Public housing has been utterly neglected, underfunded and politically demonized for decades. It’s faced attacks beginning with Richard Nixon and continuing through the Bill Clinton-era, with the creation of the draconian Faircloth Limit.
The Faircloth Limit effectively stopped any new public housing construction by legally capping the total number of public housing units that can exist at its 1999 level. Clinton also instituted a new program called Hope VI, whose purpose was to demolish and rebuild dilapidated public housing. Without a 1-for-1 replacement requirement for the demolished housing, it led to displacement.
The George W. Bush administration continued Hope VI, using it as a way to land grab, such as with four major housing developments in New Orleans post-Katrina.
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The Obama administration continued the trend towards privatization with two programs. One is Choice Neighborhoods Initiative, which prioritized razing public housing in “struggling neighborhoods” to replace it with mixed-income housing. It’s been criticized for prioritizing demolition over building new affordable housing in neighborhoods that need it. The other is PETRA, which allows public housing agencies to mortgage their public housing to banks, essentially privatizing the housing.
The solution to dilapidated public housing has been neoliberal privatization for decades. But perhaps even more dire than the lack of public policy focused on housing construction rather than privatization are the effects of long-term neglect of the existing units.
In 2011, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimated the backlog of repairs in public housing to be almost $26 billion, a number that has certainly only grown, as public housing funding remains decimated. Every year, 10,000 to 15,000 units of public housing are lost due to disrepair. This is all happening in the midst of a nationwide affordable housing crisis. For instance, in New York City, where the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) is the largest landlord, there were more than 181,090 families on the waiting list for its 170,740 units of public housing as of March 2019.
Public housing is under attack nationwide, as cash-strapped cities like New York City, Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis explore privatizing their public housing stock. Community organizations like Empower DC, NYCHA tenants organizations and the Minneapolis-based Defend Glendale and Public Housing Coalition have been fighting back locally to defend themselves from displacement.
The problem is made more complicated for cities as federal funding has been gutted for so long. Lack of repairs and upkeep due to federal underinvestment has led to problems with toxic mold that’s caused high asthma rates in Brooklyn and Washington, D.C. President Trump’s regional head of HUD in New York, Lynne Patton (who previously worked as Eric Trump’s wedding planner), has tried to exploit the problems at NYCHA as excuses for privatization, ignoring the fact that it’s the underinvestment that causes the problems in the first place.
Meanwhile, the urgency of the needed repairs and upgrades are on full display in Minneapolis. A 25-story building without sprinklers above the second floor ended in tragedy when a fire broke out in November, killing five and injuring four. The Minneapolis public housing authority had identified the need to retrofit older buildings with sprinklers, but had not asked for the additional funds from the city. Organizer Ladan Yusuf pointed to negligence by the city as a root cause, pointing to plans to spend $825,000 to ostensibly improve security at the complex with key fob access and a six-foot wall — instead of investing in sprinklers.
Yet, in 2019, public housing finally got the political attention it’s needed for decades.
This work was built on a foundation created more than a decade ago, by two of the very lawmakers who continue to push the fight forward today. The first major public housing repair and reinvestment bill was introduced by Rep. Maxine Waters in 2010: the Public Housing Reinvestment and Tenant Protection Act (for which Waters was joined by Representative Nydia Velazquez).
The bold legislative proposals that were introduced this year to make the needed investments to reverse decades of underinvestment build on that work — and take it much further than ever before. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Nydia Velázquez, Maxine Waters and Ilhan Omar, and Senators Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have all put forward serious policy proposals looking to fund needed repairs and reinvest in long-neglected public housing.
In October, Representative Velázquez (D-New York) introduced the national Public Housing Emergency Response Act, which would allocate $70 billion for critically needed repairs and upgrades to public housing. The site of the largest concentration of public housing in the country is in New York City, where the NYCHA estimates that $32 billion in major repairs are needed. Velázquez’s bill allocates $70 billion total, $32 billion of which would go to long-overdue repairs in New York, home to more public housing than any other part of the country. It’s a particularly timely bill, as NYCHA has become a political football in recent years.
