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.”

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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.

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.

 

Goodbye Public Housing?

Originally published in The American Prospect on November 12, 2015.
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In 2013, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) launched the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program—a far-reaching effort to preserve the government’s affordable units by transferring them into the private sector. Rather than have Congress directly fund local housing authorities to support the program, RAD allows private companies to rehab and manage public housing units in exchange for tax credits and subsidies. The contracts, which are set to continually renew every 15-20 years, require developers to keep units affordable for low-income tenants.

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

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 He presented his unpublished findings at the International Sociological Association RC43 Conference this past September.

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

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

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

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

In his paper, Schwartz explains that:

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The RAD-ical Shifts to Public Housing

 Originally published in The American Prospect on August 28th, 2014. 
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Traditional public housing is out of favor and substantially out of funds. It’s bureaucratic, concentrates the very poor, and is literally crumbling due to a huge backlog of deferred maintenance. Yet despite real catastrophes—such as Chicago’s bleak, crime-ridden Robert Taylor Homes, dynamited over a decade ago—public housing provides low-rent apartments to some 2.2 million people, and much of it is reasonably well run by local authorities.

For half a century, presidents, legislators and housing developers have sought alternatives, involving supposedly more efficient private market incentives. However, these alternatives, too, have been far from scandal-free. The Johnson-era Section 236 program (named for part of the housing code) gave private developers tax benefits and direct payments to build low-rent housing, underwritten by subsidized thirty-year mortgages. But then, as the mortgages started being paid off in the 1990s, many developers kicked out poor tenants and converted the buildings to middle-class and even luxury apartments—taking low-rent units that had been built and maintained with taxpayer money and removing them from the pool of affordable housing.

Attempts to de-concentrate big public housing projects, such as the Clinton-era “HOPE VI” program (Home Opportunities for People Everywhere), ended up evicting thousands. The Robert Taylor site, which at its peak housed 27,000 low-income Chicagoans, was replaced, using over $500 million in HOPE VI funds, with a low-rise mixed-income development of just 2,300 units.

Now comes the latest attempt to save public housing by injecting private capital. The idea is to bring in private developers—drawn by tax breaks and subsidies—and have them refurbish and manage the buildings. The end result is to be some kind of hybrid, where rents will stay low (at least for a time), tenants may have more mobility but fewer rights, and the total stock of affordable housing could shrink yet again. The approach is not cheap, and it may be more cost-effective to just appropriate more direct funds to the program and thereby keep it in the public sector—but Congress is not about to do so.

The new plan, promoted by HUD, developers and some city governments with few alternatives, is known as the Rental Assistance Demonstration, or RAD. It is set to transfer 60,000 public housing units across the country to the control of private developers. While billed as a limited test program, many participating cities are taking far-reaching gambles on their city’s affordable housing stock. In Baltimore, 43 percent of all public housing units will be converted through RAD, and in San Francisco, roughly 75 percent.

RAD is a second cousin to everything from privatized highways to the Affordable Care Act, which keeps the public provision and modest expansion of health insurance mostly private.

RAD is an emblematic case of this era’s intensified push to use privatization in the pursuit of social goals—not because that approach is necessarily better policy, but because it is politically possible. In that respect, RAD is a second cousin to everything from privatized highways to the Affordable Care Act, which keeps the public provision and modest expansion of health insurance mostly private.

Public housing—a program financed through direct government subsidies since its inception in the late 1930s—has been severely underfunded by Congress for decades. The dearth of funds has translated into a housing stock decline: Since the mid-1990s, more than 260,000 dilapidated units have been demolished or removed from the program. And despite long waiting lists around the country, agencies have only built new units to replace about one-sixth of those that were removed. HUD estimates that nearly $30 billion is needed to repair and restore the nation’s 1.2 million remaining public housing units.

“Primarily because of Congress’s failure to fund public housing, and so many long-term repairs and rehabilitation needs going unmet, RAD was an idea to get a new flow of capital and funds into the program,” says Megan Haberle, policy counsel at the Poverty Race and Research Action Council (PRRAC).

In effect, RAD turns public housing into something like the Section 8 program: low-rent housing that is privately managed or owned, and publicly subsidized.

