The public housing available at Braddock Road Metro Station, Andrew Atkins, has plans for redevelopment.

Every year we are losing thousands of public housing units nationally, even as wages stagnate for the nation’s lowest earners and housing costs rise in regions like ours. It’s up to our region’s housing authorities to maintain–and in fact increase–our public housing stock. However, these authorities are running out of money, and are trying to adapt by exploring new ways to provide low-income housing while staying financially stable. At a recent presentation to the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority (ARHA), experts discussed how to do just that.

Regional housing authorities are struggling to maintain and create enough affordable homes

The presentation last week came as part of an ongoing debate in Alexandria about an unique, decades-old law called Resolution 830. Passed in 1979, Resolution 830 made Alexandria one of the few jurisdictions in the US at the time that required a one-for-one replacement of public housing units when these properties were redeveloped.

In the 1990’s in particular, through the HOPE VI federal program, thousands of public housing units were redeveloped and not always replaced one-for-one. In their place, mixed income housing was built, but often with less deeply affordable units than were there previously. This happened in multiple cases in our region as well.

Alexandria’s Resolution 830 stopped this from happening, but now ARHA is discussing amending it, citing the agency’s struggle to fund and maintain that promise. Over the next several months a working group is assembling to decide what to do. As a precursor to this effort, consultant Rhae Parkes of EJB Consulting gave a presentation on September 29th to gathered officials, explaining trends and best practices from across the US.

The need for subsidized, cheap housing is real

To have a conversation about public housing, we need to take an honest look at the need. People should be able to live within reasonable distance to where they work. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask. In our region, with our current minimum wages, that is going to mean we need public housing.

In DC a person making minimum wage makes $26,000 a year. In northern Virginia, it’s $15,080. In Montgomery County (unless the $15 minimum wage efforts comes to fruition) it’s $26,000, and in Prince George’s County it’s $22,360.

Affordable housing in our region is defined by our regional area median income (AMI). What we traditionally call public housing is restricted to families making 30 percent of AMI, which for our area is $32,600 for a family of four.

Image by Edward Kimmle licensed under Creative Commons.

You can see that this system is not going to balance out.

The incredibly long waiting lists for housing assistance in our region bear this inequity out. In DC, there are over 40,000 people on the waiting list for public housing and housing choice vouchers (which pay the gap between the market-rent and what you can afford at 30 percent of your income). In Alexandria, over 15,000 people applied for assistance when the list reopened (temporarily) a few years ago for just one week.

Asking these folks to find somewhere else to live is not an answer. Beyond the moral and diversity argument, our region quite simply doesn’t function if all of the folks working minimum wage jobs disappear. Demanding low-wage earners to become super-commuters is not going to cut it either.

Why is there not enough public housing?

Public housing was originally built not as a social safety net program, but rather because the government once took the idea of building enough homes for our workforce seriously.

Tens of thousands of homes were built by the government in the 1930’s to meet the demand in cities across the US that were epicenters of wartime production. The reasoning was simple: if people were going to work here they needed a place to live affordably, so the government built homes–a lot of them in a very short amount of time.

The above text comes from The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein (2017)

Nearly all of these buildings were explicitly segregated, and in fact were used as a tool to further segregation in many cities. Then after WWII, the government began to heavily subsidize and incentive suburban development. Often these developments were for whites only thanks to racist zoning, covenants or deeds, so in many cases urban public housing became nearly exclusively occupied by people of color.

In the 1970’s the federal government not only stopped building significant amounts of public housing, but also began to underfund its maintenance. Deterioration and eventual destruction of these homes followed.

This pattern of chronic underinvestment has remained true in recent decades. Every year nationally between 10,000-12,000 public housing units are disappearing, according to Parkes’ numbers. Except for 2010 (when a portion of Obama’s stimulus package went to local housing authorities), the federal government has consistently given local housing authorities between 80-85 percent of the operating costs needed to maintain their stock of housing.

It’s clear that for decades the federal government has been getting out of the public housing game altogether. That puts our region's public housing authorities in a tough spot, and in my next post I will look at what they are doing to adjust.

David Whitehead was the Housing Program Organizer at Greater Greater Washington from 2016 to 2019.  A former high school math teacher and a community organizer, David worked to broaden and deepen Greater Greater Washington’s efforts to make the region more livable and inclusive through education, advocacy, and organizing. He lives in Eckington.