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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Court Forces Ben Carson To Be a Civil Rights Champion For a Day

Originally published in The Intercept on January 2, 2018.
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Ben Carson will soon deliver a major victory for civil rights activists on behalf of the Trump administration, implementing a new rule that will give more than 200,000 low-income families in 24 cities significantly improved access to housing in high-income neighborhoods.

Carson, however, has not suddenly become a champion of civil rights now that he is secretary of Housing and Urban Development. The rule was crafted by the Obama administration and a court ordered the Trump administration to enforce it.

The policy attempts to resolve a seeming defect in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s housing voucher program: that vouchers are worth the same amount across an entire region. That means most voucher holders can’t afford to move into wealthier neighborhoods because their subsidy isn’t large enough to cover rent. Landlords in poor neighborhoods can, in turn, price gouge voucher holders, who have nowhere else to go. The new rule requires public housing authorities to alter the way they calculate rent subsidies, effectively making vouchers worth more in affluent areas and worth less in poorer communities.

At the time of filing, HUD had offered little explanation for suspending the rule. It abruptly made its announcement in an August letter to public housing authorities, and when The Intercept asked for further comment in October, HUD spokesperson Brian Sullivan said there had been “no change in policy.” He pointed to an August 25 blog post drafted by Acting General Deputy Assistant Secretary Todd Richardson, which said the decision was “informed by research” and that it would be beneficial to delay the rule’s implementation to allow for further study.

On December 1, HUD offered more detail. In court filings, the federal agency argued its actions fell under its broad discretionary power and therefore, were not subject to judicial review. HUD also released a previously undisclosed August 10 memo from Carson, outlining the agency’s rationale for the rule’s delay. Carson’s memorandum relied heavily on findings from an interim report, which found that of five areas selected to pilot the Small-Area Fair Market Rents, the total number of available units went down. HUD lawyers argued that these findings “fully and independently justif[y]” the suspension.

However, U.S. District Court Judge Beryl Howell disagreed. In her 47-page decision, she granted the plaintiffs a preliminary injunction and outlined why HUD’s legal authority is more circumscribed than the agency purported. She also noted that the interim report upon which HUD was relying was based on five areas selected for criteria totally unrelated to the 24 metropolitan areas picked to be subjected to the rule. “This is really apples and oranges, isn’t it?” she asked Johnny Walker, a U.S attorney representing HUD in court.

Sasha Samberg-Champion, the attorney who argued on behalf of the plaintiffs at the December 19 hearing, told The Intercept that he and his colleagues were heartened and impressed by how well Howell understood the issues. “She was just phenomenally well-prepared, not only having read the parties’ briefing papers, but she also really dove into the documents presented,” he said. “I think HUD was just not prepared to answer questions at the level of specificity that she was asking.”

For example, when Howell asked HUD’s counsel if any of the 24 metropolitan areas had “formally, or even informally” requested that the federal government suspend its implementation of the Small Area Fair Market Rents rule, both Walker and HUD’s trial attorney David Sahli said they weren’t sure. Sahli eventually admitted that to his knowledge, no such request had been made. This was notable, because the final rule indicated that a suspension could occur at the request of a public housing authority.

One of the plaintiffs’ main arguments was that HUD violated the Administrative Procedure Act, an important federal statute that imposes specific limitations on the process of agency rule-making, including a requirement that agencies collect and respond to public comments. “HUD’s main argument was that there’s a regulatory provision that gives the secretary carte blanche to suspend the rule at any time for any reason, and the judge clearly was skeptical of that,” said Samberg-Champion.

Perhaps foreseeing Howell’s skepticism, HUD announced in early December that it would open up a 30-day period to solicit public comment about suspending the Small-Area Fair Market Rents rule. That 30 days began December 11.

HUD claimed that by opening up a month for public comment, it had rendered the plaintiffs’ procedural claims moot. “This argument is meritless,” wrote the plaintiffs in a reply brief filed in December. “If anything, HUD’s belated notice simply confirms the illegality of its suspension.”

“Procedurally, this is totally irrelevant because the Administrative Procedure Act doesn’t allow you to solicit comments belatedly,” explained Samberg-Champion. “But for whatever reason, atmospherically, HUD felt they needed to do this.”

It’s not clear whether HUD will appeal Howell’s decision. Sullivan, the HUD spokesperson, did not return The Intercept’s request for comment.

