Legislators have recently introduced several ambitious proposals to expand and transform the nation’s public housing stock.
Perhaps the most sweeping among them, the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act (PDF), from Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), lays out a 10-year, multifaceted, $172 billion plan to make public housing carbon neutral and more climate resilient. It would, among other things, improve roofing, windows, insulation, plumbing, appliances, and heating and cooling systems to reduce energy consumption and costs and support residents’ health.
In addition to rehabilitating the most severely distressed public housing properties, the bill would establish housing as a universal right, allow for the development of more child care and senior centers, and—at least in theory—stimulate as many as 250,000 jobs.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) and Sen. Kamala Harris’s (D-CA) Housing Infrastructure Act focuses more squarely on existing public housing capital needs and on expanding affordable housing production. Their proposal would invest about $100 billion to fully address public housing disrepair and to stimulate new development—including $70 billion for the public housing capital fund. Last summer, Sen. Harris also cosponsored the Rent Relief Act (PDF) to create a tax credit for rent-burdened, low- and moderate-income renters. Presidential hopeful Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) has included a similar renters’ tax credit in his housing platform.
Rep. Ilhan Omar’s (D-MN) Homes for All Act is more aggressive, calling for $1 trillion to create as many as 12 million new public and affordable housing units over 10 years—about 12 times the existing public housing stock—and to establish permanent funding to support ongoing public housing maintenance and operations.
Finally, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) announced that she and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) will cosponsor companion legislation to Rep. Nydia Velázquez’s (D-NY) Public Housing Emergency Response Act. The bill is possibly the most modest of the current set of public housing proposals, but it’s also the most direct, authorizing a single $70 billion payment to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) expressly to meet the most pressing capital repair needs.
These proposals—and the national political attention they bring to public housing—is a dramatic and welcome shift from the status quo of chronic federal disinvestment. They offer an exciting new moment in the public narrative about public housing and could be transformative as long as they continue to highlight the main driver of public housing’s uncertain future and the leading cause of misery for many public housing residents: the urgent need for basic maintenance and backlogged repairs.
Repairs and maintenance are key to public housing’s future
Nationally, more than 3,000 local public housing authorities own and manage more than one million public housing units in nearly 7,000 properties, with federal funds and oversight. The housing authorities rent units to low-income residents—most of whom are elderly, have disabilities, or are families with children—who pay rent and utilities to the public housing authority each month.
The nation’s public housing stock currently faces challenges that, in some communities, threaten its existence. The crisis involves both insufficient affordable housing supply that doesn’t meet local needs and poor housing conditions. Properties in use today were built about 50 years ago, on average.
Older properties can be safe and healthy homes if maintained over time, but this has not been the case for some public housing. In most places, low-income families’ rent payments cannot cover basic upkeep, and federal funds have been insufficient to maintain properties.
Decades-long federal disinvestment has contributed to the loss of 250,000 units since 1990, and thousands more are in dire condition.
About 8 percent (more than 93,000 units) failed their annual inspections in 2018, and another 20 percent (more than 226,000 units) came close to failing. In the worst cases, these distressed properties threaten residents’ health. Research has shown a strong correlation between living in housing with leaks, mold and mildew, lead pipes and lead-based paint, and vermin and developing a range of health problems.
In 2018, HUD estimated (PDF) that backlogged maintenance and repair costs had increased from about $26 billion in 2010 to more than $54 billion—at a rate of $3.5 billion each year. Roughly $34 billion of that total is needed for just two housing authorities. The District of Columbia Housing Authority, which manages about 8,000 public housing units, estimates it needs about $2.5 billion to upgrade its properties. And the New York City Housing Authority, with 176,000 public housing units, estimates it needs $25 to $30 billion.
Finally, a less commonly discussed challenge for public housing is the growing risk that climate change presents. In 2016, roughly 9 percent of public housing was located in 100- or 500-year flood plains, adding another layer of potential problems to be addressed through upgrades or, in some cases, relocation.
For practitioners and advocates, these proposals—and attention to housing from presidential hopefuls—breathes much-needed energy and the possibility of new ideas into the national dialogue on public housing.
However, even as they seek to be visionary, new proposals must also remain laser focused on addressing the steady decline in public housing and the urgency of the long-standing problems plaguing residents, housing authorities, and HUD. These problems, illuminated by evidence, should inform legislative efforts and administrative actions to ensure that the properties with the most capital arrears and the most severe future exposure are prioritized. Severe capital needs in some communities—and the likely loss of public housing if investment doesn’t happen soon—must be prioritized in any federal policy reform discussion.
Debate should continue on the core components of the new proposals—investments to preserve and protect the existing affordable housing stock—to build momentum for legislation that ensures public housing is safe and sustainable.