The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Rental Assistance Demonstration is a pilot project designed to preserve the nation’s deteriorating stock of public housing. According to the HUD website, RAD aims to halt the dwindling amount of viable public housing units by addressing an estimated $26 billion backlog in repairs caused by decades of underfunding. The program does this by taking out mortgages on these properties to access private capital and issuing housing vouchers to residents. The program aims to renovate existing units, add new housing stock and improve tenants’ quality of life. Some residents will have to be temporarily moved from their homes, though the program guarantees the right to return once the work is completed.
It all sounds good on paper, but some public housing residents, including Olufemi Lewis, have doubts. “These programs… still have institutional racism implemented in them,” Lewis says.
“They have three major barriers that affect people of color: criminal background, credit check, and work history and income. If you fail with just one of those, you won’t be able to get into these new developments.” Lewis, a community organizer, lives in the Hillcrest Apartments with her daughter (see main story).
The Housing Authority has held a series of community meetings at which many residents have raised various concerns. Another big red flag for residents is the strong similarity to other HUD programs that they say have caused as many problems as they’ve solved, such as Moving to Opportunity (a 10-year demonstration project that aimed to help families move out of housing projects and into less economically depressed neighborhoods) and Hope VI (which demolishes decrepit public housing, builds new units and seeks to create mixed-income communities). Both programs, however, were designed to be top-down, rather than empowering residents to make decisions for themselves, these critics say.
Yet another big fear is that RAD allows for the privatization of what are currently publicly owned Housing Authority units. “Our main goal is to make sure that those properties remain ours,” says David Nash, the agency’s chief operating officer, “but that’s also what’s making this issue so complex.”
RAD will also require the Housing Authority to establish a separate account to cover future renovation and capital investment needs. “It puts us in a position of less red tape, as far as the flexibility of what we do with the funding we receive, though we’re still required to use it to maintain those subsidized units for the long term,” Nash explains.
Residents, however, see the fate of McCormick Heights, another subsidized local housing complex, as a cautionary tale. Occupants were moved out so the Housing Authority could revamp those units. But the renovation failed to address basic problems at the complex, and in 2006, the city tore it down, planning to eventually create a mixed-income development there. That never happened, though, and a private developer is now building luxury apartments on the site.
All this has left many public housing residents viewing RAD with considerable skepticism. An ever shifting political climate adds further uncertainty, and even something as simple as changes in the Housing Authority’s management or board could significantly affect people living in public housing.