“I’m not going to make any predictions about what HUD will or won’t do, but I hope they will now carry out the laws they’re supposed to,” said Samberg-Champion. “They have the right to appeal should they choose, but I hope they don’t do that. All they’d be doing is frankly stalling, and they would lose that as well.”

Ajmel Quereshi, a senior counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, another civil rights group participating in the lawsuit, told The Intercept that at a minimum, HUD has an obligation to “immediately begin working” with local housing agencies to implement the rule, so the new payment standards can take effect as soon as possible.

“We expect they’ll comply with the court order,” he said, “and we look forward to working with HUD to see positive results for thousands of families.”

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.”

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.

 

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.

 

Welcome to the Courtroom That Is Every Renter’s Nightmare

Originally published in Next City (with illustrations by Sky Kalfus!) on September 14th, 2015.
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Deborah Jennings lives in a house in East Baltimore with her daughter and granddaughter. When she first moved in nearly five years ago, she was working as a nursing support technician, helping to draw blood. Hours were long, but she was able to pay her bills. That changed two years ago, when she became disabled and had to stop working. Without a steady paycheck, 57-year-old Jennings has struggled to pay her rent, and each month, that means a trip to rent court.

Each courtroom visit, the same complaints are made, the same issues described, and the same ultimatum given: Jennings must pay her rent or risk eviction. Although the conditions of her house are poor — the basement sink had water running for two months straight, paint hangs from her roof and water has settled in the ceilings — Jennings is in no position to negotiate. “You can start talking, but then the judges say, ‘I understand, but we’re here in reference to this rent, do you owe this rent?’ They don’t want to hear whether or not you have any issues,” Jennings says. “They don’t want none of that.”

“I’m not expecting to live here free,” she adds. “I said bear with me, you’re going to get your rent.”

Each year, Baltimore landlords file roughly 150,000 cases in rent court, which is housed in the District Court of Maryland. The city has 125,000 occupied rental units. Many tenants, like Jennings, are taken multiple times per year.

Despite its undeniable public impact, rent court remains one of city’s least transparent institutions. Any public records are hard to come by and in an era of metrics and open data, analysis of courtroom verdicts appears to be nonexistent.

“People know about it, but there’s no interest to understand why this keeps happening year after year,” says Zafar Shah, an attorney with the Baltimore-based Public Justice Center. “The whole system just does not function as it should.”

In the neighborhood of Oliver, where Jennings lives, nearly a third of families live below the poverty line, many of them on blighted blocks checkered with vacancy. Yet Oliver, along with other sections of Baltimore, is slowly beginning to see population trends reverse and new investment trickle in. With new residents and development come higher rents and more pressure for tenants like Jennings to pay up or get out.

“There is a lot of development in Oliver, a lot of new homeowners, but there are still a lot of people without a lot of money here,” says Darryl Dunaway, office manager and community organizer with the Oliver Community Association. “We hear about rent court all day. From 9 a.m. to 12, I am sending people down to 501 East Fayette Street for eviction prevention. I sent someone there this morning.”

Dunaway says that the community association and others like it around the city help as many people as they can each month, but there is only so much that can be done. “If you can’t pay one month, there is help. You come back next month and you are on your own,” he says.

Originally created to provide a nationwide model of justice for landlords and tenants, Baltimore’s housing court today serves as little more than a state-run rent collection agency, financed by taxpayers and the beleaguered renters themselves who pay court fees for each judgment ruled against them.

“The court system is not for the tenant,” says Jennings wearily. “It just becomes a money thing. It’s no longer about human beings.”

A Court Designed for Tenants

In 1936, the Baltimore Sun published a series of articles that illustrated some of the horrific conditions of Baltimore slums — where 40 percent of the city then lived. With the highest proportion of substandard housing among America’s big cities, local Baltimore officials moved to take action. But by 1941, unsatisfied with the city’s slow progress, some individuals formed the Citizens Planning and Housing Association to apply more pressure. What emerged in Baltimore — a campaign for new building and sanitation codes, and stronger mechanisms for enforcement — would eventually influence the wave of urban renewal across the country, as well as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Federal Housing Act of 1954.

The Baltimore Plan, as it came to be known, was based on a model of setting — and vigorously enforcing — minimum housing standards. The hope was to one day clean up all of Baltimore’s slums; if some delinquent properties had to be removed, so be it. Besides beefing up the number of housing inspections, reformers also wanted to create a special housing court designed to enforce the new standards. Even in the 1950s, regular courts were fairly overwhelmed, and disputes like rental issues were simply low-priority cases. The idea was to create a new space where both landlords and tenants could come in and expect a fair and thorough hearing. The courts would hold landlords accountable to health and sanitation standards, while landlords could expect the backing of the court if tenants were damaging their property or failing to pay rent. Baltimore’s rental housing court would become the first of its kind in the country. Today, most cities have similar systems in place.

