Some Americans live in deplorable conditions. Their landlord is Uncle Sam.
By: Jill Riepenhoff and Lee Zurik
BOGALUSA, Louisiana (InvestigateTV) – Thousands of the nation’s poorest residents – many elderly or disabled – live in deplorable and life-threatening conditions because Congress and the federal government have broken their promise to provide safe and sanitary public housing.
Hundreds of public housing complexes where they live are rotting from neglect, unable to pass inspections by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development year after year, an InvestigateTV/Raycom Media analysis of federal data shows.
The government is banking on the massive expansion of an experimental rehabilitation program to save public housing properties by privatizing more than a third of all the units in the U.S. But the program has suffered from oversight woes and mismanagement. Tenants’ rights have been ignored or misinterpreted.
And some of the most distressed properties aren’t being considered for the improvement program because repairs are deemed too costly.
HUD admits growing pains with the new program. But overall, “It’s a particularly useful tool” to help address a backlog of $50 billion in public housing repairs, said Tom Davis, director of HUD’s Office of Recapitalization.
The backlog of unmet reconstruction needs is dire.
Today, thousands of low-income tenants live among bugs and mice. Their plumbing leaks. Their drains are clogged. Their doors don’t lock, and windows are broken. Their smoke detectors don’t work, if they have them at all. Their peeling paint is laced with lead.
“If it breaks, it’s just broke,” said Robert Morris, a retired school custodian who has lived at the Sunset Acres public housing complex in the small southeastern Louisiana city of Bogalusa for the past six years.
InvestigateTV’s six-month analysis found that hundreds of properties have been neglected for as long as a decade.
“Public housing is a critical part of our country’s social safety net,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, DC. “The federal government is not supporting it the way they ought to be.”
The complex where Robert Morris lives is an hour north of New Orleans. It has failed five of six HUD inspections in the past decade. Morris, 64, simply says of the apartments at Sunset Acres, “They’re not nice.”
Sunset Acres is among 365 public housing complexes that have failed at least half of their inspections in the past decade, the InvestigateTV/Raycom Media analysis of HUD data shows.
“As bad as the inspections have been, the problem is worse than that,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs. “Far too many of these people’s homes fail inspections and we don’t fix them.”
New program, new concerns
Chronic underfunding for renovations by Congress has consequences: About 10,000 public housing units are lost each year from neglect that’s left them uninhabitable.
This compounds the affordable-housing crisis in the U.S., where only one in four people who need help get it.
On average, a household needs to earn a yearly income of nearly $25,000 to afford rent on a two-bedroom apartment on the open market, advocates say. For those living in public housing, their household income averages $14,357, HUD data shows.
The housing authority in Morris’ town of Bogalusa received $718,000 to address problems at three complexes. That represents slightly more than $2,100 per unit, below the amount needed for adequate repairs.
With too little money to address the pressing needs, the federal government is counting on private investors to save public housing.
Rental Assistance Demonstration, or RAD, started in 2012 under the Obama administration as a modest experiment to rehab just 20,000 public housing units with private investments and tax credits. [Learn more about how RAD works.]
“It’s been a success,” said Sen. John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican and member of the Senate housing committee.
He said he is supportive of the new effort because the old way is a failure: “The federal government keeps throwing money at the problem and getting the same results.”
Yet the program has skeptics. For more than a year, the Government Accounting Office, HUD’s inspector general and housing advocates have raised red flags about RAD.
There are questions about the true cost of construction and private investment, HUD’s oversight and the impact on tenants.
HUD’s Davis said his office is increasing its staff of 60 by 20 percent by the end of the year, largely to address compliance-related issues.
Despite the questions, Congress and HUD are charging full steam ahead, privatizing nearly 40 percent of the nation’s one million public housing units.
The goal of the program is to use private money to fix up public housing. But 45 percent of the units transitioned into the program without any planned expenditures for renovations and repairs, according to InvestigateTV’s analysis of the RAD projects.
In Sen. Brown’s state of Ohio, nearly 70 percent of the complexes will turn over to private owners without money spent on rehabilitation.
“I don’t know how you can do RAD without injecting money into the upkeep and improvement of the structure,” Brown said. The private owners “have got to live up to their responsibilities, and I’m not sure HUD is making them do that.”
