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US: Budget Cuts Put Public Housing Tenants at Risk

Underfunding Causes Deteriorating Living Conditions, Exacerbates Affordable Housing Crisis

Ramona Ferreyra looks out at the public housing development where she lives in the Bronx borough of New York. January 28, 2022. © 2022 Human Rights Watch

(New York) – Decades of inadequate federal funding have jeopardized the living conditions of public housing residents and exacerbated the affordable housing crisis, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 63-page report, “‘We Deserve to Have a Place to Live:’ How US Underfunding Public Housing Harms Rights in New York, New Mexico, and Beyond,” examines the impact of a decline in federal funding for public housing, which has been accompanied by a modest increase in investment in affordable housing programs that rely on the private sector, such as voucher and subsidy programs. Human Rights Watch found that budget cuts have led to deteriorating living conditions in public housing in New York City, as well as in northern New Mexico, and have reduced the public housing stock nationwide. It also finds that other affordable housing programs, which rely on the private sector, have often failed to guarantee long-term affordability for people with the lowest incomes.

“Compared to other federal housing programs, public housing is especially important for providing affordable homes to those with low incomes,” said Jackson Gandour, a fellow in the Economic Justice and Rights division at Human Rights Watch. “Underfunding has not only put public housing tenants at risk, but it has forced many people to pay unaffordable rents on the private market as they languish on housing assistance waiting lists.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed a total of 37 tenants in 2 markedly different public housing authorities: the New York City Housing Authority, the largest public housing authority in the United States, and the Northern Regional Housing Authority, a small public housing authority in northern New Mexico. Human Rights Watch also interviewed various housing policy experts and analyzed data from government agencies as well as research and civil society organizations.

About one million people in the US call public housing home. It is a critical resource for low-income people across the country, especially older people, people with disabilities, and people of color. This has become especially true in recent years, as the US continues to face severe shortages of affordable housing. There is not a single county in the US where a full-time minimum wage worker can afford a modest two-bedroom apartment. In both New York City and New Mexico, residents testified to the importance of public housing in their lives.

Jasmin Sanchez, a public housing resident in New York City, said that public housing gave her family stability and helped her pursue an education. “They no longer had to worry about not having a place to live,” she said. Multiple residents in New Mexico described coming into public housing after facing either inadequate housing or homelessness. “We were homeless, and somebody told us about the housing, so we put in an application, and we got a home right away,” one resident said.

Many long-term residents in New York also described a time when living conditions in public housing were far better. “The buildings were clean; the grounds were clean,” one resident said. “If there was a problem in your apartment or you needed something fixed, usually [maintenance workers] came the same day.” Another resident said: “When I first came here, it was so beautiful, I thought I was in paradise.”

Conditions in some public housing developments in the US have deteriorated in recent decades, as Congress slashed public housing budgets. Public housing authorities receive most of their funding from the federal government, and between 2000 and 2021, funding for major repairs declined by about 35 percent in real terms. Funding for day-to-day operations and maintenance has also been consistently inadequate to meet operating needs. A 1998 law called the Faircloth Amendment sharply restricts the use of federal funds to construct new public housing, stripping localities of a potential tool to address chronic affordable housing shortages.

Across the country, about 10,000 public housing apartments are lost each year due to deterioration. Residents in both New York and New Mexico noted worsening living conditions, and in some cases, residents described issues with their homes that posed possible threats to their health. One New York resident said she struggled for months to get a repair for a leak in her apartment that was causing wall damage and mold. “If it’s something big and major like that they try to avoid it,” she said. “It’s literally years of neglect and deterioration.”

Multiple residents in both New Mexico and New York described waiting months or even years for repairs. Catherine Parker, who lives in Taos, New Mexico, described numerous issues with her home, including mold, ant infestations, and wall damage. She said that maintenance has been unresponsive. “I don’t expect things to be done right away,” she said. “I understand that I’m not the only place. But I expect a response.”

Underscoring the chronic shortage of affordable housing in the US, multiple residents said that they had tried to move out of public housing but were unable to find an affordable option. “If I could get out of here I would,” Parker said. “If I could get out of Taos I would.”

As budgets for public housing have declined, the federal government has increased funding for affordable housing programs that rely on the private sector, such as tenant vouchers and tax credits for developers of affordable housing. However, these programs, compared with public housing, often fail to provide sufficiently affordable homes over the long term.

Homes built using the low-income housing tax credit program, the largest supply-side affordable housing program in the US, are, for instance, typically less affordable than public housing. Moreover, the program’s affordability protections are temporary: over 400,000 tax-credit apartments, roughly 20 percent of the stock, will lose their affordability protections by 2030.

The federal government, as well as state and local authorities, should increase funding for public housing, and Congress should repeal the Faircloth Amendment, Human Rights Watch said. The federal government should also expand support for all housing assistance programs while making any necessary revisions to ensure that they most effectively serve low-income households.

“Public housing plays a crucial role in fulfilling the human right to housing, as it can provide dignified homes to all, regardless of income,” Gandour said. “By restoring adequate funding, the US can uphold its international obligations and take an important step toward addressing the country’s housing crisis.”

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