“It was supposed to be about fundamentally changing the way property relations work,” says Daniel Pasciuti, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University who studies Baltimore’s rent court.

By the late 1960s and ’70s, widespread tenants’ rights changes were taking place all over the United States. In 1968, the Fair Housing Act became law, barring housing discrimination. Six years later, the federal government launched the Section 8 program, offering rental vouchers so eligible low-income tenants could live in private buildings, and in turn, requiring landlords to afford federally subsidized tenants a new set of rights. Perhaps the most notable reform, however, came from a federal ruling in 1970, Javins v. First National Realty Corp., where the D.C. Circuit ruled that if a living situation is deemed uninhabitable, the tenant is freed from his obligation to pay rent. This establishment of “the implied warrant of habitability” was widely seen as a revolution in landlord-tenant relations; it set the precedent for treating leases as contracts between landlords and tenants, a change considered to be more modern and fair. Tenants would now have the right to introduce evidence of housing code violations if they were sued for late rent, and if the living situation were found unacceptable, the tenant would not have to pay.

But in recent years, housing courts look less like the guardian against slum conditions imagined by New Deal-era advocates and far more like other municipal courts that target low-level offenders and focus disproportionately on the poor.

After visiting rent court in the 1990s, University of Maryland law professor Barbara Bezdek concluded that, beneath “the veneer of due process,” litigants “who are members of socially subordinated groups” are systematically excluded. Though rent court was originally meant to be an accessible space where tenants and landlords could speak directly to a judge without a lawyer, the reality is that the arrangement favors the landlords. Bezdek found that differences in speech, the effects of poverty and the unduly high hurdles tenants were asked to overcome to even raise a defense prevented them from being truly heard. All in all, Bezdek described the legal dynamics as “a charade.” In the two decades since, not much has changed.

A Judicial “Charade”

On a typical day in rent court, the average number of scheduled cases ranges from 800 to 1,000. Shah says the court’s “dirty little secret” is that it depends on the overwhelming majority of summoned tenants to not show up — meaning default wins for the landlord — because there’s no way judges could ever hear as many cases as they schedule. Mark Scurti, associate judge at Baltimore City’s District Court, agrees they would not be able to handle as many cases as they schedule if all tenants were to appear. “It would put a tremendous strain on our current staffing and judges,” he says.

For tenants who do show up to court, it’s not much better. “The court really operates like a giant black box. I have a friggin’ Ph.D. and I’m sitting there like, if this were me and I was actually there [for a case], I would have no idea what’s going on,” says Pasciuti. “There’s no direction, there’s nobody there to explain anything to you.” While some legal aid groups try to offer assistance, their availability is minimal, and most tenants go in without professional help. On days with full dockets, a case can easily receive less than 30 seconds of judicial review.

Rent court is one of the few courts in Maryland’s judiciary system for which no digitized records are available. Whereas all other court cases are filed online, no similar computer system has ever existed for these housing disputes; everything must be manually processed and gets filed away into a vault. Relatedly, no court records are available to determine things like the number of judgments ruled in the landlords’ favor, or how many times an individual tenant is brought to court annually. “I think those are critical numbers to know, and I’m all about watching statistics and watching trends,” says Scurti, who hopes the court will be included in a statewide electronic court filing initiative that is being rolled out over the next couple years. “Why we’ve never been electronic before, I don’t know,” he says. “I suspect it has to do with funding.”

Obtaining data on the number of evictions is similarly difficult. While the sheriff’s office tallies monthly eviction stats for rent court stakeholders to review, it does not make the data easily accessible to the public. It took several weeks for the city to agree to share with me that they had a total of 6,309 evictions in 2014. Housing advocates say the number has hovered around 7,000 evictions annually for the last 10 years. An Abell Foundation report published in 2003 found that the chances of eviction are greater if one rents in Baltimore than in comparable cities like Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Cleveland.

