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A series of moves by HUD Secretary Ben Carson will raise rents, decrease repairs, and accelerate the process of transferring public housing to private firms

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TAYA GRAHAM: The Trump presidency has been no friend to people in this country struggling to make ends meet, from proposed work requirements for Medicaid, to planned cuts to food assistance. The current administration has made it clear Americans who can least afford it are on their own. And nowhere has this been made more clear than a series of proposals to increase rents for people who rely on federal help to get by. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Dr. Ben Carson has made a stunning proposal to raise rates across the board for those who receive rental assistance. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the move would, quote: “raise rents by an average of 44 percent on more than 4 million low-income households.” It’s a proposal that would have broad impact, especially in our city, Baltimore, that is home to 11000 public housing units.

To help us understand the far-reaching implications we’re joined by Will Fischer from the Center on Budget and Policy, a Washington-based think tank. Will as a senior policy analyst who worked in the center in 2002. His work focuses on federal low-income housing programs, including Section 8 vouchers, public housing, and the Low Income Housing Tax Credit. Will, thank you so much for joining us.

WILL FISCHER: Thanks for having me.

TAYA GRAHAM: Sure. But before we get started, we have a package on how this policy change will affect-low income housing residents.

This is Taya Graham, reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland. Dr. Ben Carson wants to raise the rents in public housing just like this, but the people who live here have a message for him.

Sometimes it’s hard to measure the consequences of Trump’s policy decisions on low-income Americans in personal terms. We wanted to get a sense of the fallout from another move proposed by Trump: raising rents on residents of subsidized housing. It’s in a plan announced by Housing and Urban Development head Dr. Ben Carson with little fanfare. But analysts say this policy could raise rents on the country’s poorest citizens by as much as 40 percent. It’s a decision that many residents who rely on public housing say will exacerbate the growing inequality in America, and the burden on its poorest citizens to survive.

ANNIE CHAMBERS: It’s going to impact us a great deal, because most of us are on a very fixed income. You know, people that, even want to consider have no income, do not live in public housing.

MISCHA ROGERS: For them to raise our rent, triple the time, how am I supposed to feed my children? Because I have to make sure we have a place to stay.

ALBERT PURNELL: Well, I won’t be able to afford to pay. I probably, will probably have to move in with my sister.

TAYA GRAHAM: You’re saying you would be paying $1200 for a one bedroom apartment in public housing if this proposal goes through.

ANNIE CHAMBERS: Yes. And what am I supposed to do with the rest of my money, the little I got left? We got to be able to fight these things. And that’s why I’m doing all I can in any development that I go in. And not just development, but talking to people that don’t live in the developments, because it affects them, too.

TAYA GRAHAM: So, Will, can you give us an overview of what HUD is proposing, and how it will affect low-income residents in subsidized housing?

WILL FISCHER: Sure. What HUD’s proposing is to raise rents on the great majority of families with rental assistance around the country. And that’s mostly elderly people, people with disabilities, and working families. Their rents would rise by over $3 billion ,  nationally. So these are really big increases for families that don’t have a lot of money to spare.

TAYA GRAHAM: So how do these numbers translate for the average household? I mean, what could this mean for someone who currently receives subsidies?

WILL FISCHER: So, the average increase would be close to $800 over the course of a year. And these are families that generally have very little income, so they don’t have a lot of room in their budget to make up those kinds of costs.

TAYA GRAHAM: So what is the impetus behind the proposal? Why is the Trump administration targeting low-income renters?

WILL FISCHER: Well, they, they claim that this is intended partly to support work. But when you look at the reality of these proposals, that really doesn’t make sense. Part of what they’re proposing is to raise rents on virtually every working family with assistance, and the more they earn the more their rent increase would be. You wouldn’t do that if your goal was really focused on encouraging and supporting work. The bigger goal is that they want to cut funding for these programs, and these rent increases are one way of implementing those cuts.

TAYA GRAHAM: Very often the face of public housing or government subsidies is a young black mother. Is that an accurate depiction of Americans who receive this assistance?

WILL FISCHER: Well, there’s all kinds of people in rental assistance. There’s over 4 million households that would be affected by this, and that includes many elderly people, people with disabilities. And then lots of families with kids. The majority of those are working families. So there’s a real range of folks in these assistance programs.

TAYA GRAHAM: I mean, in a sense, this is not a new policy. There has been long-term disinvestment in low-income housing, right?

WILL FISCHER: Yeah, that’s right. There’s been a whole series of cuts over the years, particularly recently, that have been either proposed are actually made to low-income programs. And most recently, the Trump administration’s budget for this year proposed a $11 billion cut to HUD programs. So this is part of that.

