Understanding How Public Housing Is Funded… It’s Harder Than You’d Think

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 imAdrian_Todmanportant 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.

Housing_TestimonyIn 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.


Sources

http://www.documentcloud.org/documents/1685683-d-c-affordable-housing-report.html#document/p1

http://www.dcfpi.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/16-01-27-Public-housing-paper-final.pdf

http://dccouncil.us/budget/2016/housing-and-community-development

http://dccouncil.us/files/user_uploads/budget_responses/41515DCHACombinedTestimony.pdf

 

Proposed Bill to Fund DC Public Housing Repairs Raises Concerns

The fight to increase the amount of affordable housing in the District of Columbia should also include efforts to maintain the city’s public housing. It was a need for clean, safe and affordable housing that prompted the creation of public housing in the 1930s. That need still exists today but our willingness to fund it has been on the decline since the 1960s. Today, the Public Housing Operating Fund—the main source of revenue for public housing maintenance and repairs–pays for only 86% of the items in HUD’s budget.

It looks as though the D.C. City Council may at long last be trying to make up the difference with the Public Housing Rehabilitation Amendment Act of 2016.  The problem that those who advocate on behalf of public housing have with the bill is that it won’t pay for maintenance if the housing is slated for redevelopment. So if you live in Barry Farm, Kenilworth Courts, Park Morton, Highland Dwellings or Lincoln Heights–all properties scheduled for eventual redevelopment–you’re out of luck.

The article below provides more details.

New Legislation Welcomed by Public Housing Advocates

Cross-posted from Street Sense
Written By Reginald Black

ReginaldBlack1-750x422Members of the Empower DC housing campaign and residents of public housing took a walk around the Wilson Building weeks before the first FY2017 budget vote to meet with council members and discuss their budget priorities. The residents have been calling for desperately needed repairs to both occupied and unoccupied units of public housing managed by the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA). The residents have been requesting work orders for more than six years, some properties haven’t been properly maintained since the 1980s.

In March, At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman and Councilmembers Brianne Nadeau (Ward 1), Charles Allen (Ward 6) and Mary Cheh (Ward 3) introduced a bill that would provide funds for maintenance of existing public housing units. It is a great move by council, but public housing residents still had some concerns regard language within the bill.

One of the first stops on the list was Ward 8 Councilmember LaRuby May’s office. The councilwoman was not in at the time, but the group met with Councilwoman May’s staff. Their main concern stems from a line in the bill that states the repair funds allocated could not be used for properties up for demolition. “We wanted to address line 46,” said Detrice Bel, leader of the Barry Farm Tenant and Allies Association. “Residents have an issue with that.”

“I live in a development on Capitol Hill that is supposed to be upkept, but it’s not,” said public housing resident Robert Lee. He asked if May’s office could seek changes to the language of the bill that would force maintenance people do their job. “We need more accountability when it comes to public housing. It’s like everybody’s looking for a paycheck.”

Lee also described his days as a maintenance worker. “In the morning, we clean up the activity from the night before,” he said. “But after that, when is the work going to get done in the places?”

May’s legislative director, Michael Austin said their office is open to all ideas. “We’re always trying to find what we can do to preserve homes, that includes public housing.”

To Lee, there is no observable sense of urgency on these issues. “These are people’s lives we’re talking about,” he said. “These are the same arguments we present you all the time.” The bill has not moved forward since a notice of intent to act on it was published in the District of Columbia register on March 18.

Why a Law Meant to Protect the Poor from Gentrification Doesn’t Really Work

The article below explains why the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act is not working for Congress Heights residents.  If you’d like an opportunity to do something about that, consider checking out the nonprofit Justice First.

Cross-Posted from the Washington Post
written by

Save_Congress_Heights_12-16-2015Rodent and bedbug infestations. Raw sewage in the basement. Ovens used for warmth in lieu of heat.

It is all part of the “outrageous” saga of a “slumlord” in one of the District’s poorest neighborhoods, lawyers and tenants testified before the D.C. Council on Thursday night.

