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Introducing the New Federal Program That Will Further Privatize Public Housing

Tenants nationwide are resisting HUD's new Rental Assistance Demonstration program that could weaken the protections they spent decades fighting for.
 
 
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Olufemi Lewis was a child in Charlotte, NC, when HOPE VI came through town. HOPE VI was a federal initiative that issued grants to tear down physically distressed public housing. The buildings that were eventually rebuilt were in better shape, but most of their original residents were gone, including many of Lewis’ friends and relatives. Across the country, only 33 percent of the housing demolished with HOPE VI was replaced. 

“It got to the point where they weren’t even giving excuses, reasons to kick people out,” Lewis recalls. “And they were giving people two weeks.”

HOPE VI started in 1993 because there wasn’t enough money to keep up public housing in the traditional way. There still isn’t.

The federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) department has a $26 billion backlog in public housing repairs. And every year, the money they allocate to local housing authorities falls short. Now, HUD is rolling out a new program to address these budget problems. The Rental Assistance Demonstration program, known as RAD, will restructure the way public housing is funded in an attempt to leverage private money to maintain it.

Lewis now lives in Hillcrest Apartments in Asheville, NC, a city planning to convert almost all its public housing to RAD. When she found out about RAD, she says, she was reminded of her experiences with HOPE VI. RAD isn’t HOPE VI, but it does bring up many questions about how those who live in public housing will fare as private investors and developers take over their housing. Now, Lewis is one of many public housing residents, staff and advocates who are organizing locally to have a say in how RAD happens in their communities.

Privatizing Underfunded Public Housing

Public housing projects in the United States are home to 2.2 million people. It’s one of the nation’s primary housing safety net programs. But it’s been underfunded since the late 1970s. “The nation continues to lose approximately 10,000 public housing units each year, primarily due to disrepair,” according to a recent HUD statement.

“As the appropriations shrink, as the pie shrinks, we want to make sure we don’t lose available affordable housing units,” said Gene Gibson, a HUD public affairs officer. “We’re trying to look at innovative approaches to that.”  

It seems privatization is the approach HUD has settled on. RAD will help governments pay for public housing by taking it off their hands. The program will allow private developers to take over the managing and running of public housing. It also sets up channels for the developers to borrow money from private banks and investors to maintain the buildings.

RAD is a pilot program, starting with 60,000 units across the country. “One hundred percent of these units will be managed and run by the private companies,” Gibson said, although she emphasized that “they will still be owned by public housing authorities.”

HUD calls RAD “a central part of the Department's rental housing preservation strategy.” And it may be able to fund public housing in a way that Congress refuses to. But it will also have implications for residents’ rights.

Duking Out Tenants’ Protections

RAD explicitly protects some residents’ rights in its 200-page notice. The notice mentions the right to return for tenants displaced during renovations, which could succeed in preventing another HOPE VI-style mass displacement. It protects the right to organize tenant councils, democratically elected bodies that represent residents. It also prohibits re-screening of residents who already lived in the building when it converts to RAD.

But it remains unclear how rights not covered in the document — some of which were secured after lengthy campaigns on local, state and federal levels — will be enforced. It appears that housing authorities and their new private partners will have a lot of leeway in deciding what rights to uphold.