TAYA GRAHAM: Do you think this will affect both Section 8 and public housing residents?

WILL FISCHER: Yeah, it does. It covers both of those programs, so people on both those programs would be affected.

TAYA GRAHAM: We spoke to several public housing residents about this proposal. Residents suggested that cost increase could actually increase crime or create more homelessness as families turn to even illegal means to try to keep their homes. Are there any unintended consequences that you see?

WILL FISCHER: Yeah. I mean, these kinds of rate increases have a whole range of harmful consequences for people. There’s really strong research showing all the benefits that rental assistance in its current form has. It reduces homelessness, it reduces housing instability. Kids and families with assistance bounce from school to school less. They’re less likely to be pulled from their families and placed in foster care. And if you sharply raise their rents, all those benefits are going to often not be there for them, and it’ll really destabilize their lives in a lot of ways.

TAYA GRAHAM: So their main concern is that they will simply not be able to pay their rent. It’s hard to understand how cutting these subsidies are supposed to make families self-sufficient. Can you explain this logic.

WILL FISCHER: I can’t explain the logic. I think, I think you’re right, though, that a family has to pay much higher rent, it’s going to be harder for them to keep their home. They would be more likely to evict, and that’s just going to be harder for them to find or keep a job.

TAYA GRAHAM: So, you vote in a recent post that the administration is trying to make up for a $3.2 billion cut to rental assistance. Why is that cut happening now?

WILL FISCHER: It’s a proposed cut. It’s in their budget, they have a large cut to funding for all these programs, public housing, vouchers. And it’s, it’s particularly striking then they say that this is something they’re doing to reduce spending and reduce the deficit. But it comes right after policymakers enacted a $1.9 trillion tax cut that mainly benefits the wealthy and profitable corporations. So for them now to turn around and say they have to raise rents on some of the poorest people in the country to address that instead, it just doesn’t make sense. It’s a question of priorities.

TAYA GRAHAM: In Baltimore the RAD, or Rental Assistance Demonstration program, is already leading to big changes in public housing. We recently had a property called Heritage Crossing turned over to a developer, along with a hefty tax break. Can you explain the RAD program, and perhaps how you think the Trump administration will manage it?

WILL FISCHER: So, the RAD program is a program that converts public housing to subsidies under the Section 8 program, which is used for most rental assistance in this country. And generally these are more reliable subsidies, and this is a program that is a way to provide more resources for public housing. There’s for sure a need for that in public housing across the country.

But what RAD means on the ground really depends a lot on implementation by local housing agencies, and also on oversight by HUD. And so if those aren’t strong that can lead to some harmful consequences for people that live in these developments.

TAYA GRAHAM: So what kind of review process is there? Or is this in the hands of Dr. Ben Carson alone?

WILL FISCHER: These are legislative proposals from the Trump administration. So Congress would have to enact them in order for them to become law. And so far there hasn’t been any action on that. A House subcommittee held a hearing on a set of proposals that would allow somewhat similar rent increases, pretty big increases, for those in public housing and with vouchers. But there hasn’t been any, any legislation introduced to advance the Trump administration proposal, so we’ll just have to see how that plays out.

TAYA GRAHAM: My last question is: the future for public housing in this country looks bleak. Is that a fair assessment?

WILL FISCHER: Yeah, I think that there’s a huge backlog of unmet repair needs in public housing. A lot of the time these are relatively old developments, and they need resources to renovate them and repair them on an ongoing basis. And so far the money just hasn’t been there in federal budgets, and it’s actually been cut quite a bit in recent years.

TAYA GRAHAM: Will, I want to thank you so much for joining us.

WILL FISCHER: Thank you.

TAYA GRAHAM: I’m Taya Graham, and I want to thank you for joining me at the Real News Network.

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Host & Producer
Taya Graham is an award-winning investigative reporter who has covered U.S. politics, local government, and the criminal justice system. She is the host of TRNN's "Police Accountability Report," and producer and co-creator of the award-winning podcast "Truth and Reconciliation" on Baltimore's NPR affiliate WYPR. She has written extensively for a variety of publications including the Afro American Newspaper, the oldest black-owned publication in the country, and was a frequent contributor to Morgan State Radio at a historic HBCU. She has also produced two documentaries, including the feature-length film "The Friendliest Town." Although her reporting focuses on the criminal justice system and government accountability, she has provided on the ground coverage of presidential primaries and elections as well as local and state campaigns. Follow her on Twitter.