Thursday, November 12, 2015

Not So Public Housing

The idea of public housing has had many a variation in its history.

It began in 1937 under the Housing Act. That was modeled after a New York city program that provided publicly managed multi family developments for low income residents during the depression.  The idea was to house the 'poorest of the poor' displaced during the depression and later it became largely minority based housing post-war due to VA loans and other programs that enabled largely white and middle class families to relocate into the new developing concepts of suburbs.

The debates over public housing began with the quality of the homes. Called tenements they were often poorly kept up and maintained which was not a fault of the residents who became of course the target for that blame.  But when the Housing Act of 1937 came into fruition with the feds came the money and the design and belief that the housing would provide a two fold relief: Housing and jobs - via the construction of the buildings.

 Then came the Housing Act of 1949 to limit residents solely based on income and largely relegated public units to the indigent and working poor to alternative means of housing in the form of Section 8 housing that enables private owners to rent to those subsidized by government money.

In the nascent years tenant screening consisted solely on income and for that employment was often necessary, but by the 1960's the issues of screening became centered on race and that came to an end with the Civil Rights act.  So to compensate new screening measures were devised, and  as always tied to our moralistic nature, so it included any people unmarried living together and later of course adding exemptions for those convicted of crimes, the one group in desperate need of housing while returning to "normal" "civilian" life. And with those restrictions came evictions and came more strum and drang over who can live in public housing. 

And with a need for more housing, the idea was to build up. And then came the "projects" of  new high rises and in turn complexes that were overbuilt, badly designed, few amenities and fewer common areas (largely due to money but of course an undercurrent of judgment) overpopulated and badly maintained with little emphasis on security and safety.  Then came the 80s and the problems with drugs and crime.  So if you can't house them jail them.

 And with units only subsidized by minimal rent then came new ways to calculate rent and in turn count residents.  Who could and could not live in them and who would count as a resident to add costs.  Exemptions were often minors and elderly head of households were exempt.  So rent costs and exemptions or lack thereof were another way to limit and further isolate/segregate housing residents.

 I have written about the ideas of building low income units in better neighborhoods to draw and of course enable the poor and largely those of color into better communities and schools and in turn opportunities hit a brick walled courthouse as I wrote about in the Yonkers controversial housing that went on for 20 years.  

And from the beginning there is one constant - a lack of federal funding to build, maintain and manage public housing units. 

And when there is government money as already noted in Education, Medicine and disaster there is corruption and malfeasance.  And then in turn the rise in crime and the rise of the trickle down economics and the reduction in Welfare that began with the infamous "Welfare Queen" archetype and the later Welfare to Work program of Bill Clinton, public housing became further synonymous with dereliction and neglect - of both  the residents and the units.

I watch as the infamous Yesler Terrace built in the 1940s under the housing act is now being torn down and rebuilt under the new act as a private public partnership called RAD. And yet Yesler Terrace was considered a model for its day and despite the rundown appearance had long term families and residents who did maintain and keep their homes.

This is the new public face of housing - the cooperative.  We have several units dedicated to the idea of low income, working poor being able to live in privately built and privately maintained homes.  The restrictions on time frames and the impetus to build and keep such units is not infinity and beyond but finite and limited.  Some developers who began to covert under that concept have already tried to or are selling to a new developer and with that comes an end to the agreement. And in turn residents must either make new living arrangements or pay increased rates. 

Finding homes under Section 8 are also challenging if not near impossible. So of course comes housing vouchers like the school vouchers. And the latter clearly did not work out so the former is hardly a panacea either. And like the lotteries for charter schools there are those for new developments as well. Nothing says parity and equality like a lottery. Another scam to exploit and manipulate the poor.

Building housing for the poor, the working poor or the homeless is a challenge in the worst of times and impossible in the best.   We have the issues of design, form and function. And of course the real estate mantra of "location, location, location." 

We are becoming a nation of push and push back. Those who live in gentrifying and growing cities of choice - the Seattle's, the Portland's, the San Francisco's and the New York's among other "desirable" hubs are finding the poor displaced and discouraged.  They want to round us up and put is in those cities that no one wants to live - the Detroit's (not for long that is going to be the next city du jour), Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Oklahoma City or wherever else that no one likes, has few white people and is frankly desperate. Flint, Michigan perhaps?