RAD alters public housing’s funding and ownership structure to one that experts hope will be more politically sustainable over time. For example, a local housing authority could either sell or lease a public housing building to a private developer; the developer in turn would agree to make certain renovations, and to respect tenants’ rights. The traditional funding mechanism—direct subsidies to local housing authorities—would be replaced by tax credits and housing vouchers under the program known as Section 8. The total subsidy would be lucrative enough to entice the developer yet still maintain low rents for tenants. In effect, RAD turns public housing into something like the Section 8 program: low-rent housing that is privately managed or owned, and publicly subsidized.

Some cities, like Chicago, Philadelphia, Tampa and Charlotte, applied to convert thousands of their public housing units through RAD, but given the program’s demonstration cap, they’re stuck, for now, on a waitlist. (Chicago had the largest RAD application in the country, with nearly 11,000 units.) Other cities that were approved for conversion have taken a more cautious approach: Omaha will convert only 306 units, and Houston just eighty-nine.

Tenants and housing rights activists share deep concerns about RAD. These include the risk of increased rent costs, the fate of tenant legal rights, and the need to ensure affordable housing for generations to come. In addition, building trade unions see the potential for eliminating unionized middle-class jobs under these new private deals. Yet no formal national coalition has formed to address all these fears, in part because of the highly localized nature of the program. Since the RAD legislation was designed for regional flexibility, the risks and stakes for tenants and workers can vary considerably from city to city. The strength of local housing activist networks, civil rights lawyers and unions will ultimately shape RAD’s impact.

“Everyone is working on their own programs. Some of them are doing things this way or that way, some are a little bit more transparent, others are not,” says David Prater, an attorney at the Maryland Disability Law Center. Prater has been involved with the RAD program in Baltimore, fighting to ensure that protections for disabled tenants are preserved under the new regime.

 

RAD has garnered great controversy in Baltimore—the largest East Coast city to participate—due to its cagey rollout. While Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul T. Granziano has pitched RAD as the only feasible way to salvage the old units, advocates are left with many questions and few details. In midJune, some sixty Baltimore tenants and union workers organized a protest against RAD outside the Housing Authority of Baltimore County (HABC). Demonstrators raised concerns of resident displacement, middle-class job cuts and public housing loss.

“We’ve been at a number of residential information meetings that [the Housing Authority] organized, and they’ve yelled at residents who have tried to ask questions about long-term affordability and said it was inappropriate for them to even ask those questions,” said Jessica Lewis, an organizer at the Right to Housing Alliance, an advocacy group led by low-income Baltimore residents. At another public meeting, residents invited Karen Wabeke, a lawyer working for the Homeless Persons Representation Project, to ask legal questions on their behalf, but the housing commissioner refused to even take her questions.

Cheron Porter, director of communications for HABC, says that they are proud of the efforts they have made to engage residents and housing advocates throughout the RAD process. Porter adds that Baltimore’s version of RAD “goes far beyond the requirements under the federal law and is much closer to public housing than programs in other parts of the country.”

In other cities such as San Francisco, RAD has met less opposition. The San Francisco Housing Authority, with a $270 million backlog in deferred maintenance costs, has been in a state of organizational tumult for years. Its last director was fired in 2013 after alleged involvement in a host of corruption and discrimination scandals. While some activists and union workers have raised questions, ultimately the Bay Area pushback has been mild in comparison to Baltimore. Many residents eagerly welcome the promise of improved physical conditions.

Deborah Thrope, a lawyer with the National Housing Law Project, a policy organization concerned with preserving affordable housing and tenant rights, says the response was tamer in part because everyone agreed the status quo was untenable. While Thrope hopes to safeguard tenant rights in San Francisco then disseminate those principles nationally, she acknowledges that San Francisco is different than the rest of the country because of its well-mobilized advocacy organizations that collaborate with the city in ways unique to the northern California progressive scene.

Despite significant concerns, many housing policy experts remain cautiously optimistic. One promising feature of the program is a “mobility” option not currently permitted for tenants in traditional public housing. For example, some families that want to move and switch school districts could do so using a voucher obtained through RAD. “We see [RAD] as an opportunity not only to inject capital,” says Phil Tegeler, executive director of PRRAC, “but as a break with that whole history of residential segregation and concentrated poverty.”

