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.

Why Subsidizing Teacher Housing with Tax Credits Is Bad Policy

Originally published in The American Prospect on October 24, 2016.
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Late last month California Governor Jerry Brown signed the Teacher Housing Act of 2016—a bill (as its preamble states) that will “facilitate the acquisition, construction, rehabilitation, and preservation of affordable housing restricted to teachers and school district employees.” Critically, the legislation allows California to use its federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) to finance teacher housing—making it the first state in the country to do so.

The law has been sold as a win-win for everyone, and certainly on its face, it sounds appealing. There’s broad recognition that housing is increasingly expensive —especially in exorbitantly pricey cities like San Francisco. Americans strongly support their public school teachers—77 percent say they continue to “trust and have confidence” in them. Moreover, California is grappling with teacher shortages, and champions of the new law believe that providing housing assistance could help attract and retain quality educators, strengthening local communities to boot.

But make no mistake: There are some real losers here.

The LIHTC was established as part of the Tax Reform Act of 1986, and today it is the country’s largest federal program to support place-based, affordable rental housing. The Internal Revenue Service runs it, but individual states get considerable freedom to decide how to distribute their tax credits, so long as they meet federal requirements. One such requirement is that units must target households earning 60 percent or less of the area median income.

This 60 percent threshold is notably higher than other federal affordable housing programs, like Section 8 vouchers and public housing. While LIHTC units built in high-poverty neighborhoods house extremely poor tenants, plenty aren’t built there, which is why tax-credit tenants tend to have higher incomes than recipients of other federal rental assistance programs.

Given that federal housing subsidies are in limited supply, the allocation of tax credits to fund teacher housing merits more scrutiny that it’s received.

“The low-income housing tax credit is meant for single mothers who didn’t graduate from high school, not those people with college degrees and masters degrees,” says Keren Horn, an economist at University of Massachusetts Boston who studies the LIHTC. “Tax credits are targeted at 60 percent of AMI, and if teachers in your metropolitan area are earning less than that, I think the answer is you have to raise their income.”

And then of course, how do we justify giving housing subsidies to some public workers but not others? Why subsidize teachers’ housing but not nurses’? Or trash collectors’?

“It’s a bad idea, and it gets people competing with each other over who is the most oppressed,” says Peter Dreier, an urban policy professor at Occidental College. “A lot of colleges provide housing subsidies for their employees, and if an employer wants to do that as a benefit, or something negotiated through collective bargaining—sure. But the government shouldn’t be in that business.”

Nationally, nearly 20 million renter households have incomes low enough to qualify for federal subsidies, but fewer than one out of four of these households receive anything at all. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that the number of unassisted renters with “worst case” housing needs—meaning they pay more than half of their incomes for housing, or live in severely substandard conditions—rose by 30 percent between 2007 and 2013.

These trends hold broadly true in California as well. In 2016, more than 1,590,000 poor California households paid more than half their incomes on rent, a 28 percent increase from before the recession. The budget for public housing in the state shrank by more than $56 million between 2010 and 2014. More than 113,000 Californians live in shelters, or on the streets.

California’s new teacher housing law does not make more money available for developers of affordable housing; it allows developers to amend the list of eligible recipients. The result is potentially fewer resources available for deeply impoverished families.

The law also carries racial implications. During the 2014-2015 school year, 65 percent of California public school teachers were white; four percent were black, and 19 percent were Hispanic. By contrast, a 2012 HUD report says that roughly 56 percent of the residents in California’s tax credit units were black or Hispanic, and only 28 percent were white. It’s realistic to worry that this new law will facilitate the transfer of resources away from poor people of color to (oft-struggling) middle-class white professionals.

The federal government used to prohibit states from awarding LIHTC to specific occupations. There’s an IRS rule that all residential units have to be available for “general public use.”

But in 2008, as Congress was working on a new housing bill in the wake of the housing market collapse, a group of developers who build housing for artists successfully lobbied for a “general use” exemption. Since then, LIHTC-funded housing complexes restricted specifically for artists have increased considerably.

In May, the Prospect covered a new report on these artist housing complexes, which were found to have far whiter and comparatively more affluent tenants than one typically finds in LIHTC projects. Coining these developments “Politically Opportune Subsidized Housing”—or POSH—the report’s authors noted that such projects carry great political appeal, since using tax credits to support redevelopment and urban revitalization—in this case, supporting the arts—is far less divisive than building new housing for poor black and Latino families.

Myron Orfield, the director of the Institute of Metropolitan Opportunity, which published the artist housing report, says teacher housing feels an awful lot like artist housing. (In fact, California’s new teacher housing law was passed precisely to legislate the same kind of statutory exemption that Congress carved out for artists in 2008.)

Orfield also notes the lucrative opportunities these projects offer developers, who often struggle to use affordable housing tax credits in more affluent communities. The prospects for LIHTC construction in suburban areas become much more favorable if the developments would go towards housing middle-class public school teachers, who are disproportionately white.

“If you build housing in whiter, suburban neighborhoods, those projects would be worth more to the developer, they would appreciate faster, and there also would be more incentives for developers to turn the units into market-rate rentals as fast as they can,” says Orfield. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to build higher-value housing, but what you should do is build true affordable housing for low-income people, instead of taking a political short cut by making it only for teachers.”

