In 1890, Jacob Riis’ groundbreaking book How the Other Half Lives chronicled the lives of thousands of families living in squalor in New York City. A horrified public cried out for reform, and the public housing movement was born. More than 100 years have passed since Riis’ book, and although hundreds of thousands of people still live in the direst of circumstances, the loudest voices being heard today are those crying out for the dismantling of public housing.
Earlier this year, the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives pushed through H.R. 2, a bill sponsored by Rep. Rick Lazio that claims to be an overhaul of public housing. On September 26th, the Senate passed its version of this so-called overhaul, which would in fact end this nation’s longstanding commitment to public housing.
While many housing projects are beset with problems, we must understand that public housing remains the best hope for millions of families. The Department of Housing and Urban Development reports that there are 5.3 million families in a state of “severe housing crisis,” and most households in New York are paying more than 50 percent of their income in rent or live in substandard conditions, or both. New York City’s most recent housing survey revealed that more than 300,000 families are on the waiting list for public housing.
This inability to provide adequate housing has had tragic consequences. In April, we saw an illegal rooming-house fire claim the lives of four Polish immigrants. There have been published reports of children waking up in terror, having been bitten by rats, stories of people spending exorbitant sums to live in vermin-infested boiler rooms, and accounts of thousands upon thousands of illegal living quarters that resemble the steerage holds of cargo ships.
The bottom line is this – we must renew a commitment we made generations ago to provide safe, clean, affordable housing for our nation’s poorest citizens. Lazio’s bill fails terribly in that regard. Most alarming is H.R. 2’s “profile targeting” provision, under which only 35 percent of the total number of housing units will serve families making less than $10,000 per year. Currently, 75 percent of all units are occupied by such families. Using these guidelines, it would be years before public housing authorities would be required to admit any new families from the lowest income bracket. No valid claim can be made that we are “reforming” public housing by denying poor families access to clean, safe, affordable housing.
There are many more aspects of the proposal currently before Congress that are cause for serious concern. Among them are provisions that limit tenant participation on public housing boards, exempt all evictions from the grievance process, and impose time limits on how long tenants may remain in public housing. How does silencing the voices of public housing residents, denying due process, and threatening eviction reform the public housing system?
If we are going to reform public housing, we must do so in a fair and reasonable way. We must make affordable housing available to those most in need, and we must provide real economic development opportunities to help families in public housing become self-sufficient. This bill does nothing to address those needs. Last year, the Republicans called our nation’s public housing system “the last bastion of socialism.” If the Republicans have their way, we may well call our current system “the last bastion of compassion.”