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.
James Grow, deputy director of the National Housing Law Project, said that for many specifics about residents’ rights, it will take individual disputes to set precedents —often “on case by case basis, in litigations between the tenant and the landlord.”
“They’ll be duking it out in court,” Grow said.
This is frustrating, said Reginald Rogers, a resident of Baltimore’s Bernard E. Mason Apartments and president of the tenant council at that public housing project.
“The tenants have worked hard to create these public housing laws that protect us since the 1960s,” Rogers said.
Monkeying With Rights
HUD filled its 60,000 unit cap in January, and housing authorities spent February and March finding “private partners” to work with. Now, the process of negotiating terms with these banks, investors, and developers is beginning. These private interests are requesting changes to local public housing policy, sometimes with troubling implications. For instance, some of these private partners have requested harsher screening criteria for new residents when they buy the buildings.
Karen Wabeke is part of a coalition that meets regularly with the Housing Authority of Baltimore City. She says Baltimore screens applicants using a “look-back period” — people with misdemeanor convictions in the 18 months before their applications, or felonies in the previous three years, will usually be rejected. But for properties converting to RAD, the felony “look-back period” could be extended to seven years.
The agency is also looking at more stringent credit screening for applicants.
“You need to do these capital improvements, but then you’re monkeying with the eligibility criteria. How does one lead to the other?” Wabeke said.
In San Francisco, at developers’ request, the city was considering breaking up the citywide public housing waitlist into separate, site-specific lists, although officials say this option is no longer on the table. Separate wait lists might make sense for developers who want to manage their own lists, but it could have civil rights implications for public housing residents.
“In general, we’d like to see consolidated wait lists,” said Jeff Jackson, compliance officer at HUD. That’s because separate wait lists can lead to racial and economic segregation.
“Fair housing laws call that disparate impact,” Jackson said.
But as these negotiations happen, residents across the country are rallying to make sure they have a say in the process.
The RAD conversion guide states: “selected projects will have 12 months to complete conversion actions.” That’s a limited time for residents to have a say in how their housing will look for at least the next 40 years.
“We have a year or less before this happens,” said Gary Stroud, treasurer of the Bernard E. Mason tenant council in Baltimore. “I’m afraid of what’s going to happen with RAD if everyone doesn’t organize around the country.”
Many people have been doing just that. In Ashville, Lewis and a group of other Hillcrest residents researched RAD and passed out information about it at housing authority-run info sessions.
Lewis said this was important because the Asheville officials weren’t forthright about what RAD was.
“They stated that they wanted to have this as an option to save public housing,” Lewis said. “They didn’t mention anything about privatization.”
Now, she is helping to form the Public Housing Advocacy Coalition, in part to have a strong voice in the RAD decision-making process.
In Baltimore, AFSCME Local 647 union members in green shirts flooded one housing authority meeting demanding a response to rumors that 200 unionized public housing staff could be laid off after RAD conversion.
The same number of housing authority staff could lose their jobs in San Francisco, as the city prepares to convert the homes of 10,000 residents to RAD. SEIU 1021, one of the unions that represents San Francisco’s public housing staff, have also showed up in numbers to Housing Authority commission meetings, handing out fliers about RAD.
"They're talking about eliminating 200 middle-class jobs," said Alysabeth Alexander, vice president of politics for SEIU Local 1021, which represents San Francisco public housing staff.
In Charlottesville, VA, a campaign of residents who would have been affected by RAD actually stopped the housing authority from applying for the program.
Brandon Collins, who organizes with the Charlottesville Public Housing Association of Residents, says public housing tenants felt blindsided when they received an email at 6pm on a Friday about a RAD information meeting the following week, and other moves by the local housing authority that he saw as an attempt to bypass residents.
Charlottesville has a Residents Bill of Rights, which passed in 2008.
The first provision: “a meaningful and enforceable resident participation process will guide all substantive decisions about redevelopment.”
“We feel that our bill of rights was trampled,” said Collins. Soon after, he said, “We went into war mode.”
Many residents were concerned about the effect RAD could have on the local resident advisory board. Residents in housing projects RAD funding could lose their right to serve on these boards, which are jurisdiction-wide bodies that represent public housing tenants.
“If an entire housing authority is converted, this further shuts residents out of the decision-making process,” Collins said.
Residents packed meetings demanding answers to questions about RAD, and Charlottesville called off their plans to apply, at least for now.
Public housing is only one of many social programs that have been outsourced to private companies, often with dangerous results.
“Our public parks, our military, our prisons, and now our public housing. They're all being privatized,” said Paul Boden, executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, an alliance of grassroots organizations fighting against poverty and homelessness.
Before the late 1970s, when President Nixon and then Reagan slashed public housing, the program was well funded. Boden says instead of privatizing the housing, Congress should supply sufficient funding.
“When they wanted to fund it, they had the money,” Boden said.
Meanwhile, local activists are trying to hold their housing authorities accountable. Faced with community resistance, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City has said that they will get rid of some of the new eligibility rules. But Wabeke says many of these promises are oral, and could get lost as the city negotiates terms with the developers. That’s why she and others in Baltimore are working to get these promises in writing.
“To say to tenants, ‘you’ll have all these grievance rights and protections,’ is not really meaningful if you don’t have any way to enforce it,” Wabeke said.
Their coalition has also had some success getting the city to agree to give residents secondary rights to buy back the RAD buildings. So when the developers resell, if the housing authority doesn't buy it back, the residents may have the right to do so, potentially creating cooperative housing. Other creative ideas, like an equity claim for people who have been in public housing for generations based on policies like the Homestead Act, have surfaced in response to RAD.
As income inequality continues to rise in the United States, public housing becomes more of a critical resource. RAD is an attempt to preserve it. But people who live and work in public housing in Asheville, San Francisco, Charlottesville, Baltimore and beyond are organizing to make sure they have a say in the future of this noble but troubled institution.