Recent stories have highlighted the poor condition of Public Housing around the country. Public Housing communities serve people with the lowest incomes, mostly seniors, disabled persons and families with children. Some buildings are in such bad shape that HUD has taken over management from the local Public Housing Agency (PHA). How did we get here, and what can be done to improve the conditions faced by residents?
A number of things have made it difficult to maintain the buildings. Most of the Public Housing stock is old. In some cases, fraud or mismanagement at the local and federal levels have siphoned away money needed for repairs. HUD’s inspection system has flaws, and many buildings that are in dire need of repairs still get passing scores. But lack of funding for daily maintenance and ongoing capital improvements has had the largest impact on keeping up the quality of Public Housing.
Older buildings need more frequent repairs and often need major improvements to remain safe and comfortable. They not only need more attention to daily maintenance, but are also more likely to need new roofs, boilers and other large repairs that are very expensive. Many also need to be made energy efficient, accessible to people with disabilities and cleared of environmental hazards like lead paint and asbestos. Very little Public Housing was built after 1981. As of 1991, more than 60% of units had been built before 1970. This means that almost all Public Housing is more than 30 years old.
Lack of funding is the main reason for the poor conditions. The Public Housing Operating and Capital Funds have been underfunded for years. The Operating Fund pays for day-to-day maintenance and management of buildings. Things like replacing light bulbs, fixing toilets or stoves, repairing broken doors and similar items are paid out of the Operating Fund. Only twice since 2002 has there been enough money in the Operating Fund to cover what PHAs need for basic maintenance. The shortfalls have ranged from 5% to 17%. When small repairs do not get done, over time the property suffers and larger problems arise. This makes it even more expensive to fix older buildings.
The Public Housing Capital Fund pays for major repairs like replacing boilers and installing new roofs. It also pays for major renovations to improve safety, accessibility for disabled persons and energy efficiency improvements. Funding for the Capital Fund has fallen 35% since 2000. Even the best-managed PHAs cannot maintain their buildings when there is not enough money to pay for basic improvements like roofs and boilers.
Some PHAs have suffered from mismanagement. Whether it’s due to poor judgment or fraud, mismanagement draws millions of dollars away from needed Public Housing repairs and upgrades. In some of these cases, conditions have been so bad that HUD has taken over management of of the local PHA. This has only happened 20 times since 1985.
But HUD oversight does not guarantee that Public Housing properties will be improved. HUD Secretary Carson in 2018 announced HUD would return local control to the East St. Louis Housing Authority (ESLHA) in Illinois. HUD gave up direct management, even though the majority of the Public Housing properties had failed their federal inspections.
In an extreme case, HUD last year made the move to abolish the Wellston Housing Authority (WHA) in Missouri. For the first time, HUD will be demolishing or selling all 400 units of WHA’s Public Housing instead of preserving or rebuilding them. The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) has been in the news for the poor condition of its Public Housing. NYCHA has been called out on its failure to address lead paint clean-up and having many buildings that lacked heat because of old and broken boilers. With these conditions in mind, NYCHA recently announced an initiative to modernize a number of its Public Housing properties.
HUD’s inspection system has also come under fire. In many cases, buildings with leaking roofs, faulty boilers and rats receive passing scores, while buildings with few problems fail their inspections. The current inspection system is overseen by HUD’s Real Estate Assessment Center (REAC). REAC was created in the late-1990s to provide a standardized, ongoing system for evaluating housing assisted with HUD funds. But HUD relies on third-party inspectors to look at the buildings, which contributes to the wide range of inspection results. Property owners have also been known to hire consultants to help them pass inspections instead of making necessary repairs. HUD Secretary Carson has said the department is working to toughen inspection standards, and may propose reducing the notice time to landlords from 3 or 4 months notice to only seven days. This proposed change may be rolled out in February, 2019.
There have been efforts to improve Public Housing quality. The HOPE VI program provided funding for demolishing old properties and rebuilding with mixed-use and mixed-income neighborhoods. This program has been phased out, mostly because of its high cost. Currently, HUD administers the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program. RAD allows PHAs to convert Public Housing properties to Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance (PBRA). The change in funding sources allows the PHA to attract private investment to pay for upgrades and renovations. You can read more about RAD on Affordable Housing Online here.
Congress controls funding and provides oversight of federal agencies, including HUD. Public Housing is an investment that serves our most vulnerable residents and benefits communities across the country. As the new Congress takes office this January, low-income renters should let their Representative and Senators know that they must provide the funding needed to keep public housing safe for years to come.
Edited by Nathan Brunet