Felecia A. Lockett: Water Bill Burden Shifted to Tenants

March 30, 2015

In light of the recent announcement that the Department of Public Works plans to shut off water to 25,000 households, we, the Bristol House Tenant Association leadership would like to express our concerns with the ongoing increase in water charges that has not only affected homeowners of Baltimore City, but its apartment renters as well.

Continue reading Felecia A. Lockett: Water Bill Burden Shifted to Tenants

RTHA Staff Featured on NPR’s Morning Edition

This week, NPR’s Morning Edition ran a feature piece on the life and amazing work of Tony Simmons, the newest member of the Right to Housing Alliance staff.

We’re so excited to have Tony on board working with us and the Public Justice Center on our Rent Court Reform Initiative, and we’re consistently inspired by his motivation and dedication to ending homelessness and realizing the human right to housing in Baltimore.

“‘You must start with yourself. Get up. Get going. No excuses. That’s what I tell myself every morning after prayer. ‘Cause every time I help one person, I get a little part of me back,” Simmons says.”

Listen to the broadcast on the NPR site here. It originally aired on January 28th.

Homeless Man Encourages Others on the Streets to ‘Get Up’

Story by Pam Fessler

This story begins an occasional series about individuals who don’t have much money or power but do have a big impact on their communities.

Sometimes, the people you’d least expect are those who do the most. People like Tony Simmons, a homeless man in Baltimore who helps others get off the street. Simmons says he does it as much for himself as for anyone else.

Simmons is 53 years old and a former Marine. He’s also a former heroin addict and drug runner and was in and out of jail. Eventually, he hit rock bottom — homeless, penniless, alienated from family and friends.

Two years ago, he says, he was afraid he might die if he didn’t pull himself up. Even then, he knew what he had to do.

“You must start with yourself. Get up. Get going. No excuses. That’s what I tell myself every morning after prayer. ‘Cause every time I help one person, I get a little part of me back,” Simmons says.

Today, Simmons has gotten much of himself back. He’s the unofficial go-to person for many of Baltimore’s 3,000 homeless residents, people like the bundled up men and women who come to the Health Care for the Homeless clinic downtown to get medical treatment and other services or to escape the cold. Simmons is stationed at the front door, volunteering at a help desk that he helped set up. He hands out fliers for a free dinner at a local church, provides referrals to food pantries and other services in the city, and gives plenty of advice — and hugs.

“The one thing I try not to do is tell them what to do,” Simmons says. “I just give them the avenues: ‘These are the resources that’s out there. Choose something that’s right for you, and I will help you navigate through that system.’ ”

Professionals at the clinic say Simmons can reach people they sometimes can’t, that he knows where to get help and how to cut through the red tape. He’s now staying with a friend, but he spent three years living in a shelter. So he has lots of credibility with those who are homeless.

And the need for help seems endless. Several people waiting in the clinic lobby use walkers, or wheelchairs. Some are missing limbs. Many need addiction or mental health services. One woman by the door hops nervously as she brushes her teeth.

Outside, it’s cold and raining. About two dozen people sleep on the clinic’s front porch each night, or across the street by a highway overpass. That’s where Theodore Maddox Jr. first saw Simmons over a year ago, helping people outside.

“He never knew that I was watching him, but every day I saw him, and I used to inquire about him: ‘Who’s that dude there? Who’s that dude there?’ And I just said, ‘Man, that’s the person I would like to emulate,’ ” Maddox says.

Maddox was in bad shape at the time. He was on drugs and homeless after spending 30 years in prison for murder and other crimes. But when he overheard Simmons say he’d rather be homeless than live inside while others were on the street, it got Maddox thinking.

“Here’s a dude that’s unselfish,” Maddox says. “So it taught me how to be unselfish, you know — don’t just think about me. I have to think about other people, too.”

So Maddox decided to clean up his act. And now, at age 56, he has his first apartment. He has also joined Simmons in a homeless speaker’s bureau to share his story at local colleges.

Simmons seems to be involved in just about everything. He advocates in city hall and at the state capitol, works on a homeless newspaper, mentors homeless youth and co-teaches a class on homelessness at Johns Hopkins University. He recently started a part-time job, helping those who face eviction.

But Simmons says what people need most from him is encouragement.

Back at the clinic, Simmons hugs a big bear of a man named James, who has just told Simmons he’s now living with relatives and no longer on the street.

When James leaves, Simmons starts to tear up.

“Every day I hear these stories,” he says. “People come to me, like, ‘You know, I’m not out here anymore. Thank you.’ I’m like, I didn’t do much. I just said, ‘Get up.’ That’s all. Just get up.”

 

 

 

AlterNet Article Features Right to Housing Alliance’s RAD Fight

An article published in AlterNet today discusses residents’ fight against the privatization of public housing through the RAD program.

Read the full article on AlterNet here

By Dusty Christensen, October 13th.

