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President’s Forum: Ensuring Safe Living Conditions for Residents

Government Should Address Underlying Problem, Not Just the Symptoms

PHADA President John Hodge

The health, safety and security of residents ranks at the top of every housing authority’s priorities. Unfortunately, the fact that we have inadequate resources can sometimes have harsh and even tragic consequences for residents and our communities. As noted below, this reality played out too often in 2019.

To its credit, Congress recently boosted capital funding for the third straight year, which will help HAs address things that undermine health and safety conditions (see the FY 20 appropriations article). While this is steady progress, it is still not enough.

 

Many Hazards, Insufficient Resources

Several high-profile media stories have focused on problems at a few housing authorities and other federally subsidized housing. Lead paint hazards in New York City placed that agency in a dire situation that the city and HA are now desperately trying to resolve. Lead hazards are not limited to NYCHA, though. The District of Columbia Housing Authority estimates it will cost more than $3 million to clean up just one of its complexes. HUD estimates that 62,000 public housing units around the country need lead abatement.

To help combat the problem, HUD recently awarded $28 million to housing agencies in 25 states to identify and reduce hazards in thousands of older units. Still, the problem remains daunting, particularly on the East Coast, where the stock tends to be older and more likely to have lead paint on the premises.

Lead paint is not the only serious health and safety problem we deal with on occasion. Tragically, two residents in a Columbia, SC property died last year as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning. There were no detectors in the building’s units, and this quickly led to calls for HUD and Congress to act. Legislation is now pending in the House and Senate, and HUD is making some limited funding available to HAs that need detectors.

There was another recent media report in Oregon that got national attention. It concerns the lack of radon testing in the nation’s housing authorities. This resulted in Senate inquiries to HUD with the Department then writing to all HAs, reminding us to review state and local laws where such testing may be required or advisable. My home state of Maine is one of the those requiring both carbon monoxide detectors and radon testing. Accordingly, we have committed operating and capital funds to meet the requirements. However, it has been a strain at times leading to difficult choices, especially with the large reductions during the years of sequestration and tight Budget Control Act spending caps.

PHADA has learned from some members that another media outlet plans to highlight problems emanating from the proximity of low-income housing near EPA Superfund sites. Negative reports are almost certain to be forthcoming. Most recently, there was another tragic incident involving deaths at the Minneapolis HA as a result of a high-rise fire. That tragedy has now led to legislation regarding sprinkler systems in public housing (see the separate article on page 4).

All these situations have one thing in common: Prompted by high profile media reports that sometimes contain tragic elements, Congress and HUD react. This is certainly understandable especially when there is a loss of human life. This is one of several reasons why PHADA is working with HUD and Congress on health and safety legislation including the carbon monoxide and fire sprinkler bills.

Nevertheless, we should remember that simply treating the symptoms (with detectors, testing, etc.) is tantamount to applying band-aid solutions without considering the underlying problem: our aging housing stock and its deteriorating – and sometimes dangerous – major systems, roofs, elevators, etc. The media reports and problems outlined above are the by-product of a gaping capital fund backlog that can create perilous living conditions for some residents.

Hopefully, PHADA’s point is not misunderstood. We are not blaming the media for its coverage. Nor do we blame Congress or the Trump Administration for reacting to reports and trying to fix problems, albeit in a piecemeal way. Rather, here is the key point: In the current environment of underfunding and capital need backlogs estimated at over $70 billion nationwide, housing authorities make the most of limited resources to maintain safe and sanitary housing for the low-income households we serve.

The best way Congress and the Trump Administration can address these kinds of life-threatening issues is to furnish HAs with adequate resources needed to address the growing capital fund backlog. The House of Representatives’ Financial Services Chair Maxine Waters (D-CA) has the right approach with her legislation, which would infuse billions of dollars into our properties to address safety concerns. Reflecting our view that resident health and safety should be paramount, passage of that legislation in some form will be a top PHADA priority in the new decade.

 

Congress Acts on ACC and FSS

As indicated on page 1, Congress wrapped up action late in the year on the FY 20 appropriations bill. We greatly appreciate that the final measure includes our suggested proposal that prohibits funds from being used to make changes to the Annual Contributions Contract. The provision would require that HAs mutually agree to any HUD changes. PHADA and others sought the inclusion of this language because HUD earlier attempted to make changes in the ACC that we believe run counter to both statute and regulations. With this added protection in place, we will continue productive discussions with HUD-PIH Assistant Secretary Hunter Kurtz and his staff.

The final package also includes a directive preventing HUD from basing future FSS funding decisions on its flawed performance metric system. Echoing some of PHADA’s concerns, the Senate’s Committee report specifically stated, “the performance metric system the Department has established only considers three factors for which it intends to base funding decisions – earnings, graduation from the program, and program participation.” The report further noted that “given these concerns and the very limited scope of the performance metrics, funding decisions should not be informed by these metrics at this time.” PHADA totally agrees with this perspective and appreciates the bipartisan support in Congress for this important provision.