Given the funding crisis, the large public housing authorities are among RAD’s most enthusiastic boosters. “This was not something that was a brainchild of a developer,” stressed Sunia Zaterman, executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities (CLPHA). “This is very intentional in its approach as a preservation and reinvestment strategy.” 

Nonetheless, critics’ concerns about tenant displacement appear justified, given the government’s track record with privatizing public housing. HOPE VI projects deliberately decreased the number of public housing units. Many tenants lost their homes through rescreening and thousands were permanently displaced during the rehab process.

“The housing authorities just didn’t try hard enough to keep in touch with many residents during that year or two that units were getting fixed up, and people were just lost and never had an opportunity to return,” says Ed Gramlich of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

In an effort to avoid the pitfalls of Hope VI, policymakers have tried to design RAD in a way that would prevent some of the worst possible outcomes. For example, unlike in HOPE VI conversions, no tenant will have to be re-screened to establish eligibility to live in RAD properties.

And under RAD, an implicit commitment exists to have a “one-to-one replacement policy,” meaning that any demolished units must be replaced with the same number of units as was originally there. But advocates such as Gramlich worry that developers and local authorities could exploit loopholes in the statute. Exceptions to the one-to-one rule include allowing public housing authorities to reduce the number of assisted units by up to 5 percent without HUD approval, consolidate units (such as converting efficiencies to one-bedroom apartments), and remove units that have been vacant for at least twenty-four months. This last exception is particularly troubling, as housing authorities sometimes intentionally leave units empty in an effort to lessen their administrative fees or anticipate eventual demolition.

Erosion of tenant legal protections also worries advocates. For example, under current public housing law, if a landlord or housing authority mistreats a tenant, the tenant may pursue redress without resorting to expensive and lengthy lawsuits. But under RAD, the contracts will be between private developers and housing authorities, which could make it much more difficult for tenants to hold landlords accountable. Some, like David Prater of the Maryland Disability Law Center, want housing authorities to formally add tenants to the housing contracts as “third party beneficiaries.” This change would strengthen tenants’ ability to pursue grievances.

Prater sees potential for an unholy alliance between housing authorities that want to save money by limiting tenant appeals and private developers who seek to avoid liability. Cheron Porter, speaking for the Baltimore housing authority, says, “While we certainly understand the residents’ point of view,” giving tenants third party status “could potentially lead to unduly lengthened processes and less certainty among the parties’ roles.”

As long as these developers receive HUD subsidies, the units will be subjected to federal audits and monitoring. Still, the regulations leave room for legal sidestepping. “I think legal advocates rightly see that the RAD notice HUD drafted did not completely replicate the protections that people already have under the public housing regulations and handbooks,” says Gramlich.

A further concern is possible changes to RAD under future administrations. For now, the Obama administration has sought to balance developer incentives with tenant protections. But future administrations, facing different political considerations, might opt to shift this balance.

Although this housing experiment was to be tried first on only 5 percent of the nation’s public housing stock, HUD is now pushing to eliminate the program’s cap entirely. (In other words, gut the “demonstration” part of “Rental Assistance Demonstration.”) Zaterman of CLPHA argues that RAD’s long waitlist “demonstrates its demand and feasibility.” Other affordable housing advocates, however, urge for a more gradual approach in case there are unforeseen ruinous consequences.

With cash-strapped cities lacking the dollars needed to renovate, repair and maintain their public housing, many more are likely to apply for RAD conversions in the future.

If implemented carefully with robust federal oversight, RAD may actually advance the goal of more affordable housing. Decrepit and dangerous buildings could be upgraded and more families may have the opportunity to move into the areas they want. However, if the public looks away or if crafty private developers evade government supervision, the state of affordable housing could look even worse than it does today.

“All of these deals between housing authorities and developers are made behind closed doors,” says Gramlich. “That’s how deals are done in the private marketplace, and that runs against the whole notion of public assets. It’s hard to assess what might happen, and by the time the negotiations are settled, residents might be stuck with a done deal. And the done deal might be great, or it might not be. The people who have the biggest stake in it are left out.”