The blog of the Urban Institute
October 28, 2020

What’s Next for Public Housing Preservation and Redevelopment?

October 27, 2020

Our nation’s public housing stock faces serious challenges, starting with its age—approximately half of public housing properties were constructed before 1975. A 2010 report (PDF) sponsored by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimated that approximately $26 billion is needed to address deferred maintenance issues in public housing. That number has now reached upwards of $70 billion, according to recent legislative proposals. The pandemic has only made these challenges more urgent: with people isolating in place, COVID-19-related health and safety concerns are exacerbated by poor housing conditions.

Public housing properties also tend to be located in racially segregated neighborhoods with higher poverty rates and fewer social services and amenities than more affluent neighborhoods. This is largely the result of racist policies, such as redlining, that continue to foster unequal access to jobs, transportation, and other resources.

New strategies, along with a hefty infusion of funding, are critical to improve and preserve public housing for the more than two million people who live in these homes. In a new fact sheet, we detail how prior efforts to address distressed public housing have yielded mixed results in terms of improving conditions for original residents and conserving subsidized units.

Policy tools such as the Rental Assistance Demonstration, which produces funds for maintenance repairs, can only serve as stopgaps. More robust strategies and resources are needed to effectively address poor housing conditions, ensure residents have a meaningful voice in the redevelopment process, and preserve deeply subsidized units.

What we know about public housing redevelopment

Policymakers first sought to address the physical deterioration of public housing properties in the 1990s. By combining investments in infrastructure, management improvements, and community services, the Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE VI) Program fueled the demolition, redevelopment, and construction of public housing and other affordable and market-rate units. Through 260 revitalization implementation grants, the program reconstructed more than 97,000 units and relocated over 75,000 households (PDF) between 1992 and 2014.

The HOPE VI program had mixed results and remains a source of significant controversy. An estimated 100,000 public housing units were lost as a result of the program, and just 27.6 percent (PDF) of original residents returned to redeveloped units. Although many original households reported significant benefits from relocation, including higher-quality housing and less stress and anxiety, residents have not experienced major improvements in their economic circumstances.

Another program, Choice Neighborhoods—first authorized in 2009—built on the experience of HOPE VI. It provides funds for public housing authorities, city governments, and local private and nonprofit housing developers to execute public housing redevelopment plans and invest in surrounding communities. Choice Neighborhood grants ranging from $13.5 million to $35 million have gone to 34 communities over the past 10 years.

We do not yet know the effects of the Choice Neighborhoods initiative; the only evidence to date is a baseline evaluation of early implementation efforts in five communities. Although a HUD-funded follow-up evaluation is underway, it will be several years before findings are available.

Strategies to improve public housing preservation and redevelopment

Lack of investment and chronic underfunding in the capital and operating funds—the primary funding sources for the public housing program—have resulted in an urgent need for new policies to preserve and redevelop housing to ensure all residents have safe, affordable homes. To meet the scale of need, these new efforts will require significantly more funding than the $6 billion HOPE VI Program and $1 billion Choice Neighborhoods initiative.

The results of HOPE VI show that previous public housing redevelopment efforts have fallen short of their aspirational mission to foster improved living conditions for all original residents. The following policy recommendations could ensure that redeveloped units remain both deeply affordable and available to current and future households.

  • Fund public housing preservation and redevelopment initiatives to meet the scale of need. At current funding levels, Choice Neighborhoods and the Rental Assistance Demonstration are insufficient to address the backlog of capital needs.
  • Involve residents in redevelopment and relocation planning and implementation processes. Although existing redevelopment tools include some provisions for resident input and housing choice, more intentional and ongoing engagement can facilitate people-centered strategies.
  • Support residents—via services, counseling, and financial assistance if needed—through relocation, and empower them to make choices about the neighborhoods and units where they live. Relocation can pose serious challenges to residents’ health, well-being, and social connections, especially for the growing number of elderly and disabled households living in public housing. New approaches are needed to ensure residents are adequately informed and supported throughout the process.
  • Pursue more research to build evidence for best practices. There is still much we don’t know about how relocation affects residents and neighborhoods. As a field, we need a deeper understanding of how to effectively implement redevelopment initiatives and sustainably invest in communities to avoid displacement and residential turnover.

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