Public Housing Is Part of the Housing Crisis

Public housing authorities across the country are struggling and federal programs aren’t always the answer. What’s to be done?
The Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn, N.Y. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Last week, three residents of the New York City Housing Authority’s Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn filed a class action lawsuit against the City over what they called “dangerous” living conditions, according to the complaint. The suit brought by the tenants against the public housing authority’s governing body is not the first. In fact, it’s the second complaint brought in less than three months: in December, NYCHA tenants from two notoriously dilapidated Upper East Side properties sued over unsafe living conditions.

The litigation highlights a problem not just confined to the Empire State. Public Housing Authorities nationwide are struggling with repair backlogs, budget shortfalls and the threat that housing will be lost altogether. Coupled with the nation’s housing crisis and a rise in rent regulation laws and proposals, the issue takes on even more weight.


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“The problem New York is having is happening all over the country,” said Susan Popkin, director of the Urban Institute’s Housing Opportunities and Services Together (HOST) Initiative and an Institute fellow in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center who has studied public housing for decades.

Maintenance and upgrade backlogs have been growing for years, as federal investment in public housing has shrunk every year since the early 2000s. Many properties have been in need of upgrades since the 1960s and 1970s, said Popkin. New York City, the nation’s largest public housing authority, has a $32 billion backlog, Washington, D.C. has an estimated $2 billion, and in Baltimore, an estimated $800 million in needed repairs. But it’s not just big cities facing a dauting backlog—small towns like Cairo, Ill., and Wellston, Mo., are faced with the threat of losing their public housing altogether.

“I worry a lot about small cities in small towns where that’s really the only housing,” said Popkin. “There’s not much of an option but to close down and give people voucher and they may not be able to go and use that voucher somewhere else.”

LOOKING AT SOLUTIONS

One of the most promising programs to help housing authorities get control of maintenance and upgrade backlogs has been HUD’s Rental Assistance Demonstration program. The program helps preserve affordable housing by converting public housing units to voucher-based programs and giving the properties more stable funding for capital needs through private sector ownership.

However, the program has limits. When RAD was first enacted, it was capped at 60,000 units, nowhere near the approximately 1.3 million total units of public housing in 3,400 housing authorities across the country. In 2018, that number was upped to 455,000 units—about twice the number of units in NYCHA alone.

“I think there are opportunities to do this very well,” said Popkin. “There are housing authorities around the country that have used RAD to do a lot of innovative things.”

Popkin pointed to a recent project in Chicago where a private owner bought Ravenswood Hospital, a long-vacant property, and is converting it into a senior housing building that will also include assisted living services, something she called “unprecedented” for a housing authority to provide. In Portland, Ore., the city’s housing authority, Home Forward, is planning to convert all its properties under RAD and will look to buy land and build more public housing.

In the earlier days of the RAD program, which first launched in 2012, there were problems, Popkin acknowledged. There were instances of tenants being treated improperly and tenants not allowed to return to a property after conversion. But those days are in the past now. The Urban Institute did a recent evaluation of resident outcomes in the RAD program and found that most were positive, with residents feeling that things were better.

Popkin said unless Congress passes legislation that would fund major infrastructure, like the Housing is Infrastructure Act of 2019 proposed by California Congresswoman Maxine Waters that would put $70 billion toward the public housing backlog nationwide, the only real solution to tackling the daunting problem would be major investments from outside the government.

“I think those from the private sector who wish to come in and do good things…it’s the best option we have right now,” she said.