Since moving into her new East Baltimore neighborhood last month, Free Palmese has been practically alone on her block. A sea of vacant housing surrounds her rented row house; only six houses are occupied. Boarded-up windows and doors line the quiet streets, giving the neighborhood the feel of a long-abandoned ghost town.

“Nobody wants to live here,” Palmese says, leaning against her car. She didn’t have much of a choice. “I’m only here because I can afford it,” says Palmese, gesturing toward the abandoned block. Before moving into her row house Palmese was homeless, living in her car after being priced out of her former apartment. Finding this latest rental was simply good luck. “I only got this because the landlord is a friend of a friend.”

The irony of having been homeless in a city with over 16,000 vacant homes isn’t lost on Palmese. “How am I homeless when there are all these boarded-up houses?” she asks incredulously. There shouldn’t be anybody in the street.”

Like many American cities, Baltimore faces a serious housing crisis. Vacant lots and homes pervade the landscape, yet a large number of residents are struggling to find affordable places to live. Close to 50 percent of metropolitan Baltimore households are “rent-burdened” — defined by the federal government as paying more than 30 percent of income on housing. The once thriving industrial economy that powered this city, like so many across the country, has all but vanished, leaving in its wake a shrinking population and a dearth of well-paying jobs to afford the ever-increasing rent. Of 80 low- and moderate-income Baltimore jobs analyzed by the Center for Housing Policy, less than 35 percent make enough to meet the threshold of rent affordability for a two-bedroom apartment.

Baltimore’s vacant housing isn’t the only problem in need of a fix. After years of underfunding, the city’s old public housing buildings are desperately in need of repair. Many are plagued with leaking roofs and windows, poor heating and air ventilation, broken elevators and doors, and bed-bug and rat infestations.

Baltimore Housing Authority’s annual maintenance budget has faced continued cuts over the years, allowing much-needed work to be delayed over and over again. And Baltimore is not alone in this dilemma. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has an impossibly large $26 billion backlog nationwide for large-scale repairs on public housing.

Across America, the answer to these pressing housing problems has increasingly been to rely on free-market solutions. The state has been steadily withdrawing from providing public services, inviting private capital to deal with its woes. In order to entice private investment in the public sector, developers and private companies are given lucrative tax breaks and handouts. Far from solving these serious issues, though, so-called “public-private partnerships” often exacerbate the very problems they claim to be addressing.

Baltimore is no exception to this trend. Like her predecessors Sheila Dixon and Martin O’Malley, current Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is beholden to large developers. She has made private investment-driven development a priority, often at the expense of ordinary citizens. Large developers have received all sorts of corporate welfare from the city in exchange for the usual assurances: increased efficiency, greater city revenue, relief for strained municipal budgets and an expansion of services. However, reality is often far removed from these empty promises.

* * *

Charlene has lived in the neighborhood of Greenmount West for most of her life. Sitting on the stoop of the house she was born in and now owns, she describes the area’s recent changes. “All the vacant houses — they tore down houses here,” she says, indicating an empty corner across from her house. What was once a blighted and crumbling neighborhood is now a designated “arts and entertainment district,” boasting a large number of renovated row houses, an artists-only affordable apartment complex, a magnet high school for design students and high-end graffiti murals.

Greenmount West is one of the many Baltimore neighborhoods affected by Mayor Rawlings-Blake’s signature market-based revitalization initiative, Vacants to Value. Hoping to repopulate the shrinking city and fix some of its blighted neighborhoods, the program is billed as “cleaning up and redeveloping” vacant properties in an effort to “help raise property values, create community amenities, increase local tax revenue, and attract new residents and businesses,” according to the Vacants to Value website.

Vacants to Value uses several different strategies to combat the issue of vacant housing. In areas deemed “strong neighborhoods,” streamlined housing-code enforcement pushes landlords to fix their properties or risk losing them under auction to another owner. Neighborhoods with a larger number of vacants are deemed community development clusters. In these areas, developers capable of renovating whole blocks are encouraged to buy both city-owned property and property pushed into auction. Greenmount West is one of these clusters.

Looking at the data, it’s not hard to see why the city picked Greenmount West as an area ripe for developers. Median household income in the neighborhood has increased around 156 percent since 2000, according to census data. This is compared with a 35 percent increase in Baltimore city as a whole. In the same time period, median gross rent has gone up by 118 percent.

Rising property values bring a wealthier tax base into the city, which alleviates city budget shortfalls and provides a lucrative investment opportunity for the powerful and politically influential real estate industry. The median sales price of houses in Greenmount West is 50 percent higher than in the rest of Baltimore, according to data gathered by Trulia, an Internet marketplace for residential real estate, providing a windfall investment for developers looking to turn a quick profit. But while backing increased property values as a solution to vacants may serve as a suitable solution for homeowners, the city budget office and the real estate industry, it ends up leaving many residents behind.

Long-time activist and scholar Marisela Gomez has been organizing against gentrification in East Baltimore for years. She thinks Vacants to Value is a good program in theory, but questions some of its methods. “The intention behind it is good — turning vacants into value, who can fight that?” she asks. “But who are we attracting into those vacants?”

