Published: November 4, 2010
After nearly two decades of weak financing from Congress, a large number of the public housing developments that shelter 2.3 million of the nation’s poorest, most vulnerable people are falling apart.
The scope of the problem was underscored in a recent article in The Times by Cara Buckley. Unable to pay for basic repairs, the local housing agencies that manage federally owned developments have boarded up or torn down 150,000 units in the last 15 years.
The unmet needs for public housing are staggering and will only get worse if Congress fails to provide more help. Today, because of financing shortfalls, only one in four families that qualify for federal rent support receive it. Families that do get to lease public housing units must often wait 10 years or longer for the opportunity.
Public housing units are set aside for low-income people, a majority of whom are elderly or disabled. Residents typically pay a third of their meager incomes in rent. Congress is supposed to make up the shortfall between the rent and what it costs to maintain buildings but began to renege during the 1990s, forcing local housing authorities to put off crucial repairs.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development says that the majority of the nearly 1.2 million public housing units are sound. But many buildings that pass inspection still have serious problems — leaky roofs or crumbling masonry — that must be dealt with. By HUD’s estimates, it could take as much as $32 billion to catch up with all of the needed repairs.
There is little hope that Congress will allocate that much money to public housing any time soon. But a draft bill from Representative Keith Ellison, a Democrat of Minnesota, would help local housing authorities. It would boost federal subsidies from about $7.2 billion this year to about $8.5 billion. It would also streamline hopelessly complicated rules so that housing developments have more flexibility in how they spend federal dollars. Most importantly, it would lift regulations that forbid local housing agencies from borrowing to cover building repairs, a common practice in the real estate industry.
Some lawmakers worry that borrowing might place buildings at risk of foreclosure. But the greater risk lies in doing nothing and watching the stock of public housing decay and more families end up homeless.