The article below discusses the end of public housing as we know it.  I have no idea if we have any idea what to do about making cities affordable.  We refuse to pay living wages. We refuse to provide decent infrastructure from the schools to the roads and include public transport in that mix.  We refuse to have immigrants who actually create jobs and pay into the system and develop communities.  We refuse to actually speak to one another to find out what we need to make things functional.  We hate each other in America. That much is certain.  Just not in my backyard, my neighborhood, my town, my workplace, my kids school. Just not near "me."

Goodbye Public Housing?

The American Prospect
 Rachel M. Cohen
November 12, 2015

 Billed as an effort to save public housing, the new RAD program may ultimately hasten its demise.

 In 2013, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) launched the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program—a far-reaching effort to preserve the government’s affordable units by transferring them into the private sector

 Rather than have Congress directly fund local housing authorities to support the program, RAD allows private companies to rehab and manage public housing units in exchange for tax credits and subsidies. The contracts, which are set to continually renew every 15-20 years, require developers to keep units affordable for low-income tenants.

 While Congress initially authorized just 65,000 units to be transferred—roughly five percent of the nation’s 1.2 million public housing stock—it later upped the RAD cap to 185,000 units, under pressure from the Obama administration and a coalition of public housing authorities, real estate developers, and other stakeholders.

 In August 2014, I took a deep look at the RAD program, and explored the concerns that tenants and housing advocates shared about its risks. Last week I spoke with Alex Schwartz, a professor of urban policy at The New School, who has been researching some preliminary RAD data. He presented his unpublished findings at the International Sociological Association RC43 Conference this past September.

 One key assumption behind RAD is that public housing was never that politically popular to begin with, and that it’s unlikely it’ll become more popular in the near future. Due to its low level of political support, (despite residents who live there being relatively satisfied), Congress has financially starved the program for decades; HUD estimates that nearly $30 billion would be required to repair and rehab the units at this point.

And the longer it takes to make such repairs, the more unsafe and uninhabitable the units will become. Each year, roughly 10,000 units are permanently removed from the public housing program, through demolition or dispositions. Through RAD, public housing units are “converted” into Project-Based Section 8 rentals, thereby becoming eligible for debt financing, tax credits, and other private funding sources that can be used to help cover rehab and maintenance costs.

 While Congress has decreased federal funding for public housing over the past two decades, it has increased funding for project-based rental assistance during this time.

Between fiscal year 2005 and fiscal year 2015, appropriations for project-based rental assistance increased by 82 percent, and appropriations for public housing’s Capital Fund decreased by 27 percent. In other words, by transferring the affordable units out of the public housing program into one that has received more political and financial support, RAD proponents feel they will be better able to preserve the physical units over the long haul, even if they become less “public” as a result.

In his paper, Schwartz explains that: Historically, because project-based rental assistance is largely used to support low-income properties with subsidy contracts involving private owners, Congress has been reluctant to undermine these contracts by failing to appropriate adequate sums for the program.

 If appropriations for project-based rental assistance falls short of the need required by the subsidy contracts, the properties would be at risk of foreclosure. At times Congress has delayed its appropriations for this program, and sometimes it has provided funding for less than a full year, but it has seldom cut back support for project-based rental assistance by a substantial amount.

 The biggest takeaway, for me, is that there’s a great possibility that public housing will ultimately end in the United States. The biggest takeaway, for me, is that there’s a great possibility that public housing will ultimately end in the United States.

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

Schwartz thinks there are some units that are in such bad shape, located mostly in high-poverty neighborhoods, that not even tax credits, mortgage financing, and other RAD funding streams will be sufficient to attract private developers to fix them up.

In light of this, the Obama administration requested that Congress appropriate $10 million to the RAD program, to help repair those units with particularly challenging needs. But Congress was adamant that RAD remain a “revenue-neutral” program, and refused to do so.

What this means is that if RAD expands, which it likely will, then we’ll see most affordable units transferred out of the public housing program, and those that remain will be the ones in the most abysmal shape. “If people had a bad image of public housing before, it’ll just get even worse,” said Schwartz in an interview.

 “It’s analogous to the health insurance pool—where all the healthy people leave, and then you’re just left with just those who have the most expensive health needs.”

 Ultimately Schwartz thinks that whatever properties remain in the program will be left to decay until they are eventually demolished once and for all.

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