The teacher housing idea is already spreading to other states, including areas that do not face acute struggles to afford housing. In Baltimore, where some teacher housing developments recently cropped up, developers say they built it not because affordable housing was hard to find, but because they wanted to reward educators with “Class-A apartments.” In Newark, developers touted the urban revitalization potential of teacher housing. Others say teacher housing will lead to stronger relationships between students and educators, fortifying communities more broadly.

It’s worth noting that while a growing number of researchers have explored how housing instability negatively impacts student achievement, there is no real evidence that says teachers living in the same school district where they work improves public education, student-teacher relationships, or local communities. And as The Learning Policy Institute, a Palo Alto-based education think tank noted last month, housing incentive programs have never even been studied to determine if they’re effective at recruiting or retaining teachers. (An LA Times investigation found that local teachers earned too much to even qualify for the affordable housing complexes the Los Angeles Unified School District recently built for its educators.) Plus, while research does suggest that teacher turnover negatively affects student learning, plenty of workers take on longer commutes in exchange for higher salaries.

Evidence of a national teacher housing crisis is also thin: A report issued last month by the National Housing Conference found that high school teachers earning median wages could rent a two-bedroom home in 94 percent of the 210 metro areas they studied, and teachers could purchase a median-price home in 62 percent of the metro areas. The report did not even take into account whether the teacher had a second income-earner in their household, suggesting the homeownership statistics are likely much higher.

Rather than carve out exceptions for certain jobs, Dreier says his state must tackle the housing crisis afflicting all middle class Californians, which means building more permanently affordable mixed-income housing, and protecting and preserving the affordable housing that already exists. In an era of tight resources, the public must find ways to prioritize supports for the most disadvantaged families, while also identifying new ways to improve the lives of the middle class. That’s the only real win-win.

 

FLOTUS Is More Than a Charming Wife and Mother

Originally published in the JHU Politik on March 4th, 2013.

Last week a video of Michelle Obama “mom dancing” on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon went viral on the Internet. She also made an appearance at the Academy Awards to present the award for Best Picture. These recent events reinforce what we know so well about her: Michelle is a classy, fit, and stylish woman. A devoted wife and a loving mother, she fills the First Lady position with grace.

And yet, when I think about her role in the White House, I can’t help but feel, on some level, real disappointment.

Michelle Obama attended Princeton University and Harvard Law School. She then worked in a Chicago law firm and on behalf of Chicago mayor, Richard M. Daley. Yet this side of Michelle—the impressive, ambitious intellectual—is too often concealed from the public. If it’s acknowledged at all, it’s merely to show that she appreciates first-hand the promise of the American Dream and how hard it can be for individuals to make ends meet. But really, that’s about the full extent.

We could say everyone behaves like that—we live in an anti-intellectual society and everyone minimizes his or her scholarly side. And to some extent, we do. One needn’t look further than a few years back to recall President George W. Bush publicly criticizing his Ivy League pedigree in an attempt to gain a more populist appeal. However it’s undeniable that President Obama portrays himself as a thoughtful, smart and reserved leader. This is his public image. He’s known for being a constitutional law professor, a reader of Philip Roth and Herman Melville, and the President of the Harvard Law Review.

Michelle, like her husband, is an eloquent speaker; we saw this with her moving remarks at the Democratic National Convention. But even that speech, like so many of her speeches, downplayed her professional achievements and emphasized her role as a wife and a mother. She concluded with, “You see, at the end of the day, my most important title is still mom-in-chief.” This is her public image.

Perhaps this is all strategic: have Michelle be the endearing figure to provide her husband the space to work on more difficult goals. But , even if this is so, it should not be accepted without scrutiny.

When I think about inspirational First Ladies I think of Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt. Hillary Clinton took on one of the most politically challenging obstacles of the day—health care reform. Eleanor Roosevelt fought for racial equality and labor standards. Both women were vociferously attacked, but I admire them for their bravery. They worked hard to bring light to uncomfortable topics.

Michelle’s path has followed Laura Bush’s and Nancy Reagan’s. Laura Bush worked to promote literacy, while Nancy Reagan counseled children to “Just Say No” to drugs. Michelle is working to combat obesity and promote healthy nutrition. It’s not that these things are unimportant, but they aren’t particularly “brave” either.

I’d like to see the smart and accomplished Michelle speak out on some of the tougher issues we face. Low-income housing? Parental leave policy? Education reform? The list could be very long, and there is certainly room (and need) for her to tackle something else alongside her nutrition campaign. Besides, sociological determinants such as quality housing, income-level, and education contribute to the choices people make in nutrition. By taking on the battles of deeper disparities, Michelle could not only meet the goals of her nutrition campaign, but also address inequities that permeate society.

Michelle is darling, but I want her to be bold. She is arguably the most powerful woman in the country, and has a real opportunity to use her influence, intelligence, and popularity to bring some political attention to hard issues. She has the approval and good will of the public. She should use it.

We know she loves her husband. We know she loves her children. But we also know there is a whole lot more to her than that and her chic demeanor. I hope in the future to read fewer headlines about her bangs, cool dresses, and shades of nail polish.

Call me crazy, but I believe there is much more to Michelle Obama than we have been privileged to see.

photo credit: usmagazine.com

photo credit: usmagazine.com