Efforts to halt loss of public housing may be short-lived

By Charles Hallman
Staff Writer

Ellison offers new legislation, but support uncertain

The nation’s public housing system has been needing reform for several years, said the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) secretary during a Twin Cities visit last week. But just when it looked like such reform might finally take place, in comes a new Congress with different ideas.

President Barack Obama, during his first two years in office, put improving the country’s deteriorating public housing infrastructure as a top priority, Shaun Donovan told housing advocates at the 2010 Homes for All Conference November 8 at St. Paul RiverCentre.

“Almost a quarter of public housing units are being [rebuilt] because of the stimulus package,” noted the HUD secretary, adding that his agency has invested significantly in Minnesota: $100 million in public housing capital funds, $28 million in the federal tax credit assistance program, and $38 million in Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) funds in Minneapolis.

“We received a 100-percent operating subsidy [from Congress] for two years, which hadn’t happened in 10 years, and with the stimulus, which never had happened before,” reported Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA) Executive Director Cora McCorvey.

She added that MPHA got “almost $90 million” from the stimulus legislation. “We wrote four proposals, and we were funded for three of those. Right now, we are building two facilities on the North Side at Heritage Park. One is a senior citizens service center, and another is a 48-unit senior facility that has assisted living and memory care facilities for residents that have memory loss and dementia.”

Her agency also has a “huge green project” underway repairing roofs and furnaces and updating windows at MPHA properties throughout the city, added McCorvey. She said at least 40 percent of MPHA residents are Blacks and other people of color.

Formerly a HUD deputy secretary in the Clinton administration and New York City housing commissioner before joining the Obama administration, Donovan admitted that local public housing administrators and residents often got frustrated with “too many barriers” dealing with the federal bureaucracy, including lengthy waiting lists for family housing applicants.

In an MSR August 12 published article, MPHA officials reported that the agency received over 8,000 applications in four days this past June. Another open application period was scheduled to be held in September.

“There should be some immediate housing — you can’t go on a Section 8 waiting list and wait five or six years to get a voucher,” said local realtor Cassandra Wesley, who attended last week’s conference.

“The blame rests on Washington,” noted Donovan. “All of that has to change.”

He therefore said last week that he supports U.S. Congressman Keith Ellison’s Rental Housing Revitalization Act (RHRA), which will simplify rental assistance programs and provide greater choice to renters. Ellison (D-MN) announced last week that he plans to introduce the legislation soon, which he says will also help to attract private capital to improve public housing.

“We’ve got to do something different [about public housing] than what we’ve done in the past,” said Ellison.

“The more people who are fighting for public housing, the more funding we can get,” added Donovan, who claimed that an estimated 10,000 public housing units nationwide have been lost each year for the past 15 years. “We have a historic opportunity that we can have a national conversation about restoring public housing. I feel a sense of urgency. I’m not willing to wait three to five years.”

However, both heads of the Twin Cities’ public housing authorities — St. Paul Public Housing Agency’s Jon Gutzmann and MPHA’s McCorvey — expressed reservations about Ellison’s announcement last week.

Gutzmann said that the bill could possibly add more federal regulations instead of reducing them. McCorvey called the bill “a radical complete overhaul” of public housing, adding that “I see it as [more] work, and the timing is troublesome, too.”

The MSR contacted Ellison’s office for comment but received no response by press time.

Minneapolis Highrise Representative Council Vice-President Dorothy Robinson said that a similar bill introduced by U.S. Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) had been passed July 27 by the House Financial Services Committee. Waters’ bill would allow public housing agencies to finance energy efficient improvements as well as create a job training program for public housing residents to become in-home healthcare aides to elderly and disabled residents.

“I have to read both versions and analyze them,” said Robinson.

Will the public housing issue be pushed back with the change in power in the U.S. Congress come January? McCorvey said last week she’s afraid that there “won’t be the same level of commitment to public housing that there has been in these first couple of years of the Obama administration.”

Nonetheless, addressing the U.S. public housing system “is unfinished business from the Civil Rights Movement and ensures that all our families can live in sustainable, vibrant communities of opportunity and choice,” said Donovan.

He strongly suggested that a landmark legal decision for housing similar to the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Brown vs. Board of Education decision is needed.

As “separate but equal” was ruled unconstitutional, “a separate housing system for low-income families also is inherently unequal,” noted the HUD secretary.

“Revitalizing our nation’s communities won’t happen overnight, nor will it happen because of any one policy or the work of any one agency or one [political] party.”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.