Trump Administration Proposes Eliminating Funding for Public Housing Maintenance

Instead of annual $2 billion to $3 billion federal appropriation, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development would seek private investment to meet maintenance and repair costs under the Trump administration's proposal

Cincinnati's Winton Terrace, a CMHA public housing complex - Chris Speed
Chris Speed
Cincinnati's Winton Terrace, a CMHA public housing complex

Like a lot of subsidized housing across the country, it is no secret that Greater Cincinnati's public housing stock is sagging under the weight of deferred maintenance. Now, a new proposal by the administration of President Donald Trump could get rid of federal funding for fixing it up.

Trump's 2020 budget calls for eliminating a fund that pays for repairs to public housing across the country, as well as other funding via the federal government's Community Development Block Grant and HOME programs that can be used for affordable housing. Instead, the administration says, it would like to further explore ways to leverage private investment to meet public housing's maintenance needs.

Many members of Congress, which has final say on federal spending, however, are dubious about the proposal.

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson agrees that conditions at many public housing complexes across the country are bad. But he says the government can't continue to pay to fix them. 

"You can just throw more money at it, or you can say 'Why is that happening and why is it getting worse and is there anything that we can do about those factors?' " Carson told a U.S. House of Representatives committee last month. 

Instead of the federal funding, Carson says he would like to see public housing agencies leverage a program created as part of the 2017 GOP tax reforms — Opportunity Zones. The program gives big tax breaks for those looking to invest capital gains in 8,700 low-income Census tracts across the country, including those in Cincinnati's West End, Over-the-Rhine and other neighborhoods. 

Carson says that investment could include many struggling public housing developments and replace federal maintenance funding. But opponents have said that the investment will trickle in over the course of years and isn't guaranteed to go to affordable housing in any form. 

As CityBeat has reported in past stories, some of the city's public housing developments — which house about 10,000 people, are an average of 74 years old and need about $100 million in differed maintenance — have seen the gamut of problems. Leaking roofs. Infestations. Issues with security. 

Those problems don't manifest at every single Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority property, but many in Avondale, the West End and other parts of town have seen struggles. Last year at Winton Terrace, a sprawling, 600-unit CMHA complex of low-slung red brick townhouses in northern Cincinnati, the complaints were numerous.

CMHA built Winton Terrace in 1941, just a few years after the advent of modern American public housing and the creation of the local housing authority through the 1933 National Recovery Act.

One section of buildings at Winton Terrace had mice infestations, residents told a city inspector at a community council meeting last year. The mice had even taken to living in one resident’s stove, though the housing agency replaced the unit. Problems with plumbing and water mains were common and persistent. Ceilings leaked. An enveloping and mysterious swarm of insects had made a field between several of the buildings impassable. A herd of dozens of cats had overtaken another.

CMHA says it has addressed many concerns at Winton Terrace and is working hard to keep up with facilities' needs, performing roughly 50,000 work orders a year. But the money to do that would disappear under Trump's proposal.

HUD is already trying to fill some funding gaps with private investment via a controversial program called Rental Assistance Demonstration, which is opening public housing in Cincinnati and other cities up to private investors so that housing authorities like CMHA can use those investments to make repairs and build new housing.

Many CMHA residents in places the like the West End's Stanley Rowe Towers have expressed concerns that RAD will mean demolition of their buildings and that their replacements won’t have enough units for everyone. Some affordable housing advocates decry RAD as a move to privatize public housing. And what federal oversight looks like for the private entities that will be running once-public housing complexes is still unclear.

But CMHA says the program will be positive — a way to finally fund capital needs.

It's not the first time the Trump administration has sought to reduce funding to HUD programs, and if early feedback and history are any indication, the cuts may not get through Congress.

Trump’s budget proposal last year cut more than 18 percent — almost $9 billion — from HUD’s budget, including a move zeroing out a fund for maintaining and improving public housing and halving another fund that pays for its operating costs. The spending plan also included a proposal that would raise rents for many people who rely on public housing and voucher programs while creating work requirements.

This year's budget proposal also includes those rent increases and work requirements. 

Taken together, those moves present dangerous threats to the nation's public housing, advocates like Diane Yentel say. Yentel is the president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which advocates for increased affordable housing. 

“Like his other budget requests in (fiscal years 2018 and 2019), the proposal would reduce housing benefits for the lowest-income people by slashing federal investments in affordable homes, increasing rents and imposing harmful work requirements on America’s struggling families,” Yentel said when the budget was released in March. “If enacted, it could leave even more low-income people without stable homes, undermining family stability, increasing evictions, and, in worst cases, leading to more homelessness.”

Despite Trump's 2019 proposed cuts to HUD, Congress restored and even increased funding for the agency in its final budget last year. This year, Trump asked for slightly more — but cuts to specific programs are even deeper. And with Democrats in control of the U.S. House, opposition to them may be as well.

Whether or not the budget proposals come to pass, they are a window into the creaking ship that is American public housing: HUD’s budget has been significantly reduced, and its attempts to provide for the most immediate needs of the nation’s poorest citizens has fallen behind the need for low-income housing.

HUD's $42 billion budget authority is about half what the department got from Congress 40 years ago when adjusting for inflation. And in the past decade, cuts to public housing have been steep. Between 2010 and 2016, HUD was given $1.6 billion less for public housing — a 20 percent reduction, according to federal Office of Management and Budget data. And funding for repairs specifically, now about $2 billion to $3 billion a year, is half of what it was in 2000. Some estimates place the cost of fully repairing America's public housing stock as high as $50 million.

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