The answer lies in the simple fact that in order to purchase a vacant from the city, potential homebuyers have to demonstrate they have good credit and enough capital to be able to bring the building up to code. This is something poor Baltimore residents simply can’t afford.

“There needs to be more intention to help local residents become homeowners though the program,” says Gomez, “so that they’re not just getting rolled over to build a ‘better Baltimore’ that doesn’t include them.” Right now, she says, the message seems to be “we need people other than you to make this city better.”

Nobody denies that abandoned housing is bad for any neighborhood. However, when a particular real estate market becomes “hot” due to revitalization or nearby investment, property owners and developers gain while housing affordability becomes a serious problem for low-income residents. For people like Charlene, property taxes might rise, but as a homeowner she ultimately benefits from increased investment. Renters, on the other hand, face increased hardship and are often pushed out of their neighborhoods.

Krissy Turner has rented for 10 years in Patterson Park North, another community development cluster. Turner confirms that property values are also on the rise in this neighborhood. “These houses around here used to be sold for what they were worth,” she laments. Turner says that rent has increased noticeably in the last four years — the same time period Vacants to Value has been in operation. “That’s just going to make it hard for people like us who don’t have jobs with benefits and stuff like that — single moms with kids,” she says. This is the very same area Free Palmese was priced out of a year ago. Baltimore renters are finding themselves in more and more precarious situations across the city, and not just in private housing.

* * *

“Housing is a human right!” chanted irate public housing tenants and workers outside of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City in mid-June. Holding picket signs that said “Rethink RAD!” they marched in front of the building, demanding action.

The signs and slogans refer to an Obama administration program, Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD), that will privatize more than 60,000 public housing units by next year in a bid to fund desperately needed repairs. The city of Baltimore has jumped headfirst into what’s only being considered a pilot program, placing over 40 percent of the city’s public housing stock in the hands of private investors. To sweeten the deal for developers buying the buildings, Baltimore is handing out exceptionally generous tax breaks. In return, the city hopes to pocket $147 million from the sale of the buildings, in addition to hefty developers’ fees.

RAD “will be a real shot in the arm — and as I’ve said in some places a lifeline — for our public housing communities” said Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano in a RAD promotional video. The city estimates that some $800 million in capital repairs are needed in the city’s public housing. Baltimore Housing did not immediately respond to requests for interviews for this story.

Despite talk of inclusivity and community engagement, those living in public housing were completely left out of the decision-making process. “Nobody consulted residents about it,” says Jessica Lewis, an organizer at the Right to Housing Alliance (RTHA). The organization starting building opposition to RAD after public housing residents came to the group with their concerns. The residents had only learned about the program after the Baltimore Brew broke the story early this spring.

Many critics are skeptical of the wholesale giveaway of one of the city’s most valuable assets. According to Baltimore Housing figures, close to 20,000 people rely on public housing in the city, and many are concerned about the future of the buildings under private control. Private companies — some of the same ones buying buildings under RAD —  have a suspect record as landlords in Maryland, and public housing workers are concerned about layoffs. In a city already desperately rent-burdened, many are also worried about long-term affordability in the buildings; RAD affordability requirements will expire after 30 to 40 years.

“If there aren’t any affordability requirements built in permanently, there’s nothing stopping developers from turning these buildings into market-rate housing in the long term,” Jessica Lewis says. Although promises have been made about affordability, many residents are justifiably skeptical. Because almost everyone in public housing has lived in private housing previously, “most tenants have seen firsthand…what private landlords look like,” Lewis says. “Especially when there aren’t rich people on their backs about fixing up their apartments.”

Especially troubling is the fact that many of the buildings are high-rise towers located in high-opportunity development areas: Lakeview Towers is located across from the scenic Druid Lake in the historic neighborhood of Reservoir Hill; Bel Park Tower is located right across from Johns Hopkins hospital, which is the main engine driving gentrification in East Baltimore; Chase House is located in the neighborhood of Mid-Town Belvedere, home to a slew of bars and restaurants, plus the symphony hall and opera house. The list goes on and on.

Due to pressure from residents, workers and organizers, Baltimore Housing said it was not selling the land beneath the buildings. However, it is still unclear how the city will leverage this fact to push developers to implement permanent affordability in the buildings.

Another question residents have is whether the city has a plan to purchase the buildings back. Housing Commissioner Graziano has said that Baltimore Housing will have the “first right to refusal” to repurchase after RAD contracts and their affordability requirements expire, although how they will do this if they can’t even afford to repair the buildings now is anyone’s guess.

* * *

Both RAD and Vacants to Value are indicative of a broader trend toward public-private partnerships across America. “It’s just a way to get the government…out of the business of providing services for poor people,” says Jessica Lewis, who is especially critical of Mayor Rawlings-Blake’s role in these schemes. “Instead of seeing poverty as something that needs to be fixed, she sees it as something to be pushed out of the city.”

