Ramsey homes, a public housing development soon to be redeveloped in Alexandria, VA.

The need for cheap, well-maintained housing in our region far outpaces what is available, and the agencies in charge of providing those homes (our public housing authorities) are scrambling. At a recent presentation to the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority (ARHA), experts discussed how housing authorities across the country are adapting to the federal government’s steady removal of support for traditional public housing.

As discussed in my first post, the federal government has been consistently getting out of the public housing game for years. They have steadily decreased funding and support, and sometimes simply removed public housing without replacing all of the homes. Yet the demand for these homes has not gone away and is particularly acute in our region where wages have not kept up with rising housing costs.

So what does that mean for local housing authorities?

Faced with ever decreasing federal funds, deteriorating buildings they are in charge of maintaining, and thousands of residents in need, even well-managed local housing authorities are pretty much screwed. This is not to mention that in the last decade many had to draw deep into their reserves during sequestration just to keep operating.

According to Rhea Parkes of EJB consulting, who presented to ARHA at their September meeting, “Housing authorities need to keep being creative in order to maintain their properties with declining funding.” She listed many strategies various agencies are taking to at least maintain their housing stock, if not increase it.

Image by hikingArtist.com licensed under Creative Commons.

Follow the (federal) money

While congressional support for traditional public housing has been insufficient for years, other types of funding have stayed stable or have been newly created. One example is the funding for the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program, which funds vouchers that can be used to pay rent on the private market. This program has had relatively stable funding over many years and many housing authorities are increasingly providing vouchers rather than building and maintaining public housing. Beyond the more dependable funding from Congress, vouchers allow housing authorities to avoid the costs of building or maintaining buildings, instead relying on the private market for that.

The problem is, of course, that not every city compels landlords to take those vouchers. Some landlords even conspire to avoid accepting vouchers (warning, this person seems like a real asshole). DC does have a law that landlords must accept vouchers, but this law is rarely enforced. One study showed that 45 percent of voucher holders face some sort of discrimination when trying to use the subsidy. What is more, tenants on the private market often don’t have the same protections afforded to them in public housing, facing negligent and abusive landlords and increased risk of rent rises or evictions.

Besides converting to vouchers, housing authorities can also look to new programs and sources of money. These include tax credits that create subsidized units and newly created federal programs like the Choice Neighborhood Initiative (CNI) and Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) programs. Each of these come with their own bucket of federal money and their own requirements and regulations, but they are essentially new sources of federal money for rebuilding and revitalizing public housing units and their surrounding communities.

What is different about nearly all of these other sources is that they create mixed-income housing in partnership with the private market, not 100 percent public housing. That means typically (but not always), the housing authority partners with a nonprofit or for-profit developer to include deeply subsidized units within market-rate complexes. Beyond utilizing these different subsidies and tools, this strategy also returns some revenue from the market-rate units to housing authorities, something they need in order to sustain themselves. This revenue allows them to maintain upkeep on existing units, and, aspirationally, create other deeply subsidized homes.

Image by Culture:Subculture Photography licensed under Creative Commons.

Not everyone agrees with a mixed income strategy

There is something uncomfortable about the idea of housing authorities using their resources to build non-subsidized or less-subsidized homes. In an era where many are concerned about the increasing privatization of services and structures in our society, the fact that this is also happening to public housing is a problem.

There are other concerns too. Often the units in these redeveloped mixed-income buildings aren’t as affordable as traditional public housing. For example, using tax credit programs create units that are available to those making 60 percent of Area Median Income (AMI) rather than 30 percent AMI (which is the level traditionally served by public housing units). With thousands on the waiting lists for deeply affordable units as well as scarce land and resources, why not put every dollar into homes for those with greatest need?

Parkes answers, “One thing we should be absolutely clear about: public housing units on their own will not generate enough revenue to sustain themselves.” It’s up to housing authorities to create the right mix of strategies and revenue streams to keep their programs and homes sustained. With ever-waning support from the federal level, part of her recommendations are to diversify the kind of public housing units authorities are managing and to include different income bands, even market-rate homes.

Now you can argue that there is actually federal money available, we’re just not spending it on this issue. And you’d be right. Even if we just look at what the federal government spends on housing subsidies, annually billions of dollars are used on regressive tax deductions that mainly benefit the wealthiest homeowners. We need to change that, and it’s infuriating that those systems persist.

But today we need to build homes that are affordable enough that people working in the region can live here also. That means we are going to need homes affordable at those deep levels, and we need solvent agencies to build and manage them.

Barry Farm

Agencies might be struggling, but we need to hold them to a high standard

Our region’s housing authorities are struggling to stop the loss of deeply affordable housing and adequately maintain the remaining units they still have. In Southeast DC, the DC Housing Authority (DCHA) is being sued over their redevelopment plans for Barry Farm, a large public housing development with 432 current units that DCHA plans to redevelop to around 1,100 market and subsidized homes. The plans don’t replace all off the current deeply affordable homes on-site, and include fewer family-sized units than what currently exist. Tenants and advocates also allege that DCHA neglected maintenance on the property for years in anticipation of the redevelopment, ultimately forcing some residents to leave and others to endure horrendous conditions.

In Alexandria, as mentioned in part one, ARHA and the City Council are debating whether to change decades-old Resolution 830 (which promises one-for-one replacement of public housing redeveloped by the city) citing the agency’s inability to fund that promise.

One-for-one replacement is honestly the bare minimum of what we should be holding our agencies accountable to. We already don’t have enough low-cost homes available to people working minimum wage jobs or on public assistance. We should be creating more. We are a growing region: if we don’t provide low-cost homes, are we only growing for people with higher incomes?

However, we also need to provide the tools and funding our housing authorities need to do their jobs. That might mean providing public housing maintenance money from local budgets (which just started to happen in DC). That might mean allowing increased density so that mixed-income developments can incorporate more and more deeply subsidized units. During Greater Greater Greater Washington’s work with a diverse set of partners on DC’s Comprehensive Plan, we pushed for this formula: provide the affordable homes and the anti-displacement protections, but get all local agencies to fund it seriously and creatively, leveraging our valuable land as much as possible.

As a region we should uphold these standards. We have a lot going for us: valuable land, healthy growth and demand for homes, and local money to spend. If anyone can figure out how to maintain a stock of low-cost homes, it should be us.