Use the map below to see RAD properties around the U.S. with no money allocated to repairs. You can zoom within the map and click on each point to see the name of the development, the number of units converting, current status of the property, the most recent inspection year and most recent inspection result (out of 100). Due to incomplete data, points are mapped to the corresponding housing authority office.
Kennedy also expressed concerns with the lack of investment by private developers. He plans to discuss the issue with HUD Secretary Ben Carson.
“HUD needs to do a better job . . . in making sure the private developers do what they say,” Kennedy said. “If you carefully supervise it, it can work.”
Davis said that every RAD project must have a 20-year capital improvement plan which details when repairs will be made and how they will be paid for.
“Upfront construction is only part of the picture,” he said.
Legacy of neglect
Tekeydra Gibson waited two years for a coveted unit to open up at a public housing complex in Alexandria, Louisiana, a city in the middle of the state where more than a quarter of its 48,000 residents live in poverty.
Her joy, however, sunk when she was shown to her three-bedroom apartment. The sprawling complex of four- and six-family units built in the 1970s looked as if a bomb had been dropped on the property – units with caved-in roofs, others burned to the ground.
“I didn’t even know it looked that bad until I actually got here. I was like, ‘is this where I’m moving to?’” the single mother of two recalled.
Sycamore Place exemplifies what has happened since Congress has slashed funding for public housing repairs and reclamation.
“Sycamore was neglected because there wasn’t a significant amount of money flowing in . . . to maintain it in good standing,” said Joseph Page, executive director of the Alexandria Housing Authority, which owns and operates the complex. “To see the empty units, see the trees growing through them, it makes me sad.”
“Basically, everything in this apartment is old,” said Gibson, 20.
The federal government created public housing after the Great Depression as a promise to provide for so many poor Americans living in unsafe conditions or who were homeless. In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt discuss the housing crisis in his second inaugural address, hear a portion of his “One Third of a Nation” speech: (audio courtesy of George Mason University).
Today, the vast majority of complexes – from high rises in big cities to duplexes in small towns – are in decent condition, based on an InvestigateTV analysis of their HUD property inspection scores.
Still, about 8 percent, including Sycamore Place in Louisiana, are in dire need of extensive repairs and updating.
“It’s appalling and it’s unacceptable,” said Yentel. “People shouldn’t have to live that way especially when the federal government is supporting it.”
HUD’s inspections reveal the fragile condition of public housing complexes. The stock is old, with all of the units built between 1940 and the mid-1970s.
And like any house, upkeep is necessary. But that upkeep requires money.
HUD inspects the complexes to access their structural integrity and to make sure the properties are safe for tenants. Broken windows and doors, refrigerators that don’t properly cool, toilets that don’t flush, insects, lead paint, mold and inoperable smoke detectors are dangers to the people who live in these units.
After visiting the complexes, generally every year or two, inspectors give them a score between zero and 100. Any score below 60 means that the property has serious problems – the lower the score, the worse the conditions.
During the most recent inspections of public housing, nearly one in eight properties scored below 60. A complex in Hoboken, New Jersey had a score of just eight, the worst of any property in the country.
Housing authorities are supposed to repair the deficiencies found during an inspection with money supplied by the federal government.
But without proper funding, housing authorities can only do so much. And over time, neglected repairs become increasingly expensive fixes.
In 2015, the Robert E. Lee complex in Kingsport, Tennessee had an inspection score of 98. By its next inspection in 2017, it had fallen to a score of 44. Inspectors found cracks in the foundation of units, corroded electrical systems, a complex overrun by weeds and tall grass. View the neighborhood through Google’s street view images from 2013 below.
Both complexes are being replaced with mixed-income housing, with tenants from across the socio-economic ladder. Overall, it’s a net loss of housing for the poor.
“It’s really evidence I think of the federal government walking away from its commitment and responsibility to keep these homes in decent shape,” Yentel said.
Some tenants face problems
The Alexandria, Louisiana, housing authority hopes to convert all nine of its public housing complexes to RAD – including Sycamore Place. So far, it has completed two RAD renovations.
“It just makes sense to convert to RAD and have a sum of money coming in so you can rehab them,” said Page, the authority’s executive director.
