Longtime advocate Jeffrey Singer explains the modern history of public housing and the threat of privatization in Baltimore and other cities
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: In part one of this story, we looked at Baltimore’s plans to sell about 40 percent of its public housing stock to private developers and why some residents, workers, and advocates oppose these plans. But due to declining federal contributions to public housing, many cities face a shortfall in funding. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, HUD, puts the shortfall at $27 billion.
Baltimore says it can raise $300 million of the $800 million it needs by selling some of its properties to private developers.
To understand how America’s public housing crisis got so bad in the first place, we spoke to Jeff Singer. He’s an instructor at the University of Maryland and a longtime Baltimore public housing advocate.
NOOR: So there’s a public housing crisis around the country. How did it get to that point? And start under Bill Clinton to give people a little background in how things got so bad.
JEFF SINGER, CITY ADVOCATES IN SOLIDARITY WITH THE HOMELESS: Well, we can go back even a little farther to 1974, when Richard Nixon created the first privatization of public housing, what we call the Section 8 certificates. And the more money that went to Section 8 certificates, the less money that went to public housing. Section 8 was a way to give private landlords money to house people who were poor. So from 74 until now, we’ve seen a decline in the amount of federal funds directed toward public housing and an increase in–a small increase in the amount that’s directed toward profits.
The program we’re talking about here tonight is the efflorescence of that. It’s actually privatizing the housing that we built for ourselves and making sure that people can make profits from it. And they don’t mix well together. Affordable housing and profits are antithetical.
NOOR: And so what happened starting under the Clinton administration and–?
SINGER: Alright. What happened out of the Clinton administration was a couple of programs and policy changes that are very important. One policy change was that it is now illegal to build additional public housing with federal funds. Can you imagine that? In 1949, Congress declared that it is the goal of the United States to make sure that every resident here has safe, decent, affordable housing. But under Bill Clinton, that language was stricken from the law and the number of public housing units was capped by law. So that was one very important issue. Another was that he continued the defunding of public housing. There was a law that required that whenever a public housing unit was demolished, a new unit had to be created. He eliminated that as well. So this has accelerated the demise of public housing.
NOOR: [snip] RAD program is happening under the Obama administration, a Democratic administration.
SINGER: Yes. Well, you know, as Huey Long said, they may be Democratic waiters or they may be Republican waiters, but they’re serving food from the same Wall Street kitchen. This RAD program was created actually in 2003 by the Bush administration, but they couldn’t get it implemented. So now the Obama administration is implementing it with a vengeance, and 60,000 public housing units around the country are being sold to private developers, most of them for-profit developers, and we the taxpayers are subsidizing their profits. At the same time, homelessness is at the highest peak it’s been since the Great Depression of the ’30s, and the secretary of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development himself says we’re in the worst rental housing crisis in our history.
NOOR: How bad is it here in Baltimore?
SINGER: Well, we don’t know how many people experience homelessness every night in Baltimore, but we counted over 4,000 people two years ago per night. Over the course of a year, that’s probably 40,000 people. So we know it’s pretty bad. There are encampments all around the city, the shelters are full every night, and people have nowhere to go.
NOOR: And there’s a lot of people in risk of losing their housing as well.
SINGER: Well, they are. And one of the aspects of this new RAD program is that it’s going to use federal tax credits to create profits for these developers in public housing. But that means that those federal tax credits will no longer be available to build new affordable housing. We need to talk more about that.
NOOR: Baltimore is a pilot city for the RAD program. Why will it be important for people to be engaged here? What kind of impact will what happens here have on the rest of the country, especially when it comes to tenants and the union workers that are being affected by this being mobilized and, like, getting their voices out?
SINGER: I think we have an opportunity here to do something very important, and that is to combine the forces and the interests of the tenants with the forces and interests of the workers. It is outrageous that the federal government has approved a plan that’s going to fire 200 workers, workers who had decent wages, job protections, and benefits. The middle class that–the president is talking about growing the middle class; well, now we’re destroying part of the middle class. So by combining the interests of the tenants and the workers and the advocates and the neighborhood folks, we can create a really important force, and that force is devoted toward affordable and fair development policies.
NOOR: And so, you know, part of the drive for this you can kind of say comes from the perception that public housing is failing. And so why is it important to talk about the mismanagement and the underfunding of public housing to contextualize that?
SINGER: Oh, that’s critical. The federal budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development was the equivalent of $90 billion in 1980, and it is now $42 billion. It’s less than half of what it was. So they have purposefully for 40 years underfunded public housing, both the capital costs, you know, maintaining it, keeping it a good physical condition, and the operating costs. Now the City of Baltimore gets only about 75 percent of what they need to run public housing, and they get, oh, a hundredth of what they need to maintain it.
NOOR: What else is important for people to know about the future of public housing in America, in Baltimore today?
SINGER: Well, public housing is the sector of housing that keeps housing permanently affordable for the very large number of folks whose income is low. And we have a poverty rate in the United States of about 15 percent. In the City of Baltimore, it’s over 20 percent. Among children in Baltimore it’s 35 percent. None of those folks can afford housing through the market. Public housing is the best way to keep them safe and secure.
In other civilized countries, public housing is a very large part of their housing sector. In most European countries, it’s 20 percent of all the housing. In the city of Vienna it’s 60 percent of all the housing is public housing, meaning it’s owned by all the people and it’s available to people who need it. In the United States, it’s one percent of our housing, and that’s diminishing.
NOOR: Opponents also agree that if they are to have any chance of slowing down or stopping the plans to sell public housing to developers, they will need a unified front and public support.
The Real News will keep following this story.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.