The Trump administration seized on the horrendous conditions in public housing as a means to criticize New York City, even threatening at one point to put NYCHA into federal receivership, which would have put the Trump administration in charge of all New York’s public housing, rather than New York City and NYCHA. That would have been a treacherous blow to New York’s public housing, given Trump’s approach to public housing: In his 2019 budget proposal, Trump and HUD Secretary Ben Carson suggested wiping out the entire budget for public housing repairs. Velázquez’s bill, by contrast, would finally provide the funding to make the repairs that could fix the caved-in ceilings, problems with heat and issues with mold that have long plagued residents.
In November, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-California) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California) introduced the $100 billion Housing is Infrastructure Act of 2019. The bill would raise the federal fund used to make repairs from the paltry $2.7 billion currently allocated to $70 billion, much like the Velázquez bill does. But this bill would also allocate $5 billion to the National Housing Trust Fund, which is a George W. Bush-era law meant to provide housing to extremely low-income individuals and families. Much less money currently flows to the Housing Trust Fund — $267 million in 2018. The funds currently come from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored mortgage loan companies that divert 0.042 percent of any of their new business earnings to the Housing Trust Fund.
Another notable public housing revitalization plan came in November from Representative Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Sanders. Their Green New Deal for Housing Act would allocate $172 billion to upgrade 1.2 million units of public housing to be powered by on-site renewable energy, while providing jobs making these upgrades to those living in public housing. According to the legislative text, the ultimate goal of the bill is “to transition the entire public housing stock of the United States, as swiftly and seamlessly as possible, into highly energy-efficient homes that produce on-site, or procure, enough carbon-free renewable energy to meet total energy consumption annually.” The bill’s “pay-for” (all new funding proposals in the House must be offset by other cuts or new revenue) would primarily come from repealing the 2017 Republican tax cuts which largely benefited the wealthy. Data for Progress estimated the bill would create over 240,000 jobs annually.
But the boldest legislative proposal that is focused purely on building new public housing comes from Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota), who proposed the trillion-dollar Homes for All Act. The bill would allocate $80 billion annually for public housing for a decade (a total of $800 billion) in order to build 9.5 million new units of public housing.
We’ve also seen solutions to the crisis of disinvestment in public housing in the presidential campaign. Senator Warren’s presidential campaign released an update to Warren’s housing proposal that includes repealing the Faircloth Limit, making all the currently needed repairs to public housing, and creating a new Tenant Protection Bureau to sit at HUD and ensure that tenants don’t have to fight substandard conditions alone. Sanders also proposes repealing Faircloth, investing $70 billion to make all repairs in the backlog, and he also wants to invest $1.48 trillion over 10 years in the Housing Trust Fund.
Public housing (along with its disrepair) has finally gotten the legislative and campaign attention it’s always deserved. What’s needed now is to build the political will to move from attention to action. Many of the lawmakers who’ve introduced these bold plans needn’t wait for a new Congress to make a real difference in the lives of public housing residents today.
We need only look to Minnesota for an example. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and the city’s public housing authority requested a Section 18 “demolition and disposition” plan. This comes after Trump made changes to end the requirement for public hearings with tenants about any Section 18 plans. The Minneapolis plan, which HUD approved in August, would convert public housing for nearly 5,000 residents into project-based vouchers, leading to concerns of displacement by Defend Glendale. The political organization Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party went so far as to ask for federal help in their fight to save their public housing, writing Representative Omar a letter asking for her to publicly ask both HUD and the local housing authority to halt the plan.
If these new champions of public housing in bills and campaign proposals can also work to amplify the tenant advocacy organizations that are already doing this work, 2020 could be a year to finally build the momentum needed to finally invest in making a safe place to call home a reality for more U.S. residents.