US Lets Public Housing Developments Crumble as a Prelude to Privatization

When the US government’s first public housing development was created in 1935, the Roosevelt administration saw it as “an initial step in the program for slum clearance and low-cost housing.” At least that’s what the plaque in front of New York City’s aptly named First Houses — declared a landmark in 1974 — proclaims.

But ask 81-year-old Ivy about what it’s like to live in the development, and she has a long list of gripes. “I have mice and roaches, and I spent all winter curled up in a sleeping bag listening to the radio,” she tells Truthout. “It was absolutely freezing inside.” Due to fear of retaliation from New York City Housing Authority management, Ivy and the other New York tenants interviewed for this article asked that their full names not be used.

Kristen also lives in First Houses. She had adequate heat, she says, but shakes her head and shrugs when asked about the conditions in her apartment. “I’ve lived here for five years,” the 37-year-old home health aide says. “My eight-year-old son and I have lived with a broken door since August 29, 2017, when another tenant thought she smelled gas coming from my house. The fire department came in, found nothing, but since we were not at home at the time, they broke down the door. Till today it does not close properly.”

This is not Kristen’s only complaint. Last fall, she continues, her living room radiator exploded, shooting hot water and steam throughout her one-bedroom apartment. “They had to remove the living room floor tiles because they were coming up, and the Housing Authority still has not replaced them,” she says. “They painted, but the floor is now just rough wooden boards. I call the housing office at least once a week, but no one has come by to do anything.”

A national push toward privatization has led to the loss of more than 250,000 units of public housing over the past two decades.

Although Kristen understands that the eight buildings that comprise First House are old, she says that, without question, they could be better maintained. At the same time, she is quick to add that she is grateful for the East Village apartment. “The rent is cheap — $380 and change — and while I’d love to move out of here, I know I’ll never be able to find another place as affordable as this,” she says.

Indeed, the country’s 2.1 million public housing residents, all of them low-income and most of them elderly, disabled, or raising small children, typically have complaints that mirror those articulated by Ivy and Kristen and wish their developments were better kept. They blame deteriorated conditions on years of underfunding, mismanagement, and outright neglect by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the federal agency responsible for overseeing all government rental assistance programs. What’s more, they are acutely aware that a national push toward privatization has led to the loss of more than 250,000 units of public housing over the past two decades, a trend housing activists say is unlikely to reverse in the foreseeable future.

Pittsburgh Is Typical

Carl Redwood Jr. is the chair of the Hill District Consensus Group in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a community advocacy group that fights for tenants and low-income people. The lifelong activist and professor of social work describes the impact of the demolition of several Pittsburgh developments: the 680-unit St. Clair Village; the 734-unit Addison Terrace; and the partial tearing-down of Bedford Dwellings, the city’s oldest public housing complex. “These developments were predominantly African American,” Redwood told Truthout. “Between 1980 and 2010 the Black population of Pittsburgh went from 100,000 to 80,000 while the Black population in the ring of towns that surround Pittsburgh went from 80,000 to 114.000. This change was the end result of a purposeful policy to drive low-income people, most of them Black, out of the city.”

Where have folks gone? I ask.

Rankin, eight miles south of Pittsburgh, and Homestead, seven miles southeast, are now predominantly African American, Redwood says. “These are essentially abandoned mill towns. Now that the steel plants are closed, there are a few service jobs, but nothing like the union jobs that used to exist. Transportation is another big issue since it’s hard for folks to get into the city if they don’t have a car. The worst part of this is that many families have experienced serial displacement and have been dislocated many times for the benefit of banks, real estate and rich people.”

All told, Redwood says, if the city of Pittsburgh wanted to meet the needs of its low-income residents, it would have to construct approximately 21,000 affordable housing units.

Call it a shock doctrine for public housing. It starts with chronic underfunding and negligent management.

