Public housing: going, going, gone? Shelter for poor families bulldozed to make room for luxury condos

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Kristin O’Donnell is president of the Community Council at Yesler Terrace, Seattle’s last remaining large public housing development. When O’Donnell applied for aid 30 years ago, she waited two months for a home. Today, the wait is three years, and her community, which sits on prime property near downtown, is at serious risk of demolition.

As it has done with its other large developments, the Seattle Housing Authority wants to replace Yesler Terrace with a “mixed-income” neighborhood. This would bring in money for the budget-strapped agency by reducing units available to low-income families and adding units that rent or sell at market rate.

Seattle isn’t unique. Across the U.S., housing aid is stretched. Nationally, only one in four people who qualify for housing aid receive it. And the budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development keeps shrinking. For fiscal year 2007, George W. Bush proposes a 1.8 percent cut in HUD’s budget.

O’Donnell describes this state of affairs as “doing triage on low-income folks.” With too many families to help, more fall through the cracks.

Goodbye Hooverville. Public housing was first launched in the 1930s to replace slums and tent cities where poor working people were forced to live.

Today, housing aid is administered nationally by HUD. Federal tax dollars are distributed to local housing authorities for the purpose of helping the nation’s neediest families. Many agencies both operate public housing and provide vouchers to families who can rent from landlords at 30 percent of their income with HUD making up the difference.

In addition to seniors and people with disabilities, a high proportion of public housing residents are families headed by single moms. And because many housing projects are centrally located, near major bus lines, job-training programs, and childcare and healthcare facilities, they provide breathing space for parents to learn skills, land living-wage jobs, and transition to affordable private accommodations.

A frayed lifeline. But public housing is under siege. A bipartisan drive to demonize projects as huge crime-infested failures has rewritten its history of helping millions of families get on their feet. This stereotype has helped to rationalize stepped-up privatization of subsidized housing through programs like HOPE VI, which are destroying places like Yesler Terrace.

Launched in 1992, HOPE VI was originally conceived to replace old residences with modern units on a one-to-one basis. It has “succeeded” in funding the demolition of several thousand public units. What it mostly supplies instead, though, is not replacement public housing but vouchers for private dwellings at market rates. It has become a cash cow for developers and for strapped housing agencies.

Also eroding is HUD’s stock of “project-based” housing, which is part of the public-private voucher system and whose leases have traditionally been long-term. But in recent years, as many of the leases expire, HUD has chosen to renew them with short-term leases — and landlords aren’t biting, preferring instead to take advantage of the hot real estate market.

These changes have serious consequences. They can result in increased isolation for the poor and reduced access to services, O’Donnell observes. They also put families at risk of homelessness if they can’t find a house for a price their voucher allows.

Moreover, breaking up low-income communities, and the organizations they develop, conveniently ensures less resistance as Congress cuts assistance.

The most recent threat comes from Bush’s proposed State and Local Housing Flexibility Act, which would impose strict time limits on families who receive housing aid. It also would raise income eligibility levels so that middle-income families could qualify for aid — but without ensuring that poor families are served first. And it would give housing agencies more latitude to raise rents and evict tenants.

Renters impoverished. What elevates these problems to the level of a crisis is the dearth of affordable private housing. The combination of skyrocketing real estate and stagnant wages is putting men, women and children on the streets.

To be able to pay for food, transportation, and other basics, workers should have to put no more than 30 percent of their wages toward housing. Yet, at a federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour, no area exists in the U.S. where full-time minimum-wage employees can pay only this percentage of their incomes and afford even a modest studio apartment at prevailing prices.

In the 2005 report “Out of Reach,” the National Low-Income Housing Coalition (www.nlihc.org) puts the national average wage needed to rent a modest two-bedroom home at $15.78. In San Francisco, it is $29.54.

Democrats and Republicans push the construction of more homes and denser urban cores as the cure for homelessness. But this simply allows developers to tear down low-income apartments in favor of luxury condos, while frequently getting handsome tax breaks in the process!

This nationwide gentrification trend disproportionately harms communities of color. New Orleans is a stark example.

Of the at least 142,000 units of housing destroyed there by Hurricane Katrina, a minimum of 79 percent were home to low-income households, most of them African American. But rather than help residents rebuild their demolished homes, officials are backing schemes to buy them up cheap. Meanwhile, thousands of evacuees who have no place to go are losing their housing aid.

Needed: a fight for quality housing for all! At times like this, a strong public housing program could save the day. And in cities across the U.S., from Seattle to New Orleans, activists are getting organized to win just that.

It’s in the interest of organized labor and all working people to join forces and fight for fulfillment of the principle that quality housing is a right that should be guaranteed to all. Here are some demands, for starters, to make that concept real.

• Revive and expand public housing to eliminate waiting lists and to meet the needs of all low-income families and individuals who qualify for aid.

• Preserve affordable housing — tax developers who tear down low- and moderate-income housing in order to fund one-for-one replacement.

• Implement rent control and repeal bans in states and cities where it has been outlawed.

• Raise the minimum wage to reflect prevailing rents.

• Fund a mass public works program to rebuild New Orleans at union-scale wages!

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