And indeed, that’s what is happening. As it becomes more difficult for poor people to afford to live in Baltimore city, many are moving out to “the county” — the same suburbs populated during post-war “white flight” by those who wanted to avoid the poor all together. Between 2000 and 2011, Baltimore county’s suburban poverty rate grew 58 percent, according to research done by the Brookings Institute. This is compared with a 4 percent increase in Baltimore city proper.

These numbers point to a disturbing trend taking place all over the U.S.: the suburbanization of poverty. As wealthier residents move back into cities across the U.S., the displaced low-income communities are forced into the suburbs. And because the social safety net in the U.S. is so focused on urban areas (just try riding public transportation or using food stamps in the suburbs of Atlanta), this population finds itself in an incredibly precarious situation.

Private-public partnerships aren’t good at dealing with public problems. What private-public partnerships are good at is moving problems around, pushing them to the periphery and out of sight of those who matter to the market: people with money to spend. Because equality is not a priority to the market, free-market solutions to public problems will inevitably marginalize the poor and powerless.

With a homeless population of over 3,000 and almost a quarter of the population under the poverty line, private “revitalization” means little more than climbing rents for Baltimore’s poor. Throughout the U.S., similar processes are at work as governments hand over many of their old responsibilities to the private sector. The question is, whose responsibility is it to provide services for citizens in need: the nation or the corporation?

Back among the boarded-up vacants on Bradford Street, Free Palmese daydreams of rehabbing a block or owning “a house with a rooftop deck and all that good stuff. I wish the city would…give people like myself that have damaged credit and not a lot of money the opportunity to be a homeowner.” Unfortunately, it seems like the city’s priorities will likely see Palmese move again rather than achieve her dream. After all, she lives in a Vacants to Value target area. Houses are already being bought and rehabbed, and Palmese’s landlord has promised her that the neighborhood is “up-and-coming.”

HABC Claims Pride in Resident Engagement in American Prospect Article On RAD

Yesterday, public housing residents walked out of the first Technical/Finance Work Group offered by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City. The work group was negotiated as a response to claims of a lack of participation by residents in the RAD transition,and was put together by an “advocates group” which includes The Maryland Disability Law Center and Homeless Persons Representation Project.  The Work Group was intended to be an opportunity for residents and advocates to get answers to questions HABC has refused to answer so far. Questions about long-term affordability and residents rights. In previous resident meetings, Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano has refused to answer these questions, claiming that they were “inappropriate.”

At yesterday’s meeting residents came prepared with questions about RAD, but were told at the beginning of the meeting by HABC’s Michael Pakorney that “This is a workshop on tax credits. It’s not about RAD.” Members of the Resident Advisory Board in attendance clearly were told by HABC that this was a meeting about the Low Income Housing Tax Credits, while they questioned non RAB tenants “Who invited you?”

Today, The American Prospect published the following piece on the rollout of a national program to privatize public housing, known as Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD). Quoted are Jessica Lewis, Right to Housing Alliance organizer and David Prater, attorney for the Maryland Disability Law Center.

The article also states that HABC’s Director of Communications, Cheron Porter, “says that HABC is proud of the efforts they have made to engage residents and housing advocates throughout the RAD process.”

We have yet to meet residents (outside of the Resident Advisory Board), with whom HABC are engaging. If you find any, please let us know.

Read the article on theprospect.org.

Read the questions prepared by residents for HABC.

The RAD-ical Shifts to Public Housing

It could be more cost-effective to just appropriate more direct funds to the program and keep it in the public sector, but Congress is not about to do so.

By Rachel Cohen

Traditional public housing is out of favor and substantially out of funds. It’s bureaucratic, concentrates the very poor, and is literally crumbling due to a huge backlog of deferred maintenance. Yet despite real catastrophes—such as Chicago’s bleak, crime-ridden Robert Taylor Homes, dynamited over a decade ago—public housing provides low-rent apartments to some 2.2 million people, and much of it is reasonably well run by local authorities.

For half a century, presidents, legislators and housing developers have sought alternatives, involving supposedly more efficient private market incentives. However, these alternatives, too, have been far from scandal-free. The Johnson-era Section 236 program (named for part of the housing code) gave private developers tax benefits and direct payments to build low-rent housing, underwritten by subsidized thirty-year mortgages. But then, as the mortgages started being paid off in the 1990s, many developers kicked out poor tenants and converted the buildings to middle-class and even luxury apartments—taking low-rent units that had been built and maintained with taxpayer money and removing them from the pool of affordable housing.

Attempts to de-concentrate big public housing projects, such as the Clinton-era “HOPE VI” program (Home Opportunities for People Everywhere), ended up evicting thousands. The Robert Taylor site, which at its peak housed 27,000 low-income Chicagoans, was replaced, using over $500 million in HOPE VI funds, with a low-rise mixed-income development of just 2,300 units.