And that’s just for this one city. According to “The Gap: A Shortage of Affordable Homes,” a report released by the National Low Income Housing Coalition in March 2018, the US is presently facing a shortage of 7.2 million affordable and available rentals. This staggering number was calculated using a standard of affordability pegged at 30 percent of household income for rent, something that activists concede has become a pipedream for most of us. Small wonder that more than 500,000 Americans are homeless, with countless thousands living doubled up.

“We can’t resolve the housing crisis if we turn to private developers,” Redwood concludes. “The real solution is publicly owned and operated social housing, public housing. Without government involvement, market-based investors, banks and real estate interests will continue to swoop in, flip properties, and gentrify neighborhoods.”

There’s another factor, too, Redwood says, that has stymied the provision of public housing: the concept of deconcentrating poverty.

Public housing was originally segregated, with separate buildings for white people and people of color. After the Second World War ended, the government increased the availability of subsidized mortgages for the white working class. A large number took advantage of the offer, moved out of public housing and bought single-family homes in the suburbs. This led to public housing becoming almost exclusively populated by people of color.

“The idea that a large-scale concentration of low-income Black and Brown people was bad led to the destruction of public housing,” Redwood says. “Austerity, followed by deconcentration, busted up whole communities, not just in Pittsburgh, but in Chicago, St. Louis and other cities and towns,” both urban and rural.

Contempt for Public Housing Residents

The outright contempt for non-white residents of public housing has been boundless.

Trenise Bryant, chair of the board of the Miami Workers Center offers a recent example, reporting that after Hurricane Irma hit Florida in fall 2017, residents of Miami’s Liberty City Housing awoke to see — and smell — 341,000 cubic yards of debris being dumped in a vacant lot across from their homes. Within days they noticed an upsurge in respiratory distress as well as more flies, mosquitoes, possums, rats and snakes than normal. “When residents went outside and saw all this moldy trash, they came to the Workers Center. We helped them get organized. If we hadn’t done this, the trash might still be there. This particular development is on high ground,” Bryant laughs. “Apparently, real estate now wants to move poor people out because Liberty City is a safer place to live.”

As egregious as this was, she continues, it is part of a longstanding plan to displace the occupants of Miami’s public housing — and she notes that some developments have already been privatized.

Deborah Thrope, supervising attorney at the National Housing Law Project, reports that beginning in 2012, a Housing and Urban Development program called the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) has been operative. “In San Francisco, the entire portfolio of public housing has been converted to privately-owned housing,” she says.

According to HUD, RAD is intended to alleviate the “$26 billion nationwide backlog of deferred maintenance” and give public housing authorities the ability to “leverage public and private debt and equity in order to reinvest in public housing stock.” Money goes to private real estate entities, with tenants typically receiving a subsidy — usually called Section 8 — that allows them to pay 30 percent of household income in rent — with the difference between that amount and the market rent paid by the government. This is intended to ensure that the building owner gets whatever the market will bear for a particular space. It is worth noting that the 30 percent rent payment cap will be upped to 35 percent if HUD secretary Ben Carson has his way, an intention announced in late April.

“California is representative of what is happening nationwide,” Thrope says. Call it a shock doctrine for public housing. It starts with chronic underfunding and negligent management. This is followed by a determination — usually announced by the local Housing Authority — that the buildings are dilapidated and/or uninhabitable. In city after city, a pattern has emerged, with government officials lamenting that they do not have the money necessary for the rehab and renovation that these decrepit buildings need.

The Netherlands has the largest supply of social housing in Europe, with nearly one-third of rentals being publicly owned.

The next step continues to follow the shock doctrine playbook: Elected officials throw up their hands and say they have no choice but to turn to private investors. Then, they declare that repairs require vacancy. While the tenants who are pushed out are usually promised the right to return, advocates say that people get lost along the way, either because they move or simply slip through the cracks. In addition, says Thrope, many of these developments become mixed-income — remember, the goal of deconcentrating poverty? — so the rehab and conversion to mixed-income housing results in a smaller number of apartments allocated to the poorest residents.

