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Saving Public Housing

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Change is hard. But when it comes to public housing, change is desperately needed.

For 13 years, I ran the Boston Housing Authority. Every day, I saw for myself how irreplaceable public housing resources are. But I also saw something else: the current system fails too many people. I saw how public housing can isolate residents and segregate the neighborhoods they live in from the jobs, schools and opportunities they need to succeed.

Today, 6 million Americans pay more than half their incomes for housing. Family homelessness is on the rise. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of affordable homes are being lost every year. In the last 15 years alone, the country has lost 150,000 units from its stock of public and assisted affordable housing to sale or demolition.

Unfortunately, this "hidden housing crisis" is about to get worse. Recovering from our recent economic crisis is pushing the Federal government to tighten its belt, yet at the same time America's Public Housing program is facing a $30 billion backlog of unmet capital needs that demands immediate attention.

Put simply, our country needs the affordable homes public housing provides more than ever -- but if we don't act now, we will lose them forever.

That's why the Obama Administration has proposed a strategy to preserve and enhance America's public housing system and transform the way the Federal government provides rental assistance to more than 4.5 million of our most vulnerable families.

Virtually everyone agrees that the current system is failing, yet for some, change is not only hard - it's unsettling. So, allow me to highlight some of the key components of the Administration's proposal, the Preservation, Enhancement and Transformation of Rental Assistance Act (PETRA):

  1. Preserving publicly-owned housing for generations to come. For years, we've seen public housing agencies lose affordable units for essentially the same reason: because they can't access the capital and other resources that everyone else who builds and maintains affordable housing can. PETRA would allow public housing authorities to repair and rehabilitate older public housing units with the same flexible funding tools we already use to develop new affordable housing; doing so would mean local agencies and owners will be able to leverage some $25 billion in new resources for our most vulnerable populations. Indeed, by ensuring city and state governments, the private sector, local not-for-profits, and all the other partners that have emerged in housing finance in recent decades work together as a broad coalition with a real stake in public housing's success, PETRA will preserve publicly-owned housing for generations to come.
  2. Preventing foreclosures from harming residents of public housing. As we emerge from our ongoing housing crisis, some fear that allowing public housing properties to tap their accumulated equity value to meet their capital needs might put these affordable resources in jeopardy. To be clear: foreclosures should happen very rarely - far less frequently than publicly-owned units are lost today. Nevertheless, PETRA contains an unprecedented combination of policies to minimize the risk of foreclosures - putting in place strengthened tenant protections and requiring that the property continue to operate like public housing, with all leases, contracts, and use agreements remaining in effect and binding.
  3. Strengthening the commitment to "One-for-One" replacement. President Obama and HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan are all too aware that previous changes to public housing policy have often resulted in the loss of affordable units. They are determined not to allow that to happen again -- in this Administration or any other. That's why PETRA will make law the one-for-one replacement of properties that choose to be a part of this new system. Specifically, it requires PHA's that propose to redevelop properties (as opposed to simply renovating and repairing existing units) to locate any "off-site" units in diverse neighborhoods of opportunity. The only exception the law would allow is in housing markets that consistently have plenty of units available at rents that are affordable to even the least well-off families. Only once it is clear that residents can use vouchers to find good quality affordable housing would a local agency or owner be permitted to replace units with tenant-based vouchers. Because it is far more expensive to maintain older public properties in the few cities and towns with these conditions, this exception will allow our programs to help more families live in better-condition housing.
  4. Maintaining the same affordability and targeting requirements. Of all the things about our public housing system that need to change, the one thing that should not change is the people it helps and the amount they are required to pay. That's why PETRA will ensure assistance will continue to be targeted to the neediest families by maintaining all the targeting and affordability requirements of the U.S. Housing Act. Most importantly, residents will continue to pay no more than 30% of their income towards rent.

I have been in the affordable housing business since 1972, in both the public and private sectors. I've seen how we can harness the resources of the private market to further the important mission of public housing. Were I still the director of the Boston Housing Authority, I would tell you that PETRA provides precisely the tools I'd need to preserve affordable homes for the families who depended on me -- and to connect those homes to the opportunities and choices in life those families need.

I've had some people ask me, "Why now?" My answer has been, "if not now, when?" I do not want to wait until we have lost another 50,000-75,000 affordable homes. My response also has been, "if not us, who?" President Obama has personal experience working on the South Side of Chicago to increase affordable housing. No president in our history better understands that public housing is the platform for stability and opportunity in communities that need it the most. And Shaun Donovan--the architect of New York City's innovative plan to build and preserve 165,000 affordable homes--brings the most experience--and success--preserving affordable housing ever to the job of HUD Secretary. Together, they represent our best hope to lead communities across the country to preserve, enhance and transform America's stock of public and affordable housing.

We continue to work on PETRA with Congress, residents and the other stakeholders who know public housing best. As we have shown throughout the process of developing this legislation, this Administration not only welcomes public input and constructive feedback when it comes to facing big challenges -- we absolutely need it to get the solutions right.

But with all the challenges facing us, it is clear that this President, this Housing Secretary and this proposal represent our best chance to save public housing. Let's seize it.

Sandra B. Henriquez is the Assistant Secretary for Public and Indian Housing. To find out more about the Obama Administration's 21st century strategy to provide affordable housing to America's most vulnerable families, go to www.HUD.gov/TRA