Rent court is easily one of the state’s speediest judicial proceedings. Landlords can file for trial a mere one day after rent is late, no matter what the reason. In other states, like New York, landlords must serve tenants with a “rent demand” that gives them three or five days to pay overdue rent before an eviction case is started. New York tenants who do not receive these notices can raise that as a defense in court, says Jenny Laurie, executive director of Housing Court Answers. There is no similar pre-filing period required in Baltimore, leading to, what Shah describes as, “an enormous amount of unnecessary litigation.”

Such a rapid system also gives tenants little time to prepare their defenses, but from the landlord’s perspective, the process has to be quick. “On a large commercial scale [court speed] is not such an importance because they have an ability to withstand not getting rent, but when you’re not a commercial landlord and you have maybe just three, four units, or just one unit, plus a mortgage on the property, [not getting] your rent is a big deal,” says Dennis Hodge, a lawyer who has been representing landlords in the Baltimore area since the mid 1980s. “Most landlords do not want to do evictions, they prefer just to get their money,” he adds.

But when tenants are unable or unwilling to pass over that money, the courtroom’s speed comes into play again. With hundreds of cases to hear in a day, the judges have little time to hear the details of a tenant’s situation. And without professional legal assistance, tenants are generally unable to defend themselves against common chicanery like landlords tacking on additional charges veiled as rent.

Judges often ask tenants why they don’t just move if a rental is uninhabitable or too expensive. “People can’t afford to just pick up and move!” exclaims Detrese Dowridge, a 30-year-old single mother who has gone to rent court three time since May 2013. Dowridge’s Northwest Baltimore home had cracked walls and windows, scurrying mice and roaches, and a leaky ceiling. “And even if they can move,” she says, “then the person who comes in after them will still be stuck with the [same] landlord getting away with whatever.”

“There’s a lot of blaming and shaming the poor in the courtroom,” explains Shah. “I think the spirit with which the court operates is that you have to deserve your housing.”

Reforming Rent Court

Without a jury or many headline-making cases, civil courtroom proceedings have typically flown under the public’s radar. That is beginning to change. A Department of Justice report issued in the wake of police officer Darren Wilson’s deadly shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson singled out the Missouri municipal court for “constitutionally deficient” procedures that “undermine the court’s role as a fair and impartial judicial body.”

Now attorneys at the Public Justice Center have teamed up with the Right to Housing Alliance (RTHA), a Baltimore-based human rights organization, and Jews United for Justice (JUFJ), a local activist group, to try and change the frustrating realities of rent court. With $280,000 in grant funding from the Abell Foundation, they hope to lead a court reform initiative and promote greater awareness about housing evictions around the city.

“The bare minimum allowable for any human dignity in the rental housing system is for this court to be fixed,” says Jessica Lewis, an organizer with RTHA.

“Our members that go through rent court are just defeated,” she adds. “They feel there is no dignity. It’s just really, really dehumanizing for them.”

Pasciuti, with a team of Johns Hopkins students, has been helping the three organizations conduct surveys and analyze their quantitative data. The goal is to collect meaningful information about what actually happens in rent court. “Our theory is if the public narrative about low-income renters was articulated, presented with numbers, substantiated in a really sound way, and we got it out to the right people, then we can get to a point where there is the political will, and even maybe the business interest to fix this system,” says Shah. The groups hope to go public with a completed dataset of over 300 tenant surveys, augmented by information from the court proceedings and regulatory agencies, later this fall.

In addition to bringing tenant voices into the public discussion, the Public Justice Center also aims to launch a legal strategy, in order to get sufficient clarity about what “rent” means in a residential lease context. Shah says they are considering either a class-action lawsuit or litigating through the appeals process to investigate tricky lease clauses that landlords often use to get more money or to evict tenants.

The activists’ timing might be just right. Scurti, the Baltimore judge frustrated by the lack of good data collection in his court, says he also wants to move toward a formal evaluation of docket patterns to see how the court can operate better. “I want to understand the process and to reevaluate it,” he says. He is particularly interested in figuring out how technology might help the court function more smoothly.

Ultimately, all sides agree that the court today is a flawed and inefficient operation. “You’re not going to encounter a judge, or a landlord, or an advocate for tenants who will tell you things are going well,” says Shah. The problem, however, is that improvement means different things for everyone involved. Despite the relative speed at which these cases move, Baltimore landlords, for instance, still feel the whole legal process should be adjudicated much more quickly and with less bureaucracy. Tenant advocates, on the other hand, want increased procedural accessibility and due process.

A promising place to look may be Massachusetts, which has one of the best housing court models in the country. First established in the 1970s, housing court officials in Massachusetts have prioritized creating a system that is accessible to both landlords and tenants.

