When the revolutionary idea that the government should build federally owned housing for the poor became law in 1937, opponents said it would bring the evils of socialism and fought to stop construction in some cities.
As it enters the 70th year since it was authorized and the 42nd year since it became part of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the public housing program has survived many challenges. In the last 15 years, it has entered a new and promising era, based on sustainable design, self-sufficiency, and a deconcentration of poverty. Public housing authorities (PHAs) have learned how to emulate the best practices of the private real estate industry.
But now, once again, public housing is at a turning point. The Bush administration and the recent Republican-controlled Congresses are guilty of neglect and mismanagement that threaten to reverse the positive momentum gained in recent years.
Our nation’s public housing stock is home to about 1.1 million households. Most of this housing is well managed and provides decent living space for our poorest citizens. But much of this stock is very old and in need of rehab. At the same time, operating costs are rising, especially for utilities.
Despite those needs, Congress and the administration have cut operating subsidies five years in a row, funding only 76 percent of what the federal formula says is necessary to operate those units in fiscal 2007.
The Republicans also cut capital funding repeatedly and eliminated the last small amount of funding for HOPE VI, which has been a linchpin for redevelopment of the nation’s most distressed public housing and the pursuit of economic integration and opportunity for public housing residents.
Worst of all, despite their rhetoric about deregulation, the Republicans have not done enough to advance the deregulation of public housing.
In 1998, Congress realized that direct federal control over every aspect of public housing operation was no longer working. It passed the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act (QHWRA), a landmark bill to deregulate public housing.
In the eight full years since QHWRA was enacted, HUD still has not written all the rules it believes are needed to implement the law, even in proposed form. HUD bureaucrats are doling out more autonomy by the teaspoon, with miles of red tape attached. As one longtime HUD observer put it with a laugh, “Of course they have no intention of deregulating public housing.”
There is plenty of blame to go around for the state of public housing in the ’70s and ’80s, and much of it rests with badly managed PHAs and overly zealous tenants’ advocates who pushed the rights of the poor far above any concept of sound real estate management.
But the progress made since 1992, when HOPE VI was enacted, is now threatened—not because of liberals, tenant advocates, or even bureaucrats.
The problem is a lack of political leadership, and the lion’s share of the blame belongs to HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson and his predecessor, Mel Martinez, the two men who have run HUD for President George W. Bush.
Martinez saw HUD as a stepping stone to higher office and never cared about housing, but Jackson could have been expected to do more. He is not a politician. He was executive director for the St. Louis Housing Authority, and president and CEO of the Housing Authority of the city of Dallas.
I hope a new president and a new HUD secretary will pick up the ball and run with it. But in the meantime, the 110th Congress must act now to further the progress of public housing. First, it should extend and expand the Moving to Work Demonstration, allowing more than just the current 24 PHAs in the program to operate with substantial freedom from HUD interference.
Congress should move quickly to consider Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s (D-Md.) legislation to restore and renew HOPE VI, but not without rethinking the program. Historically, it has offered a very big subsidy for a relatively small number of agencies and has not provided much-needed assistance to small PHAs with serious rehab needs but no desire to redevelop entire neighborhoods. Other ideas are worth considering, like a shallower subsidy available to far more housing authorities, or an addition to the annual low-income housing tax credit authority dedicated to public housing redevelopment.
Finally, local PHAs must have more autonomy, and if HUD won’t give it to them, Congress needs to insist that it does.
Most important, policymakers must recognize that providing enough funding to preserve our investment in public housing is a pressing national priority.
With today’s emphasis on deficit reduction, it’s an unavoidable reality that the public housing stock will have to shrink a bit more than it already has, and that many tenants will be required to work or do community service, and eventually pay more rent. PHAs will get healthier as they move to diversify into other forms of affordable housing that serve a more moderate-income clientele.
But I have to ask whether, by dragging their feet to implement deregulation while at the same time cutting critical funding, Bush and the Republicans are acting out of ignorance and neglect, or if they have a more deliberate plan to do what opponents of the program tried to do more than 70 years ago: Kill it.
What I do know is that the housing we taxpayers financed under that program is worth many tens of billions of dollars, fills a crucial housing need, and cannot be replaced.
If funding is not restored and if that stock is allowed to deteriorate, we could find ourselves back in the same position as when Dan Rather reported for CBS News about the horrible conditions at Chicago’s Cabrini-Green project, and when frequent gunfire at some inner-city projects meant that children could not sleep at night.
If we start sliding backward again, we will all know exactly who to blame.