McKinney Act was to gradually move homeless people toward stable housing and independence—a model that came to be known as “Housing Readiness.” Though this sprung from well-meaning intentions, it eventually became clear that this “gradual” approach frequently led to unwise and unfair ways of distributing welfare.

“We had this system that said homeless people essentially have to earn their way to permanent housing,” explained Ed Stellon, the senior director of the Midwest Harm Reduction Institute, and someone who has worked within the substance use and mental health treatment systems for more than 20 years. “Homeless people had to earn their way into transitional housing, make progress on certain goals, and finally when they were deemed well enough, they would earn their spot in permanent housing.”

A different model, known as “Housing First”, has been gaining steam over the past decade. What at first sounded revolutionary now feels fairly obvious: The Housing First approach posits that the only requirement for housing should be homelessness—that shelter is a right, not a privilege. “Plus, if you have conditions like out-of-control diabetes, congestive heart failure, or schizophrenia, housing is actually part of the solution,” adds Stellon. “It’s hard to make any meaningful progress on these chronic conditions without stable housing.”

Though exact estimates are hard to come by, HUD recently reported that as of January 2014, the chronically homeless numbered some 84,291, with 63 percent of those individuals living on the streets. HUD says this number has declined by 21 percent, or 22,937 persons, since 2010—in large part because of the embrace of Housing First. (Some, however, have accused the federal government of using data gimmicks to paint a more cheery picture of progress than has actually been made.)

Nevertheless, the reality is that at the same time policymakers are embracing the idea of Housing First, fewer affordable housing units exist than ever before. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, federal support for low-income housing has fallen 49 percent between 1980 and 2003, and the Joint Center for Housing Studies found about 200,000 rental units are destroyed annually. Research also suggests that a supply of 8.2 million more units would be needed to house extremely low-income households, up from a gap of 5.2 million a decade earlier. Though Congress recently authorized funding for the National Housing Trust Fund—an entity that was created in 2008 to fund affordable housing proects—its budget is nowhere near large enough to meet the demand.

“We’re not doing enough to expand housing availability, and HUD can’t expand its services unless Congress allocates it more funding,” says Barbara DiPietro, the director of policy for the National Health Care for the Homeless Council.

Given the fiscal climate, HUD is looking for new ways to spend its increasingly limited budget. Consequently, the agency is moving away from the supportive services that, through the McKinney-Vento Act, once accounted for most of its spending. In 1998, for instance, 55 percent of HUD’s budget was spent on supportive services, and 45 percent was awarded for housing. By 2013, just 26 percent of HUD’s competitive homeless assistance funds went to supportive services, and 66 percent was spent on housing. According to Ann Oliva, director of HUD’s Office of Special Needs Assistance Programs, the department’s goal now is to help local communities become more strategic with existing resources and available opportunities.

To do this, HUD has been working closely with other federal agencies, especially the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. In 2008, a joint program known as HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) launched, combining housing vouchers for homeless veterans provided by HUD, with case management and clinical services provided by the V.A. Experts agree that HUD-VASH has been quite successful in helping both vets and their families, and it’s typically held up as the poster child for future interagency collaborative efforts. However, the program came with additional appropriated dollars, and it is typically easier to convince Congress to fund programs for impoverished military veterans compared to other downtrodden groups.

One of the most significant recent changes to homelessness policy has come through the expansion of Medicaid—a key feature of the Affordable Care Act. Now that nearly all individuals with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for health insurance in states that opt for the expansion, agencies are scrambling to enroll thousands of homeless people so that they may benefit from new streams of mandatory government spending.

But Medicaid is, at its heart, a program controlled by the states. And with some states still vigorously opposed to expanding Medicaid—despite the ACA’s mandate for the federal government to pick up nearly all of the tab for the expansion—let alone some of the flexible legislative adaptations that HHS is encouraging, consistent and widespread changes to supportive services seem unlikely in the near future.

Though Medicaid expansion presents great opportunities for providing services to the homeless, some are concerned that the more flexible federal dollars currently set aside to work with homeless people will eventually just be funneled into the larger health insurance pool, with little, if any, allocated to doing what it takes to bring those with no homes into the government support system, which is needed in order to provide preventive care.

“Going out four or five times to visit with a woman living alone under a bridge, just trying to form a relationship and build trust with her so she will feel comfortable coming in to get more help—those types of health encounters are not typically billable through health insurance,” adds Stellon, who says outreach can be one of the hardest things for him to fund. “In our current system, it’s easier to pay for someone’s amputated fingers than to build a human relationship.”

Ultimately, there is only so much the government can do to advance the goal of Housing First with a depleting stock of housing units and a shrinking budget for supportive services.

“It’s a big mistake to come up with a good solution like Housing First and then to hamstring it because we don’t actually have the money for it,” says Todd Stull, the clinical director at a JOURNEYS | The Road Home, an organization that provides services and shelter to families and individuals in Illinois’s North and Northwest suburban Cook County. “One of the worst things you can do is get someone into housing for a short period of time and then they lose it. Then they lose trust in the providers.”

“We have not done well as a nation taking on poverty and implementing policies needed to address homelessness,” says Dr. Sam Tsemberis, the founder and CEO of Pathways to Housing, a national organization that first pioneered the Housing First model in 1992. “So we end up taking care of homelessness out of desperation, but we’ll be taking care of homelessness forever if we don’t take care of poverty.”

“We need more money,” adds DiPietro. “Until then, we’re just rearranging the priority list.”