Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Scary: privatizing public housing with RAD

Eeeesh. Here's a defensive message from Raphel Bostic, HUD's Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research, starting with high hopes for the new nationwide Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program and getting, at the end, to what might be the real point, which is answering this guest editorial in Politico about problems therewith.

Not maybe the best move -- it calls attention to the article, and the report behind the article too.

The writers in the Politico editorial are Liz Ryan Murray and Agnes Rivera. Both are New York-based activists in groups that helped produce a report on the mixed likely public health effects of the RAD program. The report, by Human Impact Partners, is available here. Basically, the report says privatized public housing buildings might become better policed and maintained but might also treat tenants with less respect and would be less likely to provide genuinely stable housing either for existing tenants or for other low-income or "hard to house" people.

Murray and Rivera's concerns start from the general problems of privatization and go on to special problems in RAD's design. They say it would break up some communities of neighbors in public housing and would create new forms of precarity for those residents who do get to stay.

Overall, RAD looks like a way to speed up privatization of public housing. That means switching over from housing authorities that at least theoretically exist to serve the tenants, to private landlords who exist to make a profit. That, and nonprofits that have to act a lot like private landlords to satisfy the private investors who provide chunks of their financing.

As Murray and Rivera note, private ownership carries a lot more risk of failure in the form of foreclosure or resale, hence imposes a whole new layer of uncertainty on tenants of privatized buildings. There's also, of course, the sneaking likelihood that a private landlord will sooner or later find ways to raise rents or to prefer higher-income tenants as lower-income households move out. Not good. They don't mention it, but this pattern is specifically not good in ways that would be familiar to New York activists because the city has a long nasty history of forcible "vacancy decontrol" of rent-controlled units.

The writers are even more worried about the possibility that real units of public housing will be "replaced" by sending families out into the world with Section 8 vouchers, putting the burden on the families themselves to find private landlords who will take their vouchers, but on economic terms that might make it difficult to find such landlords, anyway for decent places. If these families find landlords at all, they'll be separated from their neighbors -- hence from all the informal ways of getting by with help from friends. Of course living in public housing has its (big) problems, but, as Murray and Rivera write, "the social cohesion people feel in public housing acts as a buffer to the “unhealthy” environments that public housing supposedly creates." The less money people have, the more they need to rely on friends. When everything becomes suddenly a matter of dealing with strangers at arm's length, everything costs a lot more in both energy and money.

Underneath efforts like RAD, I suspect, is the old "culture of poverty" myth that claims poor people stay poor because they're with other poor people, and that the answer is to divide them up to live among richer people who can show them how to live properly. Which is in its own way as wrong as the opposite extreme of utter segregation by income.

So this is where Bostic defends RAD by suggesting the Politico article's analysis "overlooked some key studies, not the least of which being the Moving to Opportunity demonstration, which showed significant positive health impacts from activities like those contemplated in RAD".

I did learn that the program Bostic mentions for comparison, "Moving to Opportunity", is different from, smaller than, and arguably better than the sometimes devastating "Moving to Work" program. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, MTO actually might be a good example. But then the Human Impact Partners executive summary suggests such a comparison might be unfair because "... MTO provided extensive funding for vouchers where none is provided here..."

Scary stuff.

Why not improve public housing with public money and let the tenants stay where they are and make it a public effort that the public can be proud of?

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By the way, that Human Impact Partners report seems like part of a good new trend among activist groups of forming temporary coalitions to do big research projects. Another example being the foreclosure redlining report that I mentioned a few days ago. It's not that different from the nonprofit journalism trend & also a good thing.

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