Sweeping changes in national housing policy have put hundreds of thousands of public and federally assisted (Section 8) housing units at risk. These drastic policy changes – driven by congressional budget cutting mandates and devolution – will dramatically reduce the size of the affordable housing stock in the next decade. These public and Section 8 housing units currently serve as homes to more than three million poor Americans.
These changes could not come at a worse time, when more than five million American families experience “worst case housing needs” and receive no federal housing assistance. In most communities around the country, waiting lists for public housing and Section 8 assistance have been closed, because they are already so long and there is no hope of providing assistance to everyone in need in the foreseeable future. These policy changes come on the heels of drastic budget cuts, particularly in the areas of public housing and funding for Section 8 vouchers. For the first time in five years, Congress just approved funding for 50,000 new vouchers – a drop in the bucket compared to the need for affordable housing.
These tremendous changes will pave the way for major demolition and conversion to market rates of thousands of federally assisted homes. The new laws will eliminate numerous federal protections for residents, and place decision-making in the hands of state and local actors, many of whom have not traditionally had the best interests of residents at heart. Resident groups need resources to be able to organize to effectively participate in the decisions that will most directly affect their own lives. This is more important than ever because the critical decisions will be made by 3,400 different housing authorities as well as state, local, and for-profit agencies.
The bottom line is that the fate of hundreds of thousands of affordable units – and the people who rely on them – is now at stake.
Public Housing Overhaul
The Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998 was hastily enacted this past October after a contentious, highly partisan debate. The law – which reforms the public housing and tenant-based Section 8 voucher programs – gives local housing authorities much greater flexibility in management decisions, ranging from whether to keep or demolish units to whether to let higher income families into public housing. Some key provisions include:
Loss of Access – Income Targeting. Previously, at least three-quarters of public housing units went to very low-income families. Now, housing authorities can rent up to 70 percent of newly available units to households with more moderate incomes – as high as 80 percent of an area’s median income, or $36,000 nationally. Currently median incomes in public housing are roughly $7,000. Public Housing Authorities (PHAs) can now skip over poorer families, who have no other affordable housing options, to house people with less severe needs.
Loss of Stock – Demolition, Disposition, Conversion to Vouchers. PHAs can apply to HUD to demolish or dispose of public housing units, or convert them to vouchers, if the agency can demonstrate that the housing is obsolete, too costly to rehab, or that demolition is in the best interests of residents. Although the application is supposed to be done in consultation with residents, past practice indicates that residents are usually shut out of the process, and that the above criteria are ignored in favor of political considerations. The new law weakens the protections for residents who are forced to relocate due to demolition, sale, or conversion to vouchers.
Loss of Protections – Home Rule Flexible Grant. In up to 100 communities, mayors and other local officials will be allowed, with HUD approval, to take over the public housing and voucher funds from the housing authority. They can design their own housing programs and potentially waive many statutory provisions. This program will allow mayors to abandon many federal protections for residents and use public housing as a political football.
Loss of Tenure – Community Work Requirement. Residents who are not already working or in a self-sufficiency program must perform eight hours of community service each month. This provision sets a dangerous precedent because it replaces the so-called “endless lease” in public housing with an annual lease. Failure to comply with the work requirement is the basis for non-renewal of the lease, and it is likely that other grounds for termination will be added over time.
This new law will likely accelerate several disturbing trends. One trend is toward demolition of thousands of units, forcing tenants to be relocated and reducing the already insufficient affordable housing supply. The HOPE VI program for severely distressed public housing is a prime example of this process. [See article] The program has been so broadly applied that any PHA can apply, whether or not their housing is truly distressed. In many cases, the units being demolished could be refurbished for the same cost, but local political pressures to free up prime real estate for market-rate development lead to the loss of units. The Home Rule block grant, as well as the demolition and voucher conversion provisions, create more opportunities for mayors and local agencies to displace low-income people and people of color from certain areas. Roughly two-thirds of the demolished units are replaced with vouchers. Whereas “hard” units represent a more permanent investment in affordable housing, vouchers are subject to annual appropriations by Congress and are therefore easily cut.
Another disturbing trend is the weeding out of the poorest and most vulnerable people from public housing, in the name of “mixed income” housing. In order for housing authorities to get more moderate-income families into public housing, they need to accelerate the turnover rates. “One strike and you’re out” policies have been unfairly applied in many places – resulting in the evictions of elderly and disabled residents who are completely innocent of any crime. Now community service requirements and welfare-related sanction provisions afford PHAs with more opportunities to evict the poorest tenants so that higher income residents can be moved in.
The implications of these changes are stark. Now, more than ever, it is clear that meaningful participation by residents in the development and implementation of PHA plans is necessary to ensure that their needs and interests are adequately addressed. However, many housing authorities have a history of creating puppet resident councils that rubber stamp PHA actions or of actively subverting efforts by residents to organize. Resources are desperately needed so that residents can be informed about their rights and responsibilities under the new law and can respond accordingly.