It is extremely disappointing that Congress has chosen to pass deep cuts to crucial federal low-income housing programs (-3.8 billion). Yet, perhaps the biggest letdown is, at the same time, the increase in funding for problematic programs that demolish and ultimately lead to the privatization of permanently affordable housing. One of these programs, the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD), was strongly and clearly opposed by many residents, resident groups, advocates, key legislators, and many experts in such fields as urban planning. Despite this heavy opposition, language authorizing RAD was pushed through, not the general legislative process, but an appropriations bill, in a truly atypical move by Congress. The Choice Neighborhoods Initiative (CNI), as well, has been widely opposed by those neighborhoods most directly impacted and yet, it too, received unprecedented funding.
The “minibus” appropriations bill passed on November 17th, which determines the 2012 budget for federal housing programs, demonstrates Congress’ continued determination to build an economic recovery on the backs of the poor and abdicate its responsibility to care for society’s most vulnerable. Lawmakers cut funding levels for almost all federal housing programs, living up to advocates’ fears that efforts to curb the federal deficit would result in further destruction of this country’s social safety net. These cuts are even more significant when viewed as part of a decades-long disintegration of federal public housing, which has received no money for new units and lost 290,588 units since 1995 as a result of flawed policy proposals.
As for the new RAD program authorized within the appropriations bill, lawmakers claim that it “is intended to test a model to preserve public housing,” by allowing public housing properties to convert to Section 8 assisted rental properties, in order to give them increased access to private funding. In actuality, however, public housing converted to a project-based system will create a complex web of individual owners and private capital investors, resulting in a conflict between profit-driven interests and the basic need for affordable basic and decent housing, likely both decreasing the stock of affordable housing and increasing its costs.
Much like RAD at its core, CNI is a continuation of HUD’s HOPE VI program to “transform” public housing blocks into “mixed-income” neighborhoods, which has proven to lead to large-scale family displacement and the loss of tens of thousands of permanently affordable housing units, particularly in “hot real estate markets.” Both of these programs are the next steps of a cycle wherein Congress cuts funding for housing programs, leading to deterioration of the nation’s public housing stock, and then uses that deterioration to justify demolition-based programs that lead to an overall loss in the number of units available to fulfill the crucial housing needs of low-income Americans.
CNI and RAD, like the previous iterations of RAD – Transforming Rental Assistance (a.k.a. PETRA) under the Obama Administration and, under the Bush Administration, the Public Housing Reinvestment Initiative – and HOPE VI, are all part of this disturbing trend in which basic housing rights have been progressively abandoned, despite growing housing needs. Another trend that these programs represent is HUD’s failure to engage in a meaningful participatory process with residents of public and subsidized housing to ensure that new policies reflect the needs and interests of those positioned to be most impacted. HUD has instead engaged in a process of “non-sultation” – a specious public consultation on decisions that have already been made.
Perhaps more distressing than the government’s promotion of these disastrous programs is the endorsement of groups who claim to represent the interests of low-income residents. National advocacy groups like the National Low-Income Housing Coalition and PolicyLink advocated for the passage of RAD and a continued commitment to CNI, despite the long-term danger that these programs pose for the availability of permanently affordable housing in many communities across the United States. These groups, like Congress and the Administration, have failed to prioritize the needs of the lowest-income residents and the fight for policies that would actually preserve and increase affordable housing options in the United States, and have instead endorsed a policy of privileging profit margins over people. The failure of these policy groups to act as genuine advocates on behalf of residents makes the necessity of meaningful resident participation in the lawmaking process all the more evident.
Housing is a basic need and a human right, and it is both a moral obligation and sound social policy to ensure that the housing needs of all are met. Congress, the Administration, and HUD must work to ensure that future federal housing proposals include residents’ rights to participate in decision-making, expand accessibility and accountability, and safeguard public ownership and true affordability. Groups that purport to advocate for housing justice must keep these goals in mind as well and hold the government to its obligations, rather than rubber-stamping policies that continue to favor large real estate interests over the needs of low-income residents.