But more troubling, council members said during the three-hour hearing, is that while the tenants of four rent-controlled apartments in Southeast may be experiencing one of the most egregious — or at least the most publicized — housing debacles in recent city history, they are hardly alone.

Rather, a hearing meant partly to determine a solution for a small group of tenants in the Congress Heights neighborhood of Southeast cracked open a larger chasm of flaws and missing pieces in the city government’s stated mission to protect poor D.C. residents from displacement amid the rapid redevelopment and gentrification of District neighborhoods.

Among them are a flawed Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), which, while designed to protect tenants from displacement amid redevelopment, is actually “extremely hard to execute,” council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) said.

Continue reading Why a Law Meant to Protect the Poor from Gentrification Doesn’t Really Work

Potomac Gardens Gets New Playground… At Last

New Playground FinishedLast week’s post A Place to Play:  Potomac Gardens, Public Housing and Our Children made clear that the playground at the Potomac Gardens public housing complex had seen better days. The children who live in Potomac Gardens had stopped using it and their parents wanted it replaced. But the owners of the property, the District of Columbia Housing Authority, really couldn’t come up with the money to make that happen.

Despite the obvious need for affordable housing in the District of Columbia and indeed urban centers across the country, only a ridiculously small percentage of our taxes supports public housing.  As a result, a new playground for Potomac Gardens wouldn’t be funded by the Public Housing Operating Fund or the Public Housing Capital Fund.

It’s very popular among the political right to rely on Ronald Reagan’s edict that “government is not the solution, government is the problem.”   One may consider the former state of Potomac Gardens playground as supporting that statement but the reality is we rely on government for a lot of things—infrastructure, education, security, etc.  If basic safety net issues were funded properly, government might do better by us all. Until that day arrives (and it might never happen), communities have to make demands of their elected representatives and government officials and then hold them to their mandate to serve the citizenry.

So here’s how Potomac Gardens got its new playground.   Parents brought their concerns to the Potomac Gardens Resident Council. Resident Council President and D.C. Housing Authority Commissioner Aquarius Vann-Ghasri, worked with both Little Lights Urban Ministries and DCHA Director of Asset Management Laurie Putscher to try and solve the problem. Little Lights had a relationship with the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, and despite the fact that the children who live in Potomac Gardens are not in fact homeless, they were willing to work with Little Lights and the Potomac Gardens community. Unfortunately, after months of negotiations and missed deadlines the new playground didn’t materialize.

  • Residents vote on playground design.

At this point, DCHA Director of Asset Management Laurie Putscher stepped up to the plate. Though she was unable to leverage DCHA funds for the playground, she was able to leverage resources from the District’s non-profit and corporate sectors. First of all, Putscher contacted Make Kids Smile, Inc., a non-profit dedicated to providing playground equipment for underserved children in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. Make Kids Smile raises money for playground equipment and donates the materials to the recipient.  They also pay a certified installer to be present on the day of the build to ensure the project is properly constructed and meets all applicable safety standards.

The president of Make Kids Smile, brought in a troop of volunteers from Foulger-Pratt, who had assembled and installed playground equipment before. They were joined by a slew of Potomac Gardens’ residents who were delighted to finally see their wishes brought to fruition.  Little Lights Urban Ministries, happy to finally have a playground they can use during their summer programming, also sent volunteers.


In addition to volunteers, Foulger-Pratt also donated $5000 to fix the basketball rims, add additional landscaping beautification, and some painting. CT Management, the company DCHA has under contract to manage Potomac Gardens, also donated $5,000 and provided lunch for many of the volunteers. Finally, Laurie Putscher also contacted the Earth Conservation Corps who planted 20-30 trees, not just along the side of the playground itself, but throughout the property.

Providing a playground for kids who live in public housing shouldn’t be more complicated than building a dog park but in the District of Columbia, it might be.    In 2007, the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) issued regulations which allowed for the creation of official, public dog parks on District-owned parkland.  So far there are two dog parks in Ward Six and a third, which will be funded privately, has been approved.     DPR has been around in one form or another since 1790 and yet only maintains eight playgrounds for children in Ward Six, the playground in Potomac Gardens is not one of them.