In addition to a robust legal services community, Massachusetts employs court staff to serve as mediators between landlords and tenants and help them solve disputes without going directly before a judge. According to Paul J. Burke, deputy court administrator, the majority of rental disputes are settled this way. The typical length of a mediation session is around 30 minutes, which can provide a greater sense of dignity than Baltimore’s hasty proceedings. In some cases, mediations can even last for several hours.

Ultimately it comes down to fairness. “From day one back in the early ’70s, it was anticipated that many people would be self-represented, would perhaps be lower-income, and perhaps not have the highest level of educational training,” says Burke. “The policies, the processes and the forms in our courts have always been set up with that in mind.”

We Can’t Talk About Housing Policy Without Talking About Racism

Originally published in The American Prospect on May 20th, 2015.
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Over the past year, unrest in places like Baltimore and Ferguson has inspired a nationwide debate on how to best combat systemic inequality and injustice. In the wake of high-profile police violence cases in these cities and elsewhere, this conversation has contributed to a renewed understanding of how federal and local housing policies helped create the inequality and racial injustice urban America confronts today. Yet lost in this discussion has been the complicated record of more recent desegregation efforts and what they can teach us about undoing generations of systemic racism and persistent segregation.

A case-in-point is HUD’s Clinton-era Moving to Opportunity (MTO) program, the subject of a new study by Harvard economists Raj Chetty, Nathan Hendren, and Lawrence Katz. Focusing on MTO’s long-term economic impacts, the study sheds more positive light on a program long considered to be a failure.

Running from 1994-1998, MTO was a housing experiment that involved moving individuals out of high-poverty neighborhoods with vouchers and into census-tracts with less than 10 percent poverty to see if this would improve their life outcomes. The results were mixed. While critics of the program have dubbed it a failure for not significantly improving children’s school performance or the financial situation of their parents, there was a lot about it that proved successful. MTO yielded significant gains in mental health for adults, for instance, including decreased stress levels and lower rates of depression. It also greatly lowered obesity rates and improved the psychological well being of young girls.

The new Harvard study further bucks the notion that MTO failed. Instead of looking at MTO’s economic impact on parents, it looks at the adult earnings of their children. Such an analysis simply wasn’t possible to do a decade ago, given that the kids were still too young. Researchers now find that poor children who moved into better neighborhoods were more likely to attend college and earned significantly more in the workforce than similar adults who never moved. The researchers also ranked which cities were “the worst” in terms of facilitating upward mobility. Out of the nation’s 100 largest counties, the authors found, Baltimore came in dead last.

Many writers were quick to make the connection between Baltimore’s low chances for social mobility and the recent bouts of unrest surrounding the death of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray. However, few seemed interested in connecting the new Harvard study with the politics of why we have segregated communities and concentrated poverty in the first place.

Emily Badger’s Washington Post write-up of the study framed the ills people face in Baltimore as a city failure, rather than a state or federal one. She discusses the “downward drag that Baltimore exerts on poor kids” and says that Baltimore “itself appears to be acting on poor children, constraining their opportunity, molding them over time into the kind of adults who will likely remain poor.” Badger acknowledges that maybe this has to do with struggling schools and less social capital. “Change where these children live, though,” she writes, “and you might well change their outcomes.”

In The Wall Street Journal, Holman W. Jenkins Jr. looks at the new Harvard study and concludes, “Neighborhoods themselves are clearly transmitters of poverty. The problem for residents isn’t racism: it’s where they live.”

Such narrow portrayals of Baltimore and its residents are only possible if we exclude decades of state and federal policy from our frame of analysis. Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute wrote something I suggest reading in its entirety. But to quote:

In Baltimore and elsewhere, the distressed condition of African American working- and lower-middle-class families is almost entirely attributable to federal policy that prohibited black families from accumulating housing equity during the suburban boom that moved white families into single-family homes from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s—and thus from bequeathing that wealth to their children and grandchildren, as white suburbanites have done.

Slate’s Jamelle Bouie traces not only how efforts to segregate Baltimore succeeded, but also how there’s never been a sustained attempt to undo them.

The simple fact is that major progress in Baltimore—and other, similar cities—requires major investment and major reform from state and federal government. It requires patience, investment, and a national commitment to ending scourges of generational poverty—not just ameliorating them.

