Emily McDonald is a graduate student in the sociology department of George Mason University. She has been a volunteer intern for Grassroots DC since May 2016.
THE FIGHT FOR PUBLIC HOUSING IN 2016
In my time with Grassroots DC, I was given the underestimated task of tracking DCHA’s budget from the founding of Potomac Gardens on Capitol Hill until now. I began looking through HUD documents, only to find different structures of information for each year. I was able to track large budget numbers, indicating a large pullback in federal spending, but little evidence of what was appropriated specifically to DC. Rather, I found changing agreements between the federal and the local every few years with little overall consistency in the federal government fully funding the DC Housing Authority, leaving public housing residents feeling the pinch.
As a sociologist, I started to see connections between what is happening with public housing in the United States and the current social concerns of our nation as a whole. Specifically, I started to understand that the fight for public housing cannot stop with pressuring local governments to subsidize housing authorities which were created to be fully funded by the federal government, but must also take on a the 21st century conversation about neoliberalism.
HOW IS DCHA FUNDED AND GOVERNED?
For a brief background, the process of funding DCHA is a bit more complicated than a strictly local DC agency. Funds are appropriated first to the the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), then to local housing authorities. The District of Columbia Housing Authority (DCHA) is an entity of HUD and an independent agency of DC local government. This means the agency is particularly susceptible to federal pullbacks depending on the current political and economic ideology of the time, but is governed by a board appointed by the DC Mayor. The DC local government then subsidizes DCHA, though the only legal responsibility to fund the agency lies with HUD and the federal government.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR PUBLIC HOUSING RESIDENTS AND ADVOCATES?
It is important to understand the pullback of federal funding as a national trend trickles down to local spending. According to a 2016 DC Fiscal Policy Institute report, DC Council funding is not only a subsidy, but a requirement for DCHA to sustain. I found the same through DCHA director Adrianne Todman’s 2016 testimony to the DC Council. She urges for DC local spending to continue as they have for the few years prior. Her testimony includes an appeal for funding that is not only to promote new programs, but a basic necessity for the agency to sustain itself. I make this distinction to say Todman is not asking for additional money to add programming to additionally benefit the district, but a subsidy without which the agency may not operate at its expected capacity.This indicates the federal funding is insufficient for operation.
The central problem is the basic capacity of DC local government in contrast to the federal budget. As the cost of living in the district increases for residents who have, quite literally, built DC local, they are left with little options for housing in the city that is their birthright. This remains particularly true for the elderly, disabled, and families with children. While DC local government is subsidizing the agency to ensure the operation continues, there is a changing landscape at the federal level that I argue requires a new form of understanding.
According to theories of neoliberalism, big institutions are broken down, then slowly discarded in pieces in the name of private rule and small tax burdens on the rich (Brown 2015). This is often masked as freedom and flexibility for agencies like DCHA. Government programs aimed to support the lower and middle classes under a capitalist system are chipped away. Public-private partnerships are emphasized to reduce the burden of government. In turn, what is traditionally a public good paid for by publicly accountable funds are privatized.
In terms of housing, The free market certainly has not shown the ability to self-produce adequate, accessible housing for all. Without the protection of dedicated public housing, the affordable housing market begins to dwindle, forcing low-income residents in the area to relocate elsewhere. According to a 2015 report by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, since 2012, should the lowest DC residents not receive housing subsidies and reside solely in the private market, “the average rent for this group [would equal] 80 percent of average income” (p. 3). Essentially, non-subsidized housing is not an option for this population. The free market has also not promised higher wages for the lowest income residents. Public housing is a good that must be preserved should the district remain a diverse, inclusive place.
This preservation will require more than pressuring DC local to subsidize DCHA, though I do not disagree this is an important point. However, eyes must remain on both the federal and local to sustain such public goods. I base this point on how public housing is structured in the first place, as a federal entity which ensures access to safe and consistent housing. Federal pullbacks allow for pressure to go to the states, but states and local districts are not necessarily bound to ensuring public housing remains a public good. With this understanding, I have come to conceptualize public housing in the context of economic justice that has popularized in mainstream conversations recently (i.e. Occupy Wall Street, the Bernie Sanders campaign, etc). The rich are richer than ever before, and even the most “progressive” of politicians are operating in a changed landscape where private solutions to public problems are valued as “sustainable” and “self-reliant,” across party lines in the United States. Advocating for public housing certainly requires pressure on local officials, but it will also require a strong stand against neoliberal ideology that is changing the environment in which our public life operates.