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Mold. Leaks. Rodents. Crime. These are just some of the things the nation's 2 million public housing residents have to worry about. Many of the buildings they live in have been falling into disrepair for decades. Public housing officials estimate that it would cost $50 billion to fix them up.
But the Trump administration wants to eliminate the federal fund now used to repair public housing in favor of attracting more private investment to fix up and replace it.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson says the country needs a new approach because the current one is not working. He admits that living conditions for many public housing residents are extremely poor.
"There are two possible solutions. 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 recently told a House appropriations subcommittee.
Part of the problem stems from a steady decline in public housing repair funding over the past decade. About $2 billion to $3 billion has been appropriated in recent years, half the amount approved in 2000. At the same time, the needs have grown at a more rapid rate, creating a massive backlog.
Tyrone Garrett, executive director of the District of Columbia Housing Authority, is one of many housing officials across the country trying to deal with the fallout. Earlier this year, Garrett announced that his agency faced "a monumental crisis." About 2,500 public housing units in the city — about a third of its stock — are in such disrepair that Garrett says they're unfit for human habitation.
"Would we want our parents, our family members, our mothers, or our children for that matter to live in units that are decaying around them?" he asks. Garrett says the answer is obviously "no," but about 5,000 Washingtonians now live in those units. He says his agency needs $343 million in emergency funding to meet the most urgent needs.
Garrett shows what he's talking about at Richardson Dwellings, a public housing complex in Northeast Washington. Like much of the nation's public housing, these two-story brick apartments are decades old and have been patched together with one Band-Aid repair after another. Today, some of the units are beyond repair.
"You have roof leaks, ceiling leaks, probably stemming from something on the roof, decaying floors, walls," says Garrett, pointing to water stains above him in one unit and chipped linoleum on the floor.
The apartment's living room is small and crammed with furniture, piles of personal belongings and a big refrigerator standing in one corner. It's difficult to walk through the room. Scarlet-colored carpeting on the stairway is so loose, it's difficult to walk upstairs because it's unclear where one step begins and another one ends. Upstairs, Garrett points out more water stains on the ceiling in one of the bedrooms, and to black grout between the bathroom tiles.
"You can see where the mold is building up and this is probably more than likely from a lack of ventilation," he says. These apartments were built in 1953 before exhaust fans were standard.
The majority of public housing residents here and elsewhere are seniors, people with disabilities, and children — those who can least afford poor living conditions.
Jamell Fields shares an apartment at Richardson Dwellings with several people, including her two daughters and grandchildren. When Garrett stops by, she tells him that the stuffy air inside has become a problem for all of them.
"Everybody in here is asthmatic," says Fields, who has lived there for two years. "It's so dry in here a lot and the asthma has gotten really bad for all of us. [My daughter] has medicine for it. I have medicine for it. My other daughter, she has medicine for it. Her son, he got a little bit, but he don't have as much as we do."
The apartment has other hazards, including lead-based paint, which has made Fields and her family eligible for emergency vouchers to relocate to other housing. She says at least the bug infestations aren't as bad as they used to be.
"It's just the mice. The mice is out of control a little bit," she says.
There's a lot at this complex that threatens the health of children. A tree in the courtyard outside is decorated with stuffed animals and pinwheels — a memorial to a 10-year-old girl who was caught in a hail of gunfire when she went out to buy ice cream last summer and died clutching a $5 bill. Her family is now suing the housing authority, saying it did not provide enough security in an area prone to violent crime.
Garrett says D.C. is not alone. "Other housing authorities throughout the country are in the same boat. We're looking for opportunities to be able to improve the lives of our families, and it's becoming increasingly difficult with the funding cuts," he says. Garrett estimates it would take more than $2 billion to fix up all of the city's public housing over the long run.
But HUD Secretary Carson says the federal government has limited funds and needs to attract more private investment. He told Congress that the administration hopes to address the problem, in part, with a program enacted in the 2017 tax law that provides large tax breaks for investments in what are called "opportunity zones."
"A lot of money will be pouring into those and a lot of these distressed areas are in the opportunity zones — 380,000 public housing units," he told lawmakers.
Carson predicts that tens of billions of dollars will be invested in these struggling communities, aided in part by reduced regulations and other government incentives.
But housing advocates say there's no guarantee investors will put their money into affordable housing. The tax breaks are also allowed for investments in stores, hotels and other businesses.
Sunia Zaterman, executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities, says the jury is still out on opportunity zones.
"No one has yet said this is the silver bullet that is going to solve our distressed community problem, and the concern is whether it really will benefit low-income households," she says.
Zaterman thinks public-private deals can help in the long run, but notes that they can take years to complete and the crisis is now. Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill have also expressed skepticism about the administration's proposal to eliminate the fund for public housing repairs, although it's not clear how much money lawmakers will eventually approve.
This has left residents worried about what will happen to them. At a recent meeting of the D.C. Housing Authority's Board of Commissioners, several tenants said they need their living conditions to improve. They don't care where the money comes from.
"It's stressful. We don't know what's going to happen and when it's going to happen," said Linda Brown, who has lived in public housing for 12 years with her disabled daughter. She fears being displaced if her aging complex is torn down. She notes that affordable housing is extremely scarce in Washington, D.C. There are currently 41,000 families on the city's waiting list for housing assistance.
"We should be mindful that we're talking about human beings and not numbers," says Brown, who like other public housing residents is required to pay a third of her income in rent. "We're talking about families that have already been uprooted."
Both the city and HUD's Carson have promised to keep poor families housed, but it's not clear yet how that will happen and in what conditions they'll end up living.
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