“Maximum Flexibility” for HAs Still Elusive
PHADA President Mark Gillett.
Some of us remember the enactment of a landmark law that resulted in significant changes in housing programs that are still in place with some still evolving. Signed by President Bill Clinton on October 21, 1998, the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998 (QHWRA) just observed its 25th anniversary.
Regardless of what one may think of it, the statute is the most comprehensive one affecting our programs since its adoption before the turn of the century. Among other provisions, the law led to the creation of new Operating and Capital Funds, the merger of the Section 8 voucher and certificate programs, the elimination of federal preferences, a work requirement for public housing residents, a minimum rent, and new annual planning requirements.
Debate Eventually Led to Bipartisan Agreement
QHWRA was written and debated in Congress at a different time in our national politics. Before its enactment, there was consideration given to terminating public housing as we know by “vouchering out” the program during Secretary Henry Cisneros’ term at HUD. The soon-to-be impeached President Bill Clinton was in his second term in the White House and Andrew Cuomo succeeded Cisneros as HUD Secretary. The two parties started far apart in their policies but were able to develop a bipartisan agreement.
Cuomo and his staff negotiated the bill’s major elements with Rep. Rick Lazio (R-NY), a moderate from Long Island. Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D-MA), who was Cuomo’s brother-in-law at the time, was also involved in the negotiations by virtue of his role as ranking Democrat on the House subcommittee that Lazio chaired. In the other chamber, Sens. Christopher “Kit” Bond (R-MO), Connie Mack (R-FL) and the late Paul Sarbanes (D-MD) were heavily engaged too. Unable to move the legislation through the authorizing committee process (a dynamic that persists today), congressional negotiators eventually agreed to fold QHWRA into the HUD appropriations act.
The Law’s Content
HUD still has a summary of QHWRA, or the “Public Housing Reform” law, posted on its website. The Department lists some of the law’s objectives, which clearly have met with a mixed degree of success. For example, HUD notes the law sought to “reduce the concentration of poverty in public housing,” which unfortunately has not occurred in all too many of our communities.
One of the fiercest QHWRA debates centered on income targeting. Some tenant advocates argued that HAs would only serve more “affluent” residents if permitted to do so. PHADA and other industry advocates argued for more flexibility, noting that most HAs did not have wealthy people on their waiting lists, so the point was moot. In the end, the law did impose strict income targeting “to protect access to housing assistance for the poorest families.”
Other QHWRA objectives were to provide more resources to HAs and address their stock through demolition and mixed finance projects, including the then-new HOPE VI program. Lawmakers also wanted to incentivize working residents to become more self-sufficient so they included temporary income exclusions that would phase out.
Congress was wise to eliminate the well-intentioned but flawed one-for-one replacement rule, which until then thwarted the demolition of some of the country’s worst public housing. Reps. Lazio, Kennedy and others deserve credit for giving HAs more latitude to establish their own local preferences, eliminating one size fits all federal preferences.
We take it for granted there is now one Housing Choice Voucher program, but that was not the case before QHWRA. There were Section 8 certificate and voucher programs, which were inconsistent and in need of streamlining and more uniformity. Similarly, the funding mechanisms for public housing were significantly flawed. The law established negotiated rulemaking processes for new operating and capital funds, both which improved the methods for funding our programs (of course, the formulas in and of themselves did not ensure adequate funding, which is subject to annual appropriations.)
The law also authorized the established a $50 minimum rent, which was quite controversial at the time. Twenty-five years later, that same threshold remains in effect even though $50 is the equivalent of about $92 today. QHWRA also set the annual plan requirements and tenant screening and background check policies (including sex offenders) that are still largely in place.
The final deal contained some lamentable compromises. These include the 8-hour work requirement, which is unfair because it stigmatizes and singles out certain public housing residents. It also set new pet requirements, which created health and safety problems for some HAs and residents. Notably, the law included some enhancements to the public housing drug elimination program which, much to our dismay, Congress did away with during George W. Bush’s presidency.
On a positive note, one can argue that QHWRA set the table for other improvements including the expansion of the Moving to Work program, further development of HOPE VI and then Choice Neighborhoods. The mixed-finance tools no doubt helped lead policymakers in the direction of the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) as well.
Unfortunately, despite some improvements in the funding formulas, there are still not sufficient resources available to address our capital needs. In addition, QHWRA has not fulfilled other policy objectives. For instance, Section 2, the “Declaration of Policy,” stated that QHWRA was intended to “vest in public housing agencies that perform well, the maximum amount of responsibility and flexibility in program administration [emphasis added].” Twenty-five years following QHWRA’s enactment, we have yet to realize this promise. Reaching that objective remains a top PHADA priority.