Housing Authority Chief on Attitudes Toward Public Housing
Federal funds for public housing have steadily decreased over the last several years, and the next budget looks not much better. At the same time, politicians will take falling-apart facilities as a sign that they're poorly managed.
I can’t let the units fail. It’s not that Congress is allowing units to fail. It’s Adrianne Todman who’s allowing them to fail. We do a lot of patching. We patch roofs when we should fix roofs...Nobody will admit failure, because it wouldn’t be a natural failure.
The country's talking about housing, but...
When I hear housing on the news, it’s not my housing. It’s middle class housing, people at risk of foreclosing. Politics is local and personal. If I’m foreclosing, I’ll care less about families who don’t have any place to live. And I think that tends to drive the kinds of conversations about housing that people have. Where you more had a housing issue that was relegated to a person who lost their job or was just low income, now you have folks who never had to think about housing as an issue having to think about it. So I think housing has become more personal for the middle class. The good news is that we’re talking about housing. The bad news, for me, is that that’s the conversation. It’s not the expansion of affordable housing or the preservation of it. It’s 'how do you save the middle class housing stock.' Which we have to, in order to salvage the economy. But it’s sucked the oxygen out of the room for conversations about the folks I serve, who weren’t popular to begin with.
Maybe it's also because public housing is seen as an urban issue in a Congress divided along urban/rural lines?
It’s urban, but there are 3,000 housing authorities in the country. Most of those housing authorities probably have less than 1,000 units. So because we have larger economies of scale, it’s seen as an urban issue, but most of the people who live in public housing are white. Do we have proportionally the highest amount of public housing? Of course. But it cuts across types of people. We house a lot more seniors than people think. We house a lot of children. But it’s not seen as a seniors issue, it’s not seen as a children’s issue. It’s seen sometimes as an urban, poor, black issue. And it’s not.
On the 41,125 residents now on the combined public housing and voucher waiting list:
We’re studying a way to see how it works, in terms of who’s coming off, who’s not coming off, and who’s applying, and trying to make it a lot more efficient, inasmuch as you’re applying for something you can reasonably expect to get...Someone who applies today for a voucher isn’t going to get one. It’s just not going to happen. So how do you create a system where if you’re applying for something, that person can reasonably expect to get some kind of assistance? Right now, we don’t have that.
Since they're federally funded, Housing Choice vouchers can go to anyone, and D.C. is pretty unique in having a waiting list that's always open, rather than opening only for a few weeks at a time—which means more people from surrounding jurisdictions apply here. Has there been a discussion about limiting the amount of time someone can hold a voucher?
I don’t think we have had that kind of conversation here in a meaningful way. I think that when public housing was created, it was meant to be an up and out. it was meant to be temporary, for soldiers and families. You came home from the war, and went on your merry way. And lots of different rules in the 60s and 70s changed who we housed, and how they were housed.
That’s a hard conversation to have when the economy’s this bad. And the time to have that conversation is when we feel there’s the kind of continuum to get folks where they need to be. Do I think that families should spend generations in assisted housing? No. I don’t think it’s good for the soul of the family. But am I in a place to say 'hey, in seven years, you gotta get out?' No, I’m not there. I might be there if I lived someplace else, but not in this town. Not yet.
I may not be willing to kick somebody off the voucher program because you’ve been on it for x time, but I am going to try to get you to realize that this isn’t the only option you have. You have other options. And a lot of our young people may not have been exposed to anything other than this.
But something has to change. We’ve reached a level of insanity with this waiting list.