After a public housing property in Hopewell, Virginia, was privatized through the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, some families were threatened with eviction and calls to Child Protective Services when their children took out the trash or were left home alone. Others were deprived of reasonable accommodations, including one resident who was denied a first-floor unit despite her heart condition. She later died of a heart attack. Some residents were improperly relocated several times to units that did not accommodate their household size, including one tenant who lost custody of her child in part because the relocations signaled instability to a judge.
While these violations are extreme, they signal a larger challenge with the implementation and oversight of HUD’s RAD program, a tool that facilitates the privatization of public housing to preserve and repair aging infrastructure. As with privatization of any public asset, there will always be promises and perils on the path. To deliver on its promise, the program requires more oversight from HUD, and local advocates must be involved in RAD conversions to support low-income residents.
Regardless of your opinion of privatization in general, the realities of public housing conditions are stark. Public housing has been neglected for so long that the approximately 1.1 million public housing units nationwide need $49 billion in repairs. As a result of these significant needs, approximately 10,000 public housing units are lost each year. Some will chalk these needs up to the idea that “the public housing system is broken.” But what this really shows is that Congress has abandoned public housing properties, public housing residents, and the notion that the federal government should continue to own affordable housing. What is broken is Congress’s view of the value of public housing, based largely on racist mythologies about the people who live in subsidized properties, about violence, and the “undeserving” poor. While public housing should represent a public commitment to provide stable housing for some of the lowest-income families in this country, severe underfunding and substandard conditions have repeatedly breached that commitment. The underfunding of public housing has impacted the health and well-being of residents, who in study after study report poorer health and increased levels of environmental hazards because of substandard housing conditions.
Congress’s failure to adequately fund public housing, along with many instances of mismanagement in sites across the country, has left housing authorities in untenable positions: demolish or convert to other types of HUD housing assistance through RAD. The program serves as a powerful tool for the preservation of public housing units, but it comes with a host of challenges including limited oversight, especially of the RAD-specific residents’ rights that are a fundamental part of the program.
What is the RAD Program?
The Rental Assistance Demonstration program allows up to 455,000 public housing units to change the type of federal housing assistance provided at the property by converting to Project-Based Vouchers (PBVs) or Project-Based Rental Assistance (PBRA). The unit cap was doubled as part of the 2018 budget and is a drastic expansion from the original 60,000-unit cap that the RAD program began with in 2012. The RAD conversion allows a nonprofit or for-profit entity to own and manage the property, and allows the owner to obtain other funding sources (like Low-Income Housing Tax Credits or state/local grants) to repair the property. So far, more than 94,000 units have converted.
Converting to PBVs means the housing authority will still be involved in the property to administer the vouchers and the property will thus be subject to the housing authority’s administrative plan. Converting to PBRA means that the rental assistance contract will be between the private owner and HUD only. More information about where RAD is happening in your community can be found here.
Because of the lessons learned from the HOPE VI program and other HUD programs where low-income residents were permanently displaced, the RAD program specifically built in protections to prevent displacement and protect existing residents. A resident’s existing public housing rights are incorporated into the property after the RAD conversion, namely their grievance procedure protections to challenge any action or inaction by the owner, and certain termination notification requirements. RAD also adds the following key resident protections:
- Residents who lived at the property before the RAD conversion cannot be subject to any rescreening or income targeting and have the right to remain at the property after the RAD conversion;
- Any residents who are temporarily relocated during any construction or repairs at the property have the right to return to the property after the repairs are completed;
- Housing authorities and owners must comply with additional notification and relocation requirements, including a written plan if temporary relocation is anticipated to last more than one year;
- If residents are already paying 30 percent of their income toward rent, their rent will not increase. If residents are paying less than 30 percent of their income on rent, their rent may increase but has to be phased in over 3 or 5 years;
- Housing authorities must have at least three meetings with residents before officially converting the property via RAD, at least two of which must be before the housing authority submits its RAD application to HUD;
- Residents retain their organizing rights and right to receive resident participation funding from the owner (at least $25 per occupied unit per year);
- Generally, one-for-one unit replacement is required, with a few exceptions;
- Residents in a RAD PBV property have the right to receive a tenant-based voucher after living at the property for one year, and residents in a RAD PBRA property have the right to receive a tenant-based voucher after living at the property for two years;
- Fair housing, accessibility, and reasonable accommodation requirements continue to apply to the property; and
- RAD owners must comply with broader Section 3 hiring and job training requirements for all work that is done via the RAD conversion.
These rights were intentionally designed to help protect residents, whose everyday lives are drastically affected by RAD conversions. On paper, these rights are clear and arguably some of the most protective rights of any HUD program.
Additionally, the promise of RAD to leverage other funding to repair public housing units is encouraging. In fact, approximately 40 percent of all RAD conversions use Low-Income Housing Tax Credits for repairs. Other funding sources can include HOME, CDBG, HUD loans, and other state/local funds. This is especially important given the $49 billion backlog of repairs in public housing and the fact that public housing funds are limited to whatever Congress allocates to it each year, which can be volatile at best. This has enabled communities like San Francisco to make nearly $700 million in repairs to units that hadn’t seen significant repairs in decades.