Expanding housing choice vouchers is a good thing. We should have subsidies available to ensure that everyone has similar opportunities for mobility. That said, moving millions of impoverished families out of high-poverty areas would be nothing short of a logistical nightmare. In effect, mass relocation efforts would require low-poverty communities to relinquish some of their gatekeeping discretion—no small political fight. MTO tracked 4,600 families in five U.S. cities. As Reihan Salam put it, “It’s not at all clear that an MTO-style approach would work if we scaled it up to, say, 40,000 families in one city.” Nothing is impossible, but we cannot have a serious discussion about housing mobility as a broad anti-poverty strategy without frankly discussing the politics of racism and segregation. 

Investing In Better Mobility Vouchers

So what does a more effective mobility strategy look like? A look to MTO’s own weaknesses may provide some clues. Indeed, for sociologists Stefanie DeLuca and Peter Rosenblatt, one problem with MTO was that it simply didn’t go far enough. Ina 2010 paper, they argue that while some students undoubtedly benefited from moving to wealthier communities, a lack of social capital, support, and resources, combined with housing vouchers that did not cover the cost of living in low-poverty communities, kept many students out of the highest-performing schools. At the same time, many families found that the obstacles created by poverty—like health problems and the chaotic nature of low-wage work—tended to follow them even as they left impoverished communities, and in turn contributed to poor student performance.

For DeLuca and Rosenblatt, there’s plenty that MTO did right but confronting endemic poverty and segregation requires a more systematic approach. That is, something perhaps more akin to the Baltimore Mobility Program (BMP), through which 2,400 Baltimore families have relocated since 2003. Whereas MTO offered housing search counseling to program participants, BMP provided that plus post-move counseling, second move counseling if necessary, and financial literacy and credit repair training. In another study released last year, DeLuca followed 110 BMP participants for nearly a decade, and found that over two-thirds of these families were still living in their integrated, low-poverty communities one to eight years after moving.

If MTO were to be a truly successful intervention, then expanding the program’s available services—including educational assistance, housing counseling, job support, and transportation help—would be important. We can’t know how the MTO participants would have fared if they had been given increased support, but we do know that additional services helped to make the transitions more surmountable and lasting for BMP families.

From “Finding Home: Voices of the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program,” a report by The Century Foundation.

This chart by The Century Foundation shows how the MTO and BMP compare with Section 8 vouchers and the Gautreaux Project, a desegregation experiment that ended in 1990 and helped inspire MTO.

Needless to say, high-quality BMP vouchers are more costly than MTO and traditional Section 8 vouchers. Excellent mobility programs will require a real financial investment. As it is, there are long Section 8 waiting lists around the country, and local housing authorities currently receive fixed amounts from HUD to support voucher participants. Unless we significantly scale up funding, moving more people to affluent neighborhoods would mean moving fewer people overall through vouchers.

The findings from the new Harvard study are useful. They allow us to ask new kinds of questions. But in terms of policy, we must be wary of those who now suggest that simply uprooting families and planting them into new communities is the responsible thing to do—especially if we’re not ready to provide the supports that research has shown makes these types of moves more successful.

For example, in The National Review Jonah Goldberg writes, “Consider Baltimore. If you’re poor, it is a very bad idea to raise your kids there if you can avoid it.” He implicitly suggests that if you’re a good parent, if you care about your kid’s future, then you will leave Baltimore, or Detroit, or Philadelphia if you can. Let us hope that this policy conversation does veer into an ugly, parent-blaming one. Housing mobility vouchers are good options, but our best anti-poverty interventions shouldn’t have to demand that people abandon their social networks, churches, and communities if they want to stay. We should make high-quality vouchers available, but we should vigorously invest in the communities where poor people already live.

As Daniel Kay Hertz, a senior fellow at City Observatory pointed out to me, the Harvard study provides some new ammunition against those who have long doubted the effectiveness of a housing policy that puts integration front and center. Now there is some pretty strong empirical evidence that shows that children’s life chances were significantly affected by growing up within integrated environments. Additionally, these findings come on the heels of Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids, which traces the growing opportunity gaps between wealthy and poor children around the country. In light of these new high-profile studies, perhaps policymakers will more readily accept the idea that your access to the American Dream has everything to do with your race, class, and geographic location.

At the end of the day, Baltimore ranks last in the Harvard mobility study not because poor, black people live there, but because leaders in power made choice after choice, year after year, to ensure that poor blacks’ opportunities would be overwhelmingly constricted. We can and must make new choices now.

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.”