Public Housing as a program began in 1937 but most of the existing public housing was built after the Housing Act of 1949. There are currently approximately 14,000 federally funded Public Housing public housing projects in the United States housing more than 2.3 million families. By law Public Housing residents pay no more than 30% of their income in rent. As a result of this income based rent, Public Housing is the most affordable housing for those families making little or no income.
Public Housing and related low income housing programs house only a small portion of needy families. It is estimated that more than twelve million households remain unassisted despite severe housing problems that would be alleviated by Public Housing
Unfortunately, since its inception, Public Housing has been underfunded. Due to deferred maintenance and delayed capital improvements many units are in dire need of repairs or replacement. However, despite these significant needs (or perhaps because of them) Public Housing has a long and proud history of tenant organization and activism. Stories abound of tenant leadership in dealing with crime, repairs and an uncaring and virtually insurmountable government bureaucracy.
However, these heroic stories have often been drowned out by another narrative. Beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s policy makers began to target public housing resident communities themselves as the source of social ills. Not unlike the “urban renewal” arguments of the 1950s and 1960s, many urban policy leaders have recently argued that the demolition of these neighborhoods and the “deconcentration” of residents, by race, or income, or both, is the only way to remedy the social problems often associated in the public mind with public housing. The policy currently implementing this policy is the HOPE VI program.
Section 8 tenant-based Housing Choice Vouchers are one of the most significant HUD programs providing rental assistance to very low income families. The program serves almost 2,000,000 families nationwide. The Housing Voucher Program is primarily administered through local Public Housing Authorities and serves extremely low income households. At least 75% of all new assisted families must have income below 30% of area median income (extremely low income).
Each recipient of a voucher must locate a landlord willing to accept the voucher. The tenant then pays approximately 30% of their income in rent and the local housing authority pays the difference between the tenant payment and the contract rent. Before entering into the contract with the landlord the local housing authority must determine that the rent is reasonable and that it does not exceed certain maximums. Vouchers are designed to be portable, i.e., the tenant can take them to any jurisdiction in the country. However, local restrictions on portability and other programmatic problems have dramatically limited the ability of families to move to other jurisdictions.
There are often long waiting lists for new vouchers. Miami-Dade County recently opened its waiting list in 2009 and had over 70,000 households apply.
The HOPE VI Program initially began as a policy response to the problem of many older, severely dilapidated high rise public housing projects. However, rather than simply replacing public housing with fully funded rebuilt units, the HOPE VI program, incorporated deconcentration as an express policy goal. As “deconcentration” became the goal, the focus also shifted from severely dilapidated high rise public housing projects to all large public housing projects. Particularly vulnerable were public housing communities which stood in the way of the downtown regentrification of the early 2000s. These demolitions, which are continuing, have resulted in the destruction without replacement of tens of thousands of units of public housing.
As these HOPE VI “revitalization” projects weredeveloped it is clear that “deconcentration” usually means moving the residents to another public housing unit or providing a Section 8 voucher which often lead the tenant to a nearby neighborhood, no better than the public housing project itself. Often, tenant households who have lived for decades in public housing, quickly lose their Section 8 voucher due to the different requirements of that program. Only twenty percent of the former residents ever get to live in the redeveloped project. The bankruptcy of the “deconcentration” approach was best exposed after Hurricane Katrina in which, despite a housing catastrophe, hundreds of units of habitable public housing were demolished in the name of “deconcentration.”
Our clients believe in preserving and upgrading the communities in which they live. While they believe strongly that “fair housing” should result in realistic housing opportunities throughout existing communities, these opportunities should not be created by taking away existing housing opportunities, or by destroying existing low income minority communities simply because they fail to meet certain racial or economic deconcentration criteria.
MIAMI PUBLIC HOUSING RESIDENTS MEET WITH HUD SECRETARY
Two Miami members of Low Income Families Fighting Together, Ms. Yvonne Stratford and Ms. Yvette Norton participated with Public Housing residents from across the country in a meeting with HUD Secretary Donovan on January 20, 2009 to discuss their concerns and provide input on significant changes in HUD policies. The meeting with the Secretary capped a day of meeting with other HUD officials.
One focus of the meeting was HUD’s proposal to change the funding mechanism of Public Housing to something similar to project based Section 8 Housing Choice vouchers. The tenants expressed numerous concerns including the protection of tenants’ rights to participate in decision making, grievance rights and the threat of privatization of public housing.
MIAMI PUBLIC HOUSING RESIDENTS ISSUE REPORT WITH NATIONAL ALLIANCE
From the Right to the City Alliance:
"Published in May 2010, this report is a seminal text that documents the effects of neo-liberal economic policies which have fostered disinvestment, demolition, and privatization of government provided affordable housing. The report counters the underlying premise of the deconcentration theory by providing evidence that the problems with public housing are due to lack of resources and services in low-income communities, rather than simply the concentration of low-income people. This research and the resulting report is a collaborative effort, designed by organizations across seven cities that participate in Right to the City and work to preserve and improve public housing in their communities."