The blog of the Urban Institute
October 30, 2019

How Has HUD’s Controversial Rental Assistance Demonstration Affected Tenants?

Last week, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released the final report on the first evaluation of the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD), one of the most visible and controversial changes to the public housing program in the past decade.

The RAD program, launched in 2012 as a new way to generate funds to preserve public housing, allows housing authorities to “convert” their units into project-based Section 8 assistance (PDF), or housing assistance tied to specific units that makes it easier to preserve long-term affordability.

Conversion (PDF) is supposed to provide opportunities to leverage funds to address short-term funding needs and make investments to preserve buildings’ long-term viability. A unique aspect of RAD is that it also provides protection for tenants, including the right to return and the chance to get a “Choice Mobility” voucher, which allows residents to request a voucher to use in the private rental market after the conversion is complete.

More than 1 million low-income families call public housing their home. Public housing is the only federal program that provides permanently subsidized homes, yet the program struggles with an aging housing stock and significant capital needs repairs. RAD is one tool housing authorities can use to leverage additional funding and maintain and improve housing quality.

RAD has been enormously controversial because of concerns about losing deeply subsidized housing units and the potential for tenant displacement. We wrote a chapter of the report that presents the first evidence about how RAD has affected residents.

We surveyed residents from a sample of public housing properties among the first-approved RAD projects to understand their perspectives on RAD implementation. At least for these early conversions, we find that the impact on tenants has been mostly positive.

Most were satisfied with post-conversion housing, although smaller shares noticed specific changes

We asked residents how they felt about their housing before and after RAD. More than four in five residents were satisfied with their housing after RAD conversion, with most reporting that their housing was either better than before or about the same.

Although they reported high levels of satisfaction, just over half noticed changes to their own units, and most said they had not noticed changes to indoor or outdoor spaces. Although we’re not sure why residents hadn’t noticed changes, it is important to note that public housing authorities (PHAs) may use funds they leveraged through RAD to address building-level issues that residents wouldn’t necessarily notice.

We also asked residents about specific housing problems, like peeling paint or signs of mold, before and after conversion. Residents reported no large differences in conditions following conversion, but they did report problems for some conditions at rates higher than other public housing residents reported in the American Housing Survey, shown below.

We should note that PHAs may have converted through RAD their most distressed public housing properties that were more likely to have high rates of housing problems to begin with.

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Most were satisfied with communications about and management of the RAD conversion process

Housing authorities are required to inform residents of a RAD conversion’s various steps. Residents indicated high levels of satisfaction with their housing authorities’ communications about RAD and how the conversion would affect them.

We also asked residents about how their housing authorities managed the program, such as how long the work took or whether work made it difficult to navigate their properties, and residents were similarly satisfied with the management of RAD conversions.

Only about a third of residents moved during RAD conversion

One of the big fears from advocates is that tenants will have to move because of RAD. We found that at least so far, relatively few residents have experienced displacement, and most have been able to move within the same development. Most of those who did move were satisfied with the communication they received from the housing authority. 

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Residents indicated a slight preference for Choice Mobility

We also asked residents about the Choice Mobility option for RAD, which allows residents to request a voucher to use in the private rental market after the conversion is complete. Although most residents we surveyed were not yet eligible because conversions were too recent, a slight majority indicated they would prefer the Choice Mobility option over continuing to live in public housing.

RAD residents are vulnerable, and PHAs should factor in residents’ needs during RAD planning

The effects of RAD on resident well-being—including employment, health, and perceptions of safety—are unclear. It is clear, though, that residents represent a vulnerable group experiencing many challenges: cycling in and out of employment, experiencing poor health, enduring increases in housing costs, and feeling unsafe at their properties.

The findings on the health and vulnerability of residents emphasize the need to provide support to residents throughout the RAD conversion process, especially for those experiencing relocation.

What’s next for RAD?

This report represents only the early stages of RAD—the first cohort of projects approved in 2013 and 2014 and still active by 2016, consisting of 260 properties representing 33,806 units that had at least started the RAD conversion process.

Although RAD continues to grow, RAD conversions remain only a small fraction of the nation’s assisted housing. As of 2018, about 10 percent of the nation’s public housing had been converted to project-based voucher or project-based rental assistance developments. As of late 2019, more than 120,000 public housing units had converted, and an additional 90,000 units have started the conversion process.

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Even with the addition of units in the pipeline, the program is well below the current cap of 455,000 units.

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There is still much we don’t know.

How will converting from public housing to project-based Section 8 assistance affect properties long term? This question is especially relevant given that the program’s eventual impact could be several times greater than currently seen.

And how similar will future RAD projects be to the program’s earlier conversions? And how will Choice Mobility affect residents, properties, or housing authorities? As we seek answers to these questions, we need to make sure that residents are supported every step of the way.

Maria Gonzalez sits in the living room of her daughter's apartment in New York City public housing on May 20, 2018 in Brooklyn, New York. Maria moved in with her daughter after becoming homeless due to the high price of rent in New York City. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images).

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