The main challenge with the RAD program is that the articulated tenant rights are not always implemented or enforced. Many communities will see most or all of their public housing converted through RAD, likely with many different private property owners, so the lack of oversight and inconsistency of the program can have major impacts on residents.
Residents will need to adjust to a new property owner, perhaps a different method of paying rent, new leases and house rules, and possibly temporary relocation on- or off-site that disrupts daily routines. Elderly and disabled residents will need additional assistance to adjust to these changes and ensure that their needs are met. Residents who have emergencies during or after the RAD conversion must be accommodated in a time-sensitive and safe manner. Applicants on current public housing waiting lists will need to learn how the RAD conversion will affect their applicant status. And the local government and housing authority must determine what their role will be in monitoring and overseeing the RAD-converted properties in their community to ensure that residents are protected and that the property remains habitable and affordable for the long term.
Across the country, our network of legal services attorneys and other resident advocates have seen many violations of these important rights. The Hopewell, Virginia, example noted above was one of the most egregious. Because of this, resident advocates filed complaints for a wide range of violations of RAD rights and federal law, including failure to provide reasonable accommodations for residents with disabilities, discrimination against families with children, failure to allow residents their right to return to the RAD-converted property, and inappropriate and unsafe temporary housing relocation. Their complaint sparked a HUD investigation that resulted in a settlement agreement with $225,000 in monetary compensation for the five named complainants and an additional $112,300 for the other 25 affected residents, fully funded after-school and summer programs for children at the property, changes to existing policies, and significant monitoring of the new owner and housing authority.
A recent complaint from resident advocates in Baltimore, Maryland, alleges that RAD residents have been routinely evicted without access to a grievance procedure and without proper notification. That HUD investigation is ongoing. Additionally, a HUD Office of Inspector General report found that residents in Spokane, Washington, were told that they were going to be kicked out of a RAD-converted property because they didn’t meet the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit income limits, even though this clearly violates RAD program rules. We have also seen examples of owners who have tried to block residents from organizing or have improperly tried to increase rents after a RAD conversion. The National Housing Law Project (NHLP) sent a letter to HUD Secretary Ben Carson in October 2017 outlining additional concerns with the implementation and lack of proactive HUD oversight of RAD conversions nationwide.
On March 22, 2018, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a 72-page report evaluating the program. The report, Rental Assistance Demonstration: HUD Needs to Take Action to Improve Metrics and Ongoing Oversight, mirrors many of our concerns and experiences with HUD’s implementation and oversight that we expressed to Secretary Carson last year. GAO’s report includes findings of inadequate HUD oversight of tenant protections, serious questions about the long-term preservation of RAD properties, and inflated reports of private funding leveraged through RAD. The report describes HUD’s inability to comprehensively monitor RAD residents’ rights and HUD’s reliance on resident logs kept by housing authorities and private owners. As the report states, “Without a comprehensive review of household information—one based on information in HUD data systems as well as resident logs—HUD cannot reasonably assess the effects of ongoing and completed RAD conversions on residents and compliance with resident safeguards.” The report also finds that approximately one-third of RAD conversions nationwide do not involve any repairs at the time of the RAD conversion, despite the $49 billion backlog of public housing repair needs nationwide. While we support the broad goals of the RAD program to preserve and repair public housing, we are extremely concerned about HUD’s capacity to monitor and adequately enforce residents’ rights as Congress continues to rapidly expand the RAD program. Local enforcement and education of these rights is especially critical.
Call to Action
Local involvement is crucial to ensure a RAD conversion that protects these properties and ensures resident rights. NHLP has created a training series—“Don’t Get RAD-dled”—for resident advocates who are interested in learning more about RAD resident rights. NHLP also has a list of questions to ask about local RAD conversions. Resident advocates can be especially helpful partners in drafting and editing house rules, relocation plans, grievance procedures, and any other written documents that residents will be subject to after the RAD conversion. Local organizers and legal services attorneys can help to educate residents about what these documents mean and what their rights are. Legal services attorneys can also help represent existing resident organizations or help residents set up resident organizations. To ensure the long-term affordability of the property, advocates should also demand and review a ground lease, which allows the housing authority to continue to own the land while the owner owns the building for a certain period of time and under certain conditions.
In addition to enforcing RAD requirements and existing federal law, some advocates have been able to get their local housing authority to add other conditions and requirements of RAD ownership, such as bringing together residents, advocates, and owners to create NYC RAD guiding principles, for example, and requiring that San Francisco RAD owners submit monthly data about the status of construction and resident relocation, the number of lease enforcement actions and evictions, maintenance requests, safety issues, and work order status. Advocates in New York City have also created a RAD resident handbook in collaboration with the New York City Housing Authority, RAD owners, and Enterprise Community Partners. Given the complexity of the RAD conversion process, advocates have successfully pushed the housing authority and new owners to host more than the required three meetings with residents. Advocates have also been involved in drafting key legal documents and RAD relocation plans in collaboration with the housing authority.
More voices are needed to raise issues to HUD and Congress about the local impact of the RAD program on residents in communities cross the U.S. Most of the advocacy in Congress is focused on the benefits of the RAD program, including the ability to leverage Low-Income Housing Tax Credits. While these benefits are important, resident voices are critical to address some of the current shortcomings of the program and help the RAD program achieve its full promise.
This article appears in the Summer 2018 edition of Shelterforce magazine.