What Does It Take to Maintain Public Housing in The 21st Century?
Public housing is in integral part of the social safety net, especially today. A record 2.87 million properties received notices of default, auction, or repossession in 2010. That’s a 2 percent gain from 2009, and early data for 2011 isn’t any better. The loss of permanent homes means that rental vacancy rates are decreasing, and according to Peggy Alford of Rent.com the expectation is that it will hover at or around 5 percent in 2012. As less units are on the market prices rise, until the national average cost of rent has risen to about $800 a month for a one bedroom apartment. This is at the same time that the national unemployment rate averaged 8.9 percent for 2011, with approximately 13,747,000 people out of work. Put quite simply, housing is more expensive and more difficult to find than ever while at the same time families are less able to afford it. And homelessness is a serious problem, especially with families with children. Homelessness has been tied to behavioral problems, psychological issues, depression, and low performance in school-age children and, according to a Stanford study undertaken in the early 90’s, many of these problems remain even after a family is no longer homeless. Public housing can help to mitigate this problem. By providing safe, affordable housing to individuals and families that could not otherwise afford it public housing programs can help protect these vulnerable members of society and avoid the unacceptably high costs of homelessness. But public housing in itself is in danger. Budget cuts on the state and federal level are removing funding for public housing across the US. Many of these public housing properties are older and in need of repair, but without proper funding they haven’t been renovated in years. The situation is particularly perilous in New York City, where the housing stock is in desperate need of repair yet the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) is facing overwhelming funding shortages, a growing wait list of almost 161,000 families for public housing, and about 125,000 families waiting for a Section 8 voucher. Yet, despite this, NYCHA Chairman John B. Rhea has a plan. Throughout all of 2011 NYCHA gathered hundreds of people together to draft a solution to their problems, including public housing residents, resident leaders, community advocates, and NYCHA employees. The result is Plan NYCHA, and it and its website plannycha.org launched in the last month. The plan outlines what may well be the solution that all public housing authorities may need to follow in order to survive in the modern world. Plan NYCHA includes a diversification of funding, mixed-use and mixed-income housing and resources, repair taskforces, focused management, and community partnerships. The plan also includes a call to right-size apartments, so that families that no longer require multiple bedroom apartments- say, after children have moved out of the home- are downsized to properties that fit their needs so that space might be better utilized within NYCHA. Public housing is absolutely necessary in our society but with all of the challenges facing it, it’s only through a reorganization of the system that it will survive. New York City’s well-thought out plan may very well be its best bet.