“There is a lot at stake,” Thrope adds, “but this is really the only game in town.”

Incredibly, this “game” she says, will allow for the continued conversion of hundreds of thousands of additional public housing units.

“Many urban developments were built on waterfront areas that used to be ghetto,” Thrope adds. “Now, real estate developers want these areas for high-end construction. Given this, housing advocates are being realistic. We know that there won’t be an influx of public housing dollars anytime soon, so we’re pushing for stronger tenant protections and grievance procedures for residents of the converted buildings.”

As a former New York City Housing Authority staff person told the press, “Housing officials and private developers can borrow money and access tax credits that the Housing Authorities cannot. The funds are then used to fix buildings. The private developers make money off management fees and housing subsidies that, in some cases, pay market-rate rents.” 

In other words, developers and real estate interests are driving the privatization effort.

Not Everyone Wants to Compromise

Not everyone believes that the planned conversions have to be a fait accompli, however. In Newark, New Jersey’s Ironbound district, tenants of the Millard E. Terrell Homes, a 275-unit public housing complex that has been slated for demolition, are fighting back.

Daniel Wiley, housing justice coordinator of the Ironbound Community Corporation, says the buildings are presently about two-thirds occupied. “Thanks to a strong tenant association, people have mobilized against the demolition and are pushing the Newark Housing Authority (NHA) to replace non-functioning boilers and make needed repairs to apartments that are contaminated by mold or lead paint.”

“Tenants have to be at the table, in talks with NHA, about what is going to happen,” Wiley says. “There are 10,000 people on the waiting list for public housing in Newark, so it is ridiculous to keep apartments vacant or knock down buildings that are not in terrible shape and can be rehabbed.”

Other activists want far more. Karen Kubey, an architectural and housing consultant and visiting professor at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, is looking to Europe’s social housing as a model of what’s possible.

“The common assumption is that high-rise towers — what architects refer to as tower-in-the-park construction — do not work and that low-rise is always better. But the idea that architecture is the problem is incorrect,” Kubey told Truthout. “In the last decade, Europe has built tons of publicly-owned social housing. It has loads of advantages. For one, it is 30 percent cheaper when government builds a new development directly than if they work through a private developer. Thirty percent!”

Nonetheless, Kubey acknowledges that there is a lot of money being made on creating so-called affordable housing. That said, she points out that most US housing is subsidized, albeit in different ways. In 2015 alone, people who own private homes were given $71 billion in mortgage interest deductions, for example.

It comes down to how governments set priorities. “Social Housing — New European Projects,” an exhibition at New York’s Center for Architecture, demonstrates what can unfold once a government decides to make building affordable, nonprofit housing a goal — something that Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom have begun to do.

The result is impressive. Twenty-three percent of all Austrian dwellings are currently municipally owned. In Denmark, 20 percent is public, paid for through a national fund and operated by more than 700 social housing associations. The Netherlands has the largest supply of social housing in Europe, with nearly one-third of rentals being publicly owned.

Although there is no consistency in terms of how rents are set, the Journal of the Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies reports that “most countries offer a home for life. That is, once a household has secured a social tenancy, that household can remain as long as the rent is paid and other tenancy conditions are met even if income increases over the eligibility ceiling or family size changes.”

What’s more, while European social housing is far from perfect, most elected officials throughout the European Union see affordable housing as a central tenet of social stability, a concrete way to reduce blatant inequalities and protect the most vulnerable. At the effort’s helm is the European Investment Bank, the member-owned lending institution of the EU. The bank is funding numerous new developments and building upgrades in member nations.

This, obviously, is the complete opposite of what is being promoted in Washington.

Ed Josephson, director of litigation and housing at Legal Services NYC, offers a succinct summary: “The philosophy coming out of Washington is ‘don’t spend money on poor people if you can avoid it. But if you have to spend something on them, make sure that rich people get to profit from it.'”

And they do.