The Future of America's Public Housing Stock: Demolition by Neglect

In D.C., federal funding to renovate or maintain existing affordable housing units has been cut virtually in half. 

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If someone ever wanted to eliminate public housing from the United States, now would be the time to do it, says Adrianne Todman, the executive director of the District of Columbia Housing Authority.

It’s not just that the federal funding typically allocated to local housing agencies has been steadily declining since 2000 (though it has). And it’s not just that the majority of the nation's public housing stock has reached a certain age, requiring repairs that go well beyond superficial sprucing (though that's true, too). What's threatening the very future of urban public housing in the U.S. is the combination of those two trends with higher-than-ever demand for affordable housing. It's all coalescing into "a perfect storm" of problems, according to Todman.

"The housing we provide [in D.C.] is a true asset because it's getting to people who are making $10,000, $14,000, $20,000 a year," she says. "In many cases, there's no place for them to live other than our units." 

Funding to renovate D.C.'s existing public housing stock has become scarce, Todman says, and without it, units run the danger of becoming permanently uninhabitable. Soon, a domino effect could create a de facto demolition of entire housing projects in the District of Columbia. And the situation in D.C. mirrors that of cities all over the country. 

"It's not all falling down right now," Todman says, "but a number of units won't be here in 10 years… and for the next generation."

Just how underfunded is the nation's public housing?

In D.C., $1.3 billion is the magic number. That’s how much the Housing Authority has calculated it will take to preserve or redevelop its 8,300 existing affordable housing units, which are spread out in each ward across the city. By "redevelop," Todman’s goal isn’t a top-notch makeover but reengineering all units in her system enough to be viable for the next 20 years.

The authority, though, isn’t expecting anywhere close to $1.3 billion any time soon.

The lion’s share of funds for long-term care of public housing come from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. D.C. and its peers get money in two buckets: an operating subsidy that’s determined through a HUD-derived formula, and a share of the annual capital fund appropriation set by Congress.

Both pots have been "woefully" underfunded the last several years, Todman says—and sequestration hasn't exactly helped. In terms of operating subsidies, for every $1 DCHA is supposed to receive, via the formula, it’s gotten between 82 and 85 cents.

"Even that $1 doesn’t represent the true cost of running public housing," she says. "It's just the formula that Congress uses; It's not what it takes to make our public housing not look or feel like what we think of as public housing, which is our real goal."

On the capital fund side, D.C.'s allocation this year was $14 million. As a point of comparison, in the early 2000s, that number was closer to $25 million. So, in essence, the federal share is half of what it used to be to maintain public housing.

This limitation isn't unique to the District of Columbia. A 2010 study by Abt Associates found a roughly $26 billion capital needs backlog for public housing nationwide, due largely to that dwindling capital fund appropriation. HUD’s appropriation for 2013 was approximately $1.9 billion and reflects the lowest amount since 1989. Because replacing poor-quality units takes, on average, $135,000 apiece, getting rid of a unit in disrepair often makes better financial sense than ponying up even more to fix it. As a result, between 10,000 and 15,000 public housing units a year are lost across the nation, according to the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities.

Large housing agencies all over the country are facing funding deficiencies for capital improvements that would make critical upgrades to public housing. New York, for one, has $6 billion in unmet capital needs, Mayor Bill de Blasio has said. Chicago is now focusing more on demolishing public housing than building it up, at least partially because of funding woes. In 2000, the city’s housing authority introduced a plan that calls for a smaller, 25,000-unit public housing system that it hopes to renovate. The rest of the stock would be demolished.

Is there a funding alternative? Can state and local governments make up the difference?

Support from other levels of government can cushion the blow a bit. "We're using all of the tools in the toolkit," Todman says. That means pushing for extra local dollars and taking on an increasing number of so-called alternative funding projects. For instance, DCHA's recently completed MetroTowns development leveraged a combination of local, federal, and private funds, which combined came out to approximately $34 million, to replace 42 affordable housing units, and is now in the final stages of building 83 additional affordable townhomes that will be sold to qualified low-income buyers*. Presently, D.C. has 20 more of these alternative funding arrangements at play.

Yet efforts like these are merely making a dent in a much larger, uphill battle, Todman says. She looks at the capital funding shortfall as the "new normal," since there's no expectation that federal allocations will go back up in the near future.

The other enduring challenge is an inability to simply build new affordable housing units easily. In Washington, there are serious physical and zoning limitations, including longstanding height restrictions on buildings.

"This creates capacity issues," Todman says, "not just for low-income housing. It's a housing issue overall."

What kind of shape is D.C.'s public housing in?

Out of D.C.'s 8,300 public housing units, 1,800 were rehabbed relatively recently and are OK for now. The remaining 6,500 are a hodge-podge of varying quality. Todman says the oldest units were built in the 1930s, while a big swath have been around since the 1960s. No matter their age, they all require fixes in the near future to stay open. According to the housing agency, it’s hard to generalize about when these units received even small improvements but, in most cases, it’s been years and there’s already a very real sense of urgency.

Barry Farm is an example of a property that has become so dilapidated that DCHA has stopped backfilling units there.

"We've vacated some units, because we're at the point that we don't think a family should be living there anymore," she says.

Over the next decade, unless the funding model drastically changes, more public housing will go this same way, no longer suitable for applicants. 

Is there a chance demand for affordable housing will go down soon?

Even with the economy showing signs of improvement, demand is currently at a record high.

Jenny Reed, policy director for the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, has found in her research that rents across the nation’s capital have risen sharply over the past decade, even during the recession. For a one-bedroom apartment (the size that makes up the largest share of D.C.'s rental stock) the median monthly rent skyrocketed from $735 in 2000 to $1,100 in 2010. And as rents continue to climb, incomes aren’t keeping up. Reed says a growing share of D.C. households—almost two-thirds by 2010—pay more than half of their income on housing costs. Meanwhile, the number of low-cost rental units—defined as monthly rent and utility costs at $750 or less—fell from 70,600 to 34,500 between 2000 and 2010.  

DCHA has seen this demand play out, too, in a dramatic way. At present, 72,000 Washingtonians are on a waiting list for affordable housing. Todman says it's the "highest I can recall." Five years ago, when the authority last updated the list, 58,000 people were on it. Starting this week, staff will once again comb through the 72,000 people signed up to figure out who's still in need of lower-cost rentals and who's taken care of. Todman says the backlog represents not only applicants' shelter needs but that the Housing Authority can do a better job of voicing expectations about their true resources.

What Reed, who also serves on DCHA's board, would like to see, going forward, is a more comprehensive effort to preserve affordable housing. It's no one's job is to look at the big picture—where affordable housing units are located in relation to each other, when repairs are needed systemwide—so housing stock is only repaired when money becomes available. A working group of government officials and local advocates has just started meeting to consider a more holistic approach to keeping an eye on low-cost housing preservation.

"We can build up more, but if we don't maintain what we have, then we don't tackle the problem of affordable housing," she says.

*Update: This article has been updated to add that the MetroTowns development includes 83 low-income townhomes. 

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About the Author

  • Dena Levitz is a digital strategist and freelance writer in Washington D.C. whose work has appeared in such publications as the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Bloomberg Businessweek, and The Crime Report.