Once the conversions are complete, Alexandria officials rescreen tenants for income eligibility. Anyone who doesn’t have an income, Page said, can’t live in a converted property.
“This is the first time I’ve heard that assertion,” said HUD director Davis. “All of the current residents have the right to return to the property. There’s no rescreening of tenants for any reason.”
He said he planned to investigate the matter.
Housing advocates know that across the country, public housing tenants have been banned from returning after a RAD conversion. Others are paying too much in rent. But no one knows the extent of the problems that tenants have faced.
“It’s quite alarming, which is why HUD oversight of the program plays such an important role,” said Deborah Thrope, supervising attorney with the National Housing Law Project in San Francisco.
The federal government’s GAO was critical of HUD for not tracking residents after the conversion because it doesn’t know who comes back and how much more or less they are paying in rent.
“Their databases are not designed to track the impact of RAD conversion on residents and they are unable to electronically link household information submitted before RAD conversion to information submitted after conversion,” the GAO said in its report.
As a result, the GAO concluded, “HUD cannot reasonably assess the effects of ongoing and completed RAD conversions on residents and compliance with resident safeguards.”
Davis said his office is working to address those problems. He hopes that the agency will soon be able to track them electronically. But for now, it relies on reports from housing authorities on the impacts of RAD conversions on residents.
And those reports have helped HUD identify a dozen or so projects where residents have been harmed by the conversion, Davis said. In some cases, the housing authorities were ordered to make room for tenants they had previously banned.
“It’s still a relatively new program,” he said. “We are still learning from experiences in the field.”
Sandra Stripe has lived at Boutte Estates in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana almost her entire life. And much has changed at the public housing complex east of New Orleans since she was a toddler.
The toilets no longer fill with water after flushing.
Water leaks from the upstairs apartments into the downstairs units.
“If we’re going to be paying this kind of money, we need to be living better,” said Stripe, who pays $366 a month in rent, more than half of her monthly income of $675.
In Karen Angelin’s ground-floor apartment, a mysterious vine grows along the ceiling of interior walls. In the winter, she relies on her stove to heat her three-bedroom apartment because the furnace “is just decoration.”
Angelin added: “We’re living in the stone age.”
During its last inspection, the property had a score of 43. Inspectors found electrical hazards, problems with the roofs, unkempt and weedy yards, to name a few deficiencies.
So when a letter arrived in the mail on Aug. 28, alerting tenants about plans to convert the complex to RAD, Angelin and other residents were hopeful that the 49-year-old complex would be rehabbed.
There have been successful RAD conversions, in which old complexes become new and inviting. In Alexandria, executive director Page is as proud as a new father showing off what’s now called Tranquil Place, which resembles a condo community of quaint brick units.
“We’re no longer public housing,” said Page. “We’re affordable housing.”
But RAD isn’t a guarantee.
Neither Boutte Estates nor Page’s Sycamore Place have submitted applications to HUD to convert the properties, data shows, though in both locations, tenants have been told by the housing authorities of their desire to move to the RAD program.
HUD predicts that as much as 60 percent of the public housing stock could work under RAD. The question becomes what to do about the rest?
“Oftentimes, it’s the buildings that need the most repair that don’t qualify for RAD … because it doesn’t pencil out,” said Thrope.
Some properties need too many costly repairs, making them unlikely to attract private investments. At least 200 complexes that have chronically failed inspections are not on the list for a RAD conversion.
Among them is a high rise in New Orleans that’s home to low-income senior citizens. During the most recent inspection of the Guste High Rise in 2017, HUD discovered fire sprinklers had been painted over on a majority of the floors of the 12-story building. There were holes in doors and walls, bugs, and cracks in the driveway, a particular hazard for walkers, wheelchairs and canes.
“There’s just been a chronic disinvestment there,” said Laura Tuggle, executive director of the Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, which represents low-income people on housing issues. “I don’t know if it’s mismanagement or not having enough funds.”
Overall, public housing largely is home to working parents, senior citizens and adults with disabilities.
“The federal government started this program. The federal government made a major investment,” Yentel said. “They ought to be able to find the resources to keep this up.”
But without an infusion of cash from Congress, the public housing stock that’s left will continue to deteriorate.
“We have the solutions,” Yentel said. What’s missing, she added, is “the political will.”
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