Public-private partnerships make sense for dog parks but do they make sense for playgrounds?  Ward 6 Councilman Charles Allen was happy to ask DCHA Director Adrian Todman to get more involved and push for a new playground at Potomac Gardens, but the driving energy definitely came from the community.  Without their willingness to hold elected representatives and public officials accountable to their constituents even this small victory could not have been achieved.

A Place to Play: Potomac Gardens, Public Housing and Our Kids

Below are images of the playground on the Potomac Gardens public housing complex as it was when Grassroots DC was founded and moved onto the property back in 2013.  Broken down and missing safety rails, is the playground at Potomac Gardens Public Housing Complex safe?  How do public housing communities fix these issues?

  • playground

The state of the playground was a topic of discussion in our basic computer class and a cause for concern in resident council meetings. Little Lights Urban Ministries, another nonprofit located in Potomac Gardens, who offers tutoring and a summer program for kids from pre-k to the 8th grade, also had concerns.  The basketball court was another issue. Potomac Gardens’ resident Carlton Moxley sometimes laid out his own cash to replace the backboards.

One might assume that the playground of a public housing complex would be paid for and maintained by the government, but public housing is a complicated business. Most of us don’t even know who owns public housing. Is it the city? Is it the federal government? Below are some answers.

While the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) oversees the public housing program, it is administered locally by about 3,100 public housing agencies across the United States. The local public housing agency that administers Potomac Gardens and indeed all of D.C.’s public housing complexes is the District of Columbia Housing Authority (DCHA).  Most public housing agencies own and manage their public housing developments themselves, but some contract with private management companies. DCHA does not manage Potomac Gardens itself; management of the property has been contracted out to CT Management.

All of this information, still leaves unanswered the question, where do the funds for the replacement of playgrounds in public housing developments like Potomac Gardens come from? The federal government funds public housing through two main streams: (1) the Public Housing Operating Fund, which is intended to cover the gap between the rents that public housing tenants pay and the developments’ operating costs (such as maintenance and security); and (2) the Public Housing Capital Fund, which funds renovation of developments and replacement of items such as appliances and heating and cooling equipment.

The purchase and installation of a new playground can easily cost more than $100,000. According to the US Department of Housing Operating Fund Budget for 2016 the D.C. Housing Authority will receive about $6,164 per unit to cover the gap between the rents that public housing tenants pay and the development’s actual operating cost.  HUD’s Annual Budget does not explicitly state that District gets $6,164 per unit from the Operating Fund.  The total budget for the Public Housing Operating Fund in 2015 was $4.44 billion. The share that goes to the District of Columbia Housing Authority is 1.1 percent or $48.84 million. The District of Columbia Housing Authority manages 7,924 units. Divide the $48.84 million by 7,924 units and you get $6,164 per unit. Of course, DCHA doesn’t spend $6,164 on each unit. Most of the money goes to salaries and other overhead costs.  But this figure gives us an idea what kind of money DCHA has to work with to meet the maintenance and operating needs  of the District’s public housing.  In any case, we can’t expect DCHA to allocate $100,000 from the Operating Fund to pay for a single playground in one housing complex.

It might be more logical for the money to come from the Public Housing Capital Fund. In fact, DCHA received $27 million from the Capital Fund in 2014 and an additional $34.4 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  However, the Captial Fund grants were probably used for renovations and replacements needed in a single, housing complex or for specific projects like lead abatement, renovations needed to bring DCHA properties up to accessibility standards or environmental sustainability initiatives.  Most of the Recovery Act funding will go to enhance housing projects that have or will become mixed-income developments like the townhouses at Cappers Carrollsburg.  Getting money from the Capital Fund or the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to replace a single playground in a 100 percent low-income housing development is highly unlikely.

So, what then? Clearly, the playground in the images above needs to be replaced or torn down all together. If the community within the Potomac Gardens Public Housing Complex can’t expect help for a project like this from the District of Columbia Housing Authority, what do they do?  That question will be answered in the next post…