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In Defense of PETRA

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There's been a tremendous amount of controversy recently over HUD's proposal to preserve public housing. It's being painted as an administration ploy to turn public property over to private developers, who will kick residents to the curb. Given past federal treatment of public housing, a little suspicion is not unwarranted.

But let's take a step back and look at where we are, and how we got here.

When Secretary Shaun Donovan was sworn in, he was handed a multibillion dollar public housing portfolio, home to three million seniors, low income families, and people with disabilities. Despite its essential place on the affordable housing spectrum, persistent federal underfunding and disinvestment have created a capital backlog of at least $30 billion. The operating fund has been underfunded by at least $3 billion since 2003.

As a result, we have lost 150,000 units in the last 15 years. Without strong bipartisan support and pressure from congress, that number would be far worse.

It would also be much worse if housing authorities had not been able to develop creative and innovative ways to make up for this chronic federal divestment in their portfolios. The mixed finance approaches they have pioneered, beginning in the mid 1990s, have allowed them to save thousands of units and continue to serve their residents and neighborhoods.

And not one of these units has been lost. That's because the arrangements housing authorities make with their financing partners are carefully crafted to preserve and protect public housing.

But even in light of this success, the reality is that the federal government -- for a variety of political and fiscal reasons -- is never going to close the gap. There is no massive infusion of funds around the corner.

In fact, the administration's focus now is on reducing the deficit, making things even tougher. The 2010 public housing capital budget was $2.5 billion, half the industry request. The department's request for 2011 is even lower: roughly $2 billion. (At the same time, the department should receive credit for proposing to fully fund the operating fund, which in recent years has seen its level drop as low as 85%. It has also increased its voucher funding.)

HUD's proposal is an attempt to preserve public housing. It allows housing authorities to build on their past success raising private capital by being able to better leverage their assets. This is the single best road toward preservation and sustainability, and is a concept that was endorsed by a wide range of stakeholders at the CLPHA-convened Summit on the Future of Public Policy.

Those stakeholders came together because of their commitment to ensuring that housing remains affordable to our most at-risk populations. This is about protecting people, and preserving properties.

There can and will be disagreement over the implementation. That is to be expected when any major change in policy is proposed - particularly when it affects our most vulnerable populations.

But let's not lose sight of the fact that this administration is strongly committed to public housing and urban revitalization. It is also taking on the unwieldy task of knocking down barriers between federal agencies to provide more resources to low-income neighborhoods.

This is not an endorsement of the details of HUD's proposal, but of their goals. Criticizing is easy. Finding a way to preserve and sustain affordable housing is not. We encourage all supporters of public housing to work together and take advantage of the opportunity before us.

Michael Kelly is CLPHA's President and General Manager New York City Housing Authority, and Sunia Zaterman is CLPHA's Executive Director.