On Tuesday, Senator Tina Smith (D-MN) gave a dire report of a 2019 fire that killed five people in a public housing building in Minneapolis.
“As the fire spread, residents shouted loudly to come out. Stairwells and corridors were full of smoke and heat, and people struggled to come down the high stairs, ”she said, pointing to the lack of sprinkler systems as the“ main cause ”of the devastation. Smith’s remarks came while she was conducting a hearing on the health and safety risks that the Families living in government-subsidized housing face lead paints, which have toxic and irreversible effects.
For some, addressing this issue means focusing on the surveillance of these buildings by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and local public housing authorities. The Minneapolis public apartment building lacked “bulky sprinklers” and had “an outdated stairwell design,” according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. HUD has engaged in a multi-year process to update and standardize the inspections in the residential units in its area of responsibility.
Last week, NBC News reported on some of the proposed changes to the HUD, including “significant expansion.”[ing] the number of serious dangers that landlords need to quickly resolve “and” relax “[ing] some stricter proposed inspection standards. ”The process of setting the final rules is still ongoing, but however strict they are, they are unlikely to solve the security issues in America’s public housing.
because The biggest obstacles to safe and equitable government-sponsored housing are not safety standards, but reversing decades of underinvestment in public housing and ending the arming of local zoning regulations to block the development of affordable housing.
Take the Minneapolis Fire: The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA) wants to install sprinklers in every building, but it’s going to be a decade, and that’s if it gets “adequate funding”.
“Decades of federal underfunding have resulted in MPHA requiring more than $ 150 million for basic repairs and updates to its 6,000 public housing units,” MPHA said in a statement to the Star Tribune. “In contrast, the agency receives about $ 15 million annually for capital repairs from Congress.”
Affordable housing is very old
According to 2019 data, “42 percent of social housing were last built before 1975,” write researchers at the Urban Institute.
Since older properties are also larger than average, they actually make up the majority of social housing. The researchers found that since 1997 only 22 percent of public housing, or 17 percent of housing units, has been built.
This has consequences. On the one hand: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lead-based paint was only banned for use in residential buildings in 1978, so that housings built before that time “probably contain some lead-containing paint”. But overall, old buildings need to be repaired and rebuilt to adapt to the code. Part of the problem is that they were built without the standards we have today, but a big part of the problem is simply that they are crumbling.
“We haven’t built public housing on a large scale since the early 1970s, so we have these aging buildings that after 40 years have to replace the roof and elevators and bring them up to date.” Susan J. Popkin , Director of the Urban Institute’s Housing Opportunities and Services Together (HOST) initiative, said.
The reason for this is relatively simple: the federal government did not provide the funds to keep up with the necessary investments. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, “The public housing fund that Congress allocates for repairs has been underfunded for so long that we are now losing more than 10,000 social housing each year because it is no longer habitable.” In 2010 one came national assessment concludes that € 26 billion for public housing
But that number is likely to be an undercount; New York alone estimates that it would take US $ 40 billion to renovate apartment buildings that were mostly built between 1945 and 1970 and are now plagued by mold, lead paint, bugs, and elevator and heat failures, ”writes Bloomberg CityLab. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recommended allocating $ 70 billion to meet existing needs, what Popkin called a “standard estimate” for today’s needs.
President Joe Biden’s original infrastructure plan called for $ 40 billion “to improve the public housing infrastructure in America.” Though it’s bigger than any president in recent years for public housing some experts and lawmakers have said it still is hardly meet the demand.
A senior HUD official rejected the idea that Biden’s proposal is too small given what is needed. “The way public housing is being rehabilitated includes the ability to bring in investment funds, the low-income residential property tax credit and project-based support to leverage that $ 40 billion,” the official said.
But it’s not just about public housing. The affordable housing stock in the private market is also old, creating security problems in these buildings.
Pew Trusts writes that “According to the National Housing Law Project, over 90,000 children in the Housing Choice Voucher (Section 8) program” [the federal program subsidizing rent for low-income tenants] have lead poisoning. “Although the government does not directly build or manage these properties, local laws and regulations are largely responsible for the disproportionate aging of the affordable housing stock in America.
Most affordable homes in America are created through a process called “filtering,” which means that new homes get old and then they become them less desirable and cheaper. But in high-demand regions, mature homeowners have blocked the development of new and affordable housing alike, with a devastating downside as the flow of affordable housing has dried up.
A study by economist Evan Mast identified 52,000 people living in “new apartment buildings in large cities, their previous address, [and] the current residents of these addresses, ”and then you looked at where these people moved from. He did so over six move cycles and found that this “sequence quickly adds low-income quarters, suggesting that strong migratory links connect the low-income market to new construction”. When people move into nicer new buildings, the abandoned apartments are essentially inhabited by people, often from low-income neighborhoods. This game, called by researcher Todd Litman, shows how closely affordable housing is linked to new construction projects.
The expectation of high standards for public and low-income housing is paramount, and it is unacceptable for the US to house people in dangerous conditions. But the sole focus on standards ignores the biggest problem: the existing housing policy decisions of the majority of the US refuse to build new homes and have not made enough resources available for maintenance.