 

(AP Photo/Gary Sussman)

The first of the five stripped high-rise concrete and brick buildings that were once the Lexington Terrace housing projects begins to collapse as support columns are dynamited during the 20-second chain reaction implosion west of downtown Baltimore, Saturday July 27, 1996. Heavy dust filled the air for 15 minutes afterward. The projects were opened in 1959 and housed over 2,100 residents.

 

Now comes the latest attempt to save public housing by injecting private capital. The idea is to bring in private developers—drawn by tax breaks and subsidies—and have them refurbish and manage the buildings. The end result is to be some kind of hybrid, where rents will stay low (at least for a time), tenants may have more mobility but fewer rights, and the total stock of affordable housing could shrink yet again. The approach is not cheap, and it may be more cost-effective to just appropriate more direct funds to the program and thereby keep it in the public sector—but Congress is not about to do so.

The new plan, promoted by HUD, developers and some city governments with few alternatives, is known as the Rental Assistance Demonstration, or RAD. It is set to transfer 60,000 public housing units across the country to the control of private developers. While billed as a limited test program, many participating cities are taking far-reaching gambles on their city’s affordable housing stock. In Baltimore, 43 percent of all public housing units will be converted through RAD, and in San Francisco, roughly 75 percent.

RAD is a second cousin to everything from privatized highways to the Affordable Care Act, which keeps the public provision and modest expansion of health insurance mostly private.

RAD is an emblematic case of this era’s intensified push to use privatization in the pursuit of social goals—not because that approach is necessarily better policy, but because it is politically possible. In that respect, RAD is a second cousin to everything from privatized highways to the Affordable Care Act, which keeps the public provision and modest expansion of health insurance mostly private.

 

Public housing—a program financed through direct government subsidies since its inception in the late 1930s—has been severely underfunded by Congress for decades. The dearth of funds has translated into a housing stock decline: Since the mid-1990s, more than 260,000 dilapidated units have been demolished or removed from the program. And despite long waiting lists around the country, agencies have only built new units to replace about one-sixth of those that were removed. HUD estimates that nearly $30 billion is needed to repair and restore the nation’s 1.2 million remaining public housing units.

“Primarily because of Congress’s failure to fund public housing, and so many long-term repairs and rehabilitation needs going unmet, RAD was an idea to get a new flow of capital and funds into the program,” says Megan Haberle, policy counsel at the Poverty Race and Research Action Council (PRRAC).

In effect, RAD turns public housing into something like the Section 8 program: low-rent housing that is privately managed or owned, and publicly subsidized.

RAD alters public housing’s funding and ownership structure to one that experts hope will be more politically sustainable over time. For example, a local housing authority could either sell or lease a public housing building to a private developer; the developer in turn would agree to make certain renovations, and to respect tenants’ rights. The traditional funding mechanism—direct subsidies to local housing authorities—would be replaced by tax credits and housing vouchers under the program known as Section 8. The total subsidy would be lucrative enough to entice the developer yet still maintain low rents for tenants. In effect, RAD turns public housing into something like the Section 8 program: low-rent housing that is privately managed or owned, and publicly subsidized.

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Some cities, like Chicago, Philadelphia, Tampa and Charlotte, applied to convert thousands of their public housing units through RAD, but given the program’s demonstration cap, they’re stuck, for now, on a waitlist. (Chicago had the largest RAD application in the country, with nearly 11,000 units.) Other cities that were approved for conversion have taken a more cautious approach: Omaha will convert only 306 units, and Houston just eighty-nine.

 

Council of Large Public Housing Authorities

 

Tenants and housing rights activists share deep concerns about RAD. These include the risk of increased rent costs, the fate of tenant legal rights, and the need to ensure affordable housing for generations to come. In addition, building trade unions see the potential for eliminating unionized middle-class jobs under these new private deals. Yet no formal national coalition has formed to address all these fears, in part because of the highly localized nature of the program. Since the RAD legislation was designed for regional flexibility, the risks and stakes for tenants and workers can vary considerably from city to city. The strength of local housing activist networks, civil rights lawyers and unions will ultimately shape RAD’s impact.

“Everyone is working on their own programs. Some of them are doing things this way or that way, some are a little bit more transparent, others are not,” says David Prater, an attorney at the Maryland Disability Law Center. Prater has been involved with the RAD program in Baltimore, fighting to ensure that protections for disabled tenants are preserved under the new regime.

 

TheRealNews.com

Tenants of public housing protest in front of the Baltimore Housing Authority on June 13, 2014.

Demonstrators raised concerns of resident displacement, middle-class job cuts and public housing loss.

RAD has garnered great controversy in Baltimore—the largest East Coast city to participate—due to its cagey rollout. While Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul T. Granziano has pitched RAD as the only feasible way to salvage the old units, advocates are left with many questions and few details. In midJune, some sixty Baltimore tenants and union workers organized a protest against RAD outside one of the buildings set to be converted, the Bernard Mason Senior Apartments. Demonstrators raised concerns of resident displacement, middle-class job cuts and public housing loss.

