Christian MilNeil has worked as an urban park ranger in Manhattan, as a backcountry hut caretaker in northern New Hampshire, and as the communications director for environmental nonprofits in Maine. He's currently a freelancer based in Portland, Maine, and blogs at the Vigorous North.
At a time when inner cities are facing mounting pressure to preserve affordable housing, the nation’s 1 million public housing apartments are at a critical turning point, with aging properties, a multi-billion dollar backlog of deferred maintenance, declining federal funds and pressures from private-sector developers who are salivating at the chance to buy them out.
And yet, for every shocking evening news story of public housing’s moldy apartments or leaking roofs, there are thousands of quiet, unheralded successes: families staying together, scholarships won, down payments made and homelessness avoided. Public housing programs offer millions of people a life-saving quantum of stability and security amidst the rapidly-changing landscapes of our increasingly unaffordable cities.
Maybe you’re feeling cynical about your city’s NIMBYism and growing economic and racial divides, or maybe you think it’s time for your city to make reparations for redlining and urban renewal. Maybe you just want to feel optimistic and make life a little better for your most vulnerable neighbors.
Consider volunteering for your local housing authority.
To be sure, public housing has real issues that legitimately deserve more attention. But the best solution is not, as some have suggested, to sell public housing off to private developers and dismantle the institution. Public housing is an institution our cities need more than ever, and one that, more than ever, needs you.
For the past seven years, I’ve served as a commissioner for Portland Housing Authority in Maine. I signed up because I had a nagging question: I wanted to know why, in a city with a known housing shortage, our public housing agency was paying thousands of dollars a year to maintain a little-used parking lot in my neighborhood, instead of building more housing there.
This is a situation common in many cities across the nation: public housing agencies are extremely rich in inner-city real estate, with modernist properties that left plenty of empty land in lawns and parking lots. But, as I quickly learned when I joined the PHA’s board, most public housing agencies are too preoccupied with other, more pressing problems to think about building new affordable homes.
The typical public housing apartment is more than 50 years old and has more than $54,000 worth of deferred maintenance expenses, according to the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, a public housing trade organization. Congress regularly under-funds public housing’s operational subsidies and capital programs, and federal budget sequestration in 2013 squeezed local housing budgets even further. Periodic government shutdowns have added yet more uncertainty. During this winter’s shutdown, some agencies had to notify Section 8 tenants and landlords that their rental payments for the next month might not come.
Most public housing agencies simply haven’t had the time, the staff or the financial resources to think about replacing parking lots with new buildings—it’s been hard enough just to maintain the status quo. And yet, given the increasing uncertainty and volatility of federal finances, simply maintaining the status quo is an increasingly risky proposition.
HUD is offering public housing agencies one way out of these challenges through its new Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program (which CityLab has covered). RAD essentially cuts out the federal government’s interest in public housing, and lets local agencies take fuller control of their properties.
Compared to the bleak future of the federal housing programs, RAD offers an alluring alternative. RAD conversions allow agencies to leverage private investment in publicly-owned properties, and agencies are already using the program to make much-needed renovations to thousands of public housing apartments nationwide.
Still, RAD conversions can be disruptive to tenants, and by inviting private capital to invest in these properties, the program could, potentially, dilute the public’s ownership and ultimately make these buildings unaffordable to low-income tenants. To realize its potential and avoid its pitfalls, RAD absolutely requires more public oversight from local housing advocates and public housing commissioners.
Outside of the RAD program, some public housing agencies are hiring their own real estate development staff to leverage federal tax credits and compete with private-sector developers—with the crucial difference that the substantial developer fees for apartments built by public housing agencies can be re-invested in public housing, instead of paying dividends to private real estate investors.
That’s what the Portland Housing Authority ended up doing with that parking lot in my neighborhood. In 2017, after four years of planning and with financing from the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, we opened the doors to Bayside Anchor, a 45-unit apartment building built to the energy-efficient passive house standards. It was the first new apartment building our agency had constructed since the 1970s.
Seeing that building go up was extremely gratifying, but its effect on our agency and the city at large went far beyond the new housing it provides. In part because of that project’s success, the Portland Housing Authority has organized to hire two full-time staffers to work on a development pipeline with hundreds of potential new low- and middle-income apartments—including replacements for some of our agency’s most worn-down properties.
Like many private-sector developers, our agency found that in order to build new apartment buildings within an affordable housing budget, we needed the city to increase building height and density limits in its dated zoning laws. As a result, our agency has become a very effective advocate for better housing and land-use policies at City Hall.
While a zoning change requested by a for-profit developer typically brings vocal concerns over gentrification, it’s harder for NIMBYs to criticize a public affordable housing developer’s zoning requests without laying bare their classist prejudices. To help legalize our agency’s plans, Portland’s City Council recently passed, with relatively little controversy, a comprehensive suite of zoning bonuses to benefit new affordable and mixed-income housing developments across the entire city.
Serving on a public housing board admittedly isn’t for everyone—it’s a significant time commitment, with monthly meetings that can last several hours. HUD requires agency boards to have at least two representatives who are public housing tenants or Section 8 housing voucher recipients, but agencies still need to work harder to make it easier for time-strapped volunteers to serve.
Nevertheless, if you’re interested in the practical details of building a more welcoming and more egalitarian city, it’s hard to beat the experience of public housing board service. I’ve had the chance to meet more of my neighbors, welcome new families to our neighborhood, and see better, more inclusive land use policies become a priority in our city government. And, in the coming years, I’m looking forward to seeing our agency rebuild its neighborhoods into even better places that give more families the chance to find safe and stable housing in our city.
In order to overcome its challenges and realize its potential, though, public housing needs better public leadership and oversight. It especially needs volunteer board members who can press agencies to invest in revitalization instead of giving up, tearing down, or selling out.
Public housing advocacy offers a powerful and relatively accessible platform from which anyone can make their city a better place. If you can spare the time to volunteer and put in the effort necessary to set the institution on a better course, the work will reward you with a refreshing sense of optimism for your city’s future.