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

Originally published in CityLab on April 21, 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Baltimore Can’t Rely on ‘Judge Judy’ to Protect Renters

Originally published in Next City on December 9, 2015.
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Every year, more than 6,000 Baltimore renters and their families are evicted. Across the U.S., only Detroit has a higher percentage of residents facing that same fate. While it’s been all too easy for Baltimore officials to chalk this grim reality up to the wretched effects of poverty, a new report tells a more complete story.

“Justice Diverted,” issued by the Public Justice Center (in collaboration with the Right to Housing Alliance and scholars from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Baltimore) is based on a study of Baltimore tenants called to rent court. Housed in the District Court of Maryland, the court is where landlords take renters who are late on their monthly payments. Through examining hundreds of surveys, in-depth interviews, court records and city data, the researchers discovered that the court systematically “prioritizes efficiencies which privilege the landlord’s bottom line.”

While activists and legal experts previously suspected that rent court had a disproportionate impact on black families in Baltimore, advocates are now armed with concrete data to make a political case for reform. The study found that most people who are called to rent court — and ultimately evicted — are black women living near the federal poverty line and raising at least one child. Though black women make up 34 percent of Baltimore’s population, they comprised 79 percent of those surveyed in the rent court study.

Although rodent infestations, plumbing leaks and peeling paint could all be grounds for withheld rent, most tenants summoned to court were unfamiliar with their legal rights. Some tried to prepare by searching the Internet and watching movies and “Judge Judy,” but 73 percent of those surveyed did not know they could raise a defense if their house or apartment had serious defects. Indeed, nearly 80 percent reported at least one housing health or safety threat when they showed up to court. Nearly 60 percent cited insect or rodent problems, 37 percent cited plumbing leaks, and 41 percent cited lead poisoning anxieties due to chipping paint.

Unlike Baltimore’s foreclosure crisis — which elicited a sense of public emergency and outcry — the eviction crisis has largely been ignored. But in 2009, in the midst of the housing market crash, Baltimore’s eviction rate actually exceeded the rate of ratified mortgage foreclosures; by 2013, Baltimore’s eviction rate exceeded that of foreclosure filings.

One reason for the lack of attention: There’s no system to track data about who is being evicted, and when and why. “It is essential that the city direct funds to creating and disseminating data on rent eviction so that homelessness prevention strategies and housing policies reflect the real indicators of city renters’ hardship,” the report concluded.

The report makes more recommendations for reforming rent court and ameliorating the city’s eviction crisis. To reduce the number of eviction cases filed annually (currently 150,000), the city could instate a mandatory pre-filing period, like those that exist in the vast majority of states. Requiring pre-filing notices enables most rental disputes to be resolved without resorting to litigation.

The court could also more closely investigate whether landlords who file claims are properly licensed and compliant with lead paint laws. The researchers found that a majority of landlords presented the court with incorrect or incomplete registration and licensing information — but were not caught or held to account. Baltimore could also expand its licensing and property inspection requirements, because the current legal protections fail to cover the full range of rental units that tenants reside in.

Other recommendations were focused on leveling the playing field for tenants inside the courtroom and helping families avoid the traumatic hardship of losing their homes overall in the city. The authors call for increasing tenant legal representation, court assistance and funding for eviction prevention programs.

Judge John P. Morrissey, the chief judge of the Maryland District Court, told the Baltimore Sun that many of the recommendations outlined in the report would require a legislative response from lawmakers in Annapolis. Which is why the report was timed to coincide with the launch of the 7,000 Families Campaign — a political effort to stop the “housed-to-homeless” pipeline for poor Baltimore families and push for local reforms.

“We can correct some of this through legislative fixes at the state and city level, but that’s going to take some muscle,” says Jessica Lewis, an organizer with the Right to Housing Alliance. “It’s going to take a unified renter-led movement, and growing our collective power. More than half of the population of Baltimore City are renters, and it’s time that the eviction crisis, and the role that rent court plays in it, is taken seriously.”

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.”

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.”