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“We’ve been at a number of residential information meetings that [the Housing Authority] organized, and they’ve yelled at residents who have tried to ask questions about long-term affordability and said it was inappropriate for them to even ask those questions,” said Jessica Lewis, an organizer at the Right to Housing Alliance, an advocacy group led by low-income Baltimore residents. At another public meeting, residents invited Karen Wabeke, a lawyer working for the Homeless Persons Representation Project, to ask legal questions on their behalf, but the housing commissioner refused to even take her questions.

Cheron Porter, director of communications for the Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC), says that HABC is proud of the efforts they have made to engage residents and housing advocates throughout the RAD process. Porter adds that Baltimore’s version of RAD “goes far beyond the requirements under the federal law and is much closer to public housing than programs in other parts of the country.”

In other cities such as San Francisco, RAD has met less opposition. The San Francisco Housing Authority, with a $270 million backlog in deferred maintenance costs, has been in a state of organizational tumult for years. Its last director was fired in 2013 after alleged involvement in a host of corruption and discrimination scandals. While some activists and union workers have raised questions, ultimately the Bay Area pushback has been mild in comparison to Baltimore. Many residents eagerly welcome the promise of improved physical conditions.

Deborah Thrope, a lawyer with the National Housing Law Project, a policy organization concerned with preserving affordable housing and tenant rights, says the response was tamer in part because everyone agreed the status quo was untenable. While Thrope hopes to safeguard tenant rights in San Francisco then disseminate those principles nationally, she acknowledges that San Francisco is different than the rest of the country because of its well-mobilized advocacy organizations that collaborate with the city in ways unique to the northern California progressive scene.

 

Despite significant concerns, many housing policy experts remain cautiously optimistic. One promising feature of the program is a “mobility” option not currently permitted for tenants in traditional public housing. For example, some families that want to move and switch school districts could do so using a voucher obtained through RAD. “We see [RAD] as an opportunity not only to inject capital,” says Phil Tegeler, executive director of PRRAC, “but as a break with that whole history of residential segregation and concentrated poverty.”

Capital Needs in the Public Housing Program, Abt Associates Inc., 2010; Housing Authority of El Paso; San Francisco Housing Authority

 

Given the funding crisis, the large public housing authorities are among RAD’s most enthusiastic boosters. “This was not something that was a brainchild of a developer,” stressed Sunia Zaterman, executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities (CLPHA). “This is very intentional in its approach as a preservation and reinvestment strategy.”

Nonetheless, critics’ concerns about tenant displacement appear justified, given the government’s track record with privatizing public housing. HOPE VI projects deliberately decreased the number of public housing units. Many tenants lost their homes through rescreening and thousands were permanently displaced during the rehab process.

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“The housing authorities just didn’t try hard enough to keep in touch with many residents during that year or two that units were getting fixed up, and people were just lost and never had an opportunity to return,” says Ed Gramlich of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

In an effort to avoid the pitfalls of Hope VI, policymakers have tried to design RAD in a way that would prevent some of the worst possible outcomes. For example, unlike in HOPE VI conversions, no tenant will have to be re-screened to establish eligibility to live in RAD properties.

And under RAD, an implicit commitment exists to have a “one-to-one replacement policy,” meaning that any demolished units must be replaced with the same number of units as was originally there. But advocates such as Gramlich worry that developers and local authorities could exploit loopholes in the statute. Exceptions to the one-to-one rule include allowing public housing authorities to reduce the number of assisted units by up to 5 percent without HUD approval, consolidate units (such as converting efficiencies to one-bedroom apartments), and remove units that have been vacant for at least twenty-four months. This last exception is particularly troubling, as housing authorities sometimes intentionally leave units empty in an effort to lessen their administrative fees or anticipate eventual demolition.

Erosion of tenant legal protections also worries advocates. For example, under current public housing law, if a landlord or housing authority mistreats a tenant, the tenant may pursue redress without resorting to expensive and lengthy lawsuits. But under RAD, the contracts will be between private developers and housing authorities, which could make it much more difficult for tenants to hold landlords accountable. Some, like David Prater of the Maryland Disability Law Center, want housing authorities to formally add tenants to the housing contracts as “third party beneficiaries.” This change would strengthen tenants’ ability to pursue grievances.

Prater sees potential for an unholy alliance between housing authorities that want to save money by limiting tenant appeals and private developers who seek to avoid liability. Cheron Porter, speaking for the Baltimore housing authority, says, “While we certainly understand the residents’ point of view,” giving tenants third party status “could potentially lead to unduly lengthened processes and less certainty among the parties’ roles.”

As long as these developers receive HUD subsidies, the units will be subjected to federal audits and monitoring. Still, the regulations leave room for legal sidestepping. “I think legal advocates rightly see that the RAD notice HUD drafted did not completely replicate the protections that people already have under the public housing regulations and handbooks,” says Gramlich.

