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First Houses in Manhattan, one of the earliest public housing developments in the United States, April 2, 2009 © 2009 Americasroof

(Washington, DC) – The United States Congress should appropriate sufficient funding to allow local public housing authorities to fully address the growing backlog of repair needs, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the US Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, and the US House Committee on Financial Services.

Public housing is critical to protecting the right to affordable housing, especially for women, and people with disabilities, as well as Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, but it has been underfunded for decades. Congress recently approved a $3.5 trillion budget resolution, of which $339 billion is allocated to housing programs. However, Congress has not yet decided how this money will be spent.

“The recently approved $3.5 trillion budget resolution is a critically important opportunity to reverse the damage caused by the federal government’s decades-long neglect of public housing,” said Jackson Gandour, Business and Human Rights Fellow at Human Rights Watch. “Congress should act to protect the human rights of the nearly two million people who depend on public housing in the US.”

Because its rents are capped at 30 percent of household income and residents have various procedural protections against eviction, public housing is a crucial source of housing stability for low-income tenants.

However, according to an analysis by Human Rights Watch, adjusting for inflation, funding for major repairs is about 35 percent lower today than it was in 2000. As a result, the availability of public housing is far below need, and residents have seen their homes deteriorate, jeopardizing their human right to adequate housing. Each year, as many as 15,000 public housing apartments are closed or demolished because they are no longer habitable.

Rather than provide sufficient funding, Congress has created new programs that remove housing from the conventional public housing program. Under one of these programs, the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD), local public housing authorities have transferred or leased  their developments to private companies to raise needed financing for repairs.

Human Rights Watch research into this program in New York City has found that it reduces oversight and protections for residents, and, in some developments, has been associated with increased eviction rates. It is also unclear whether the program has led to consistent improvements in housing quality, as several residents in New York City’s housing converted under this program  have reported ongoing habitability issues.

“Increasing funding for public housing would signal a recommitment to the original promise of the program: that everyone deserves safe, quality, and affordable housing,” Gandour said. “By reinvesting in public housing, we can ensure that no one has to choose between housing that is unaffordable and housing that is uninhabitable.”

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