A further concern is possible changes to RAD under future administrations. For now, the Obama administration has sought to balance developer incentives with tenant protections. But future administrations, facing different political considerations, might opt to shift this balance.

 

Center for Budget and Policy Priorities

 

Although this housing experiment was to be tried first on only 5 percent of the nation’s public housing stock, HUD is now pushing to eliminate the program’s cap entirely. (In other words, gut the “demonstration” part of “Rental Assistance Demonstration.”) Zaterman of CLPHA argues that RAD’s long waitlist “demonstrates its demand and feasibility.” Other affordable housing advocates, however, urge for a more gradual approach in case there are unforeseen ruinous consequences.

With cash-strapped cities lacking the dollars needed to renovate, repair and maintain their public housing, many more are likely to apply for RAD conversions in the future.

If implemented carefully with robust federal oversight, RAD may actually advance the goal of more affordable housing. Decrepit and dangerous buildings could be upgraded and more families may have the opportunity to move into the areas they want. However, if the public looks away or if crafty private developers evade government supervision, the state of affordable housing could look even worse than it does today.

“All of these deals between housing authorities and developers are made behind closed doors,” says Gramlich. “That’s how deals are done in the private marketplace, and that runs against the whole notion of public assets. It’s hard to assess what might happen, and by the time the negotiations are settled, residents might be stuck with a done deal. And the done deal might be great, or it might not be. The people who have the biggest stake in it are left out.”

RTHA Introduces Renters’ Bill of Human Rights!

Over the past year, Right to Housing Alliance has been working on taking the human rights principles of Universality, Equity, Participation, and Peace & Dignity that we hold at the core of our work, and figuring out what they could look like on the ground in Baltimore. The result is the Renters’ Bill of Human Rights. You’ll be seeing a lot of this in the near future. For now, take a look, and please let us know what you think!

8/5/14

Right to Housing Alliance

RENTERS’ BILL OF HUMAN RIGHTS

 To advance the human right to housing, Property Owners (“Owners”) agree to observe and comply with the following rights (“Bill of Rights”) of persons who rent residential apartments from them (“Renters”):

  1. 1.    Universality/Non-Discrimination
    1. Renters and potential renters have the right to rent an apartment or renew a lease without regard to race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity national origin, religion, color, age, immigration status, marital or familial status, criminal background, disability, creed, source of income (including Housing Choice Vouchers) or membership in any other protected class recognized by federal, state, or local law.
    2. Owner will take proactive steps to comply with federal, state, and local fair housing laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act.
    3. Owner will treat all Renters substantially equally in providing services as reasonably permitted by the infrastructure of each managed property and in enforcing the terms in Renters’ leases and property rules.
  1. 2.    Equity:
    1. Renters have the right to rent their apartments without being charged illegal fees or penalties or being subject to cost-shifting schemes prohibited by law.
    2. Renters will be given at least 90 days written notice by Owner of any rent increase before the rent increase will take effect, and Owner will provide information with any notice of rent increase that explains the need for or cause of any rent increase. Renters will have the right to negotiate any proposed rent increases with the assistance of a third party mediator.
    3. Owner will only increase the rent on an apartment after the apartment has been inspected for defects that threaten health or safety and any existing defects have been corrected.
    4. Owner will post notices in its property management offices of job openings with Owner and will make information about those openings available to Renters upon request; further Owner will not discriminate against otherwise qualified Renters in hiring for those positions.
    5. Renters should not be evicted from their property, either during the course of a lease, or by failure to renew a lease without just cause and without the Owner required to sue for eviction in a court of law.
  1. 3.    Participation:
    1. Renters have the right to organize freely, including the right to form and join independent tenant associations or unions of their choice, to distribute and post relevant literature, to recruit members, and to enlist support for these efforts from outside organizers. Through these tenant associations or unions, residents shall have the authority to collectively bargain with Owner over rents, maintenance, or tenant grievances.
    2. Renters have the right to organize and to pursue their rights and interests under the law, the lease, or this Bill of Rights without fear of retaliation, interference, or intimidation.
    3. Owner will hold quarterly meetings open to all Renters to hear issues of individual or community concern and discuss potential solutions to these problems at those meetings. Owner will send timely, advance notice of the meetings to all Renters.
  1. 4.    Transparency:
    1. Each Renter has the right to reasonable access upon request to any documents or information related to the Renter’s lease, lease renewal, the status of existing maintenance work orders, the maintenance history of the Renter’s apartment (including any code violations), the Renter’s ledger or accounting of charges and payments, this Bill of Rights, and Owners’s licensing, registration, and lead risk reduction compliance documentation for the property at which the Renter resides.
  1. 5.    Peace & Dignity:
    1. Renters have the right to a safe, secure, and healthy living environment that meets or exceeds local building and health code requirements and that gives each Renter quiet enjoyment of his or her apartment, as well as the common areas of the buildings and grounds.
    2. Renters have the right to contact property management about emergency maintenance needs after regular business hours and on weekends.
    3. Owner will timely and thoroughly repair conditions that threaten Renters’ life, health, or safety, and Owner will not file a court action seeking rent from a Renter when it has received notice that such a condition of disrepair exists unless and until it has repaired the condition.
    4. Owner will repair other significant defects, upon request, in a reasonably timely manner. In the event that repairs are not made in a reasonably timely manner (30 days), Owner will abate Renters’ rent due in the amount of 5% per day repairs are not made.
    5. Renters have the right to temporarily relocate during any extended period of repair of their unit and to be reimbursed by Owner for the reasonable cost of temporary relocation.
    6. Owner will not unduly interfere with the privacy of Renters and, except in emergencies, will provide at least 24-hours written notice of entry by Owner or Owner’s contractor into a Renter’s apartment, including the reason for such entry, the expected date, time, and expected duration of such entry, and the full name and employment status of any staff, contractor(s), or subcontractor(s) who will be entering the unit.

Property Owner  will take all necessary steps to comply with these rights.

 In the event that any part of this Bill of Rights conflicts with any part of the Renter’s lease, the terms of this Bill of Rights will supersede any conflicting terms in the Renter’s lease.

 Property Owner will send each Renter residing in Owner’s property a copy of this Bill of Rights and inform each Renter that this Bill of Rights will be incorporated into the Renter’s next renewal lease when and if that lease is renewed.

 

HR BOR (8.5.14)

HABC Refuses to Answer These Essential Questions about RAD

After residents and HABC workers held a Speak-Out in front of HABC on June 11th, HABC agreed to maintain ownership of the land under the buildings, and to issue long-term ground leases to the developers. They also agreed to hold a “Technical/Finance Work Group” for residents, advocates, and attorneys who represent resident interests. But they have not followed through on promises and residents are no closer to getting answers.

This meeting was scheduled for 7/29/14 and cancelled by HABC the day before. It was rescheduled for 8/5/14 and cancelled again. Residents are still waiting to get a reschedule date. In the meantime, HABC continues to meet only with the Resident Advisory Board, which operates as part of HABC.

Residents continue to have concerns about long-term affordability of the RAD affected buildings, which Housing Commissioner Graziano has refused to answer in resident meetings at Bernard E Mason Senior Apartments. Karen Wabeke, attorney at the Homeless Persons Representation Project, an invited guest of residents was also silenced when she attempted to ask these questions. Several weeks later, a journalist invited by residents to a resident meeting at Bel Park Tower was told by HABC Communications Director Sharon Porter that she could not record the meeting.

Questions that HABC refuse to answer include the following:

**Housing Authority says they will NOT be selling the land, only the buildings, and that they will be issuing long-term ground leases to the developers for use of the land, but they say this move is largely “symbolic.”

  • When will we see this in writing?
  • What will be the terms of the long-term (99 year) leases with developers?
  • Is HABC going to leverage the fact that they will own the land to impose affordability requirements on the developers in years 40-99 of the lease, after RAD affordability criteria expire?
  • Can the public participate in determining those affordability requirements on the developers to maintain permanent affordability of the buildings? If so, how? If not, why?
  • What will be HABC’s role as the land owner and minority partner?
  • What will HABC’s role be with landlord/tenant issues?  Will legal landlord/tenant issues be handled by HABC or property managers?

**Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano says ”Obviously, the thinking is that we’d buy back the buildings.” The terms of the RAD contracts are 15 years for a Project Based Voucher (PBV), and 20 years for a Project Based Rental Assistance (PBRA) program. HABC is waiting to see if they get a waiver from HUD in order to go with PBRA. It is a requirement of the RAD program that these contracts automatically renew for one cycle, bringing the contracts to 30 or 40 years, respectively.  HABC says that they will have a “first right of refusal” to purchase the buildings back after these contracts are up.

  • What is the word from HUD on the waiver? Will HABC be using PBV or PBRA?
  • What is the plan to purchase back the buildings?
  • How will HABC be able to afford to purchase 22 high-rise buildings in a two year span if they cannot even afford to maintain them now?
  • Is there a fund being put in place to save for this purchase?
  • What will determine the future buy-back price for the buildings? Will it be strictly based on market forces?

**HABC says that tenant associations or their designees will have a “secondary right” to purchase the buildings if developers and HABC decline at the end of the contracts.

  •  When will we see this in writing?
  • How will the purchase price be determined in 40 years? Strictly by market forces?
  • How will these rights be documented and can we see them?
  • How will a buy-back work when there is a ground lease in place?

**Tenants as “Third Party Beneficiaries”

  •  Will tenants have standing (right and ability) as “third parties” to file lawsuits (without HABC) requiring new building owners to comply with rules negotiated?
  • How will HABC and/or developers memorialize the tenant status as third party beneficiaries and how will that be documented?

*What is the mechanism by which HABC is going to ensure “permanent affordability” as Housing Commissioner Graziano keeps assuring residents. “Permanent affordability” appears nowhere in writing in the RAD regulations, so how will HABC be doing this?