A Brief Introduction to Public Housing and the Philadelphia Housing Authority
If you are like me, you may be a little unclear on what exactly public housing is, so let’s do a quick overview of the history
Unlike ‘affordable’ housing, public housing is owned by the government and therefore not a part of the private housing market. By its nature, public housing is very stable and secure, and also very affordable. Once you are in public housing, you can generally expect to stay there for a long time. Also by its nature, public housing plays a role in the private housing market as a stabilizer by providing quality housing to low-income residents that otherwise would be seeking housing in the rental market and helping to drive up rents.
Public housing appears on the scene in the US during the Great Depression / New Deal era before World War II. The government mandated the creation of local housing authorities and started funneling money to them as part of a strategy to deal with the prolific expansion of slums filled with the millions of people who were chronically out of work. Like a lot of New Deal programs, the ball really got rolling once the US entered the war and basically took over huge parts of the economy to organize war production. Most of the public housing built in this period was used to house factory workers near war production centers. After the war there was an expansion of the public housing stock all the way into the 1970s, but at the same time the federal government was also busy creating a bunch of policies that enabled and promoted the building of the suburbs, white flight, redlining and housing segregation. As a result, cities in the United States became extremely segregated, and until recently, extremely impoverished. Unfortunately, this situation has produced a widely held belief that housing projects are not only plagued by chronic and concentrated poverty, but that they create these problems by their very nature.
In the 70s, under Richard Nixon, the federal government put the brakes on building new public housing and instead promoted market based approaches to publicly assisted housing like Section 8 (recently rebranded as the Housing Choice Voucher program). Unlike public housing, the section 8 program issues vouchers to low income tenants that are used to get housing on the private market. Renters are capped at spending 30% of their income, and the rest of the rent is covered by federal government. Voucher programs also require renters to find their own housing within a timeline, come up with security deposits, and offer no guarantee to housing quality or just cause evictions. By funneling federal housing assistance dollars back onto the private rental market, voucher programs effectively help to push up rents by subsidizing low-income earners to rent above their means. Vouchers are usually promoted as creating ‘choice’ for low income renters.
Federal funding for public housing has steadily decreased ever since. Indeed, beginning in the Reagan era, public housing has been under-funded by the federal government, leading to inevitable decline as important maintenance is deferred and housing quality suffers. The current funding stream for public housing is known as HOPE VI, which, as a program, embodies the view that public housing projects of the past have been on the whole, a failure, due primarily to the concentration of poverty. HOPE VI therefore advocates for ‘mixed income’ development and deconcentration. The idea is that if you mix poor people in with more affluent neighbors, they have a better chance of escaping poverty than if you stack poor people on top of each other in public housing projects. Implicit in this perspective is that poverty is sort of contagious, and self-perpetuating. Poor people have a ‘culture of poverty’ and that is what keeps them from picking themselves up from their bootstraps, or whatever. Gone from the discussion are the social or institutional factors that may cause or perpetuate poverty like racism, employment, education, mass incarceration etc. Under HOPE VI, housing authorities are encouraged to demolish old housing projects and then redevelop them without requiring a 1 to 1 replacement of units. Since its inception HOPE VI has steadily whittled away at the national public housing stock and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future.
In Philadelphia, public housing is administered by the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA), which is also Pennsylvania’s largest landlord. Providing housing and housing assistance to just under 80,000 people in 14,000 units with an annual budget of roughly $400 million, the PHA plays a huge role in Philadelphia’s housing market. Today, more than half these residents are receiving vouchers (for which funding is threatened by the 2019 partial government shutdown), the remainder are living in public housing proper. The housing authority is almost entirely reliant upon federal dollars, but does get something in the way of rents and has a significant portfolio of investments. The PHA board of directors is appointed by Philadelphia’s mayor and approved by city council, and the board is responsible for hiring PHA’s President/CEO. The current board was appointed by Mayor Michael Nutter circa 2013.
Funny story about how that came to be, actually.
Back in 2010, the Philadelphia Housing Authority appeared regularly in the local headlines as a scandal unfolded revolving around then President/CEO Carl Greene. Mr. Greene had been using housing authority funds totaling roughly $900,000 to settle four separate sexual harassment claims against him. In the course of the investigation it was further revealed that Mr Greene, before he was hired by Philadelphia and still with the Detroit Housing Authority, was in the midst of defending against a sexual harassment suit there as well. In fact, then mayor of philadelphia Ed Rendell’s administration specified in Mr Greene’s contract that he would be hired regardless of the outcome of the suit.
As the scandal unfolded several other questionable practices by Mr Greene were revealed. Apparently Mr Greene was fond of using PHA funds to throw himself lavish parties, including hiring belly dancers and writing off the expenditure as cultural sensitivity training. As federal auditors combed through PHA’s accounts, it was also revealed that Mr Greene had strongly suggested that contractors doing work with PHA donate to a PHA related non-profit, TSSI, run by a Ms Asia Coney. Ms Coney was a PHA resident but in her position as director of TSSI (today rebranded as PhillySEEDS) was being compensated with a salary of $105k and was also a tenant representative on PHA’s board. To federal auditors it looked suspiciously like there was a pay-to-play kickback scheme afoot. Ms Coney remains a tenant representative on PHA’s board to this day.
Federal auditors also raised eyebrows at the tens of millions of dollars spent on politically connected legal firms such as BallardSpahr, of which Ed Rendell, Mr. Greene’s former boss, used to be a partner and which had also served as legal council to mayor John Street, who was then the chairman of PHA’s board. The board ultimately voted to force Greene to resign, unanimously save for a lone vote against removing Greene by councilwoman Jannie Blackwell. After being forced to resign, Greene filed a lawsuit against the PHA for wrongful termination and ultimately settled with PHA for over $600k.
As a result of the Greene controversy, mayor Michael Nutter was able to win changes from state lawmakers in Harrisburg allowing Philadelphia’s mayor power to appoint all 7 board directors with city council approval and relocate the housing authority as a component part of city government.
Since the Greene controversy, news about the housing authority has been pretty muted, save for a flurry of minor reforms when PHA’s new director was hired back in 2013. However, the PHA has continued to rankle some Philadelphians with its activities.
In 2015 the PHA condemned the Blumberg housing projects in the almost entirely black North Philadelphia neighborhood of Sharswood. In conjunction with PHA’s decision to demolish the housing projects, they also engineered the transfer of 1,300 parcels in Sharswood through the power of eminent domain with the help of the council president Darrell Clarke, a Sharswood native. By deciding to use the power of eminent domain, Clarke and the PHA greatly angered longtime Sharswood residents who were forced to take paltry sums for their properties that assuredly would have become much more valuable once the neighborhood undergoes it’s redevelopment with the help of federal dollars. Under the redevelopment scheme there will not be a 1 to 1 unit replacement for public housing and instead the Housing Authority will build a mixed income development. Given that the neighborhoods surrounding Sharswood are undergoing a construction and gentrification boom, cynics have pointed out that this move by the housing authority will have the effect of anchoring luxury housing development while simultaneously expelling thousands of poor people from the area. Add to this mix the fact that city council members have almost complete control over zoning decisions in their districts, its not hard to see why many Sharswood residents feel betrayed by Clarke and accuse him of benefitting personally through his relationship with large developers in the area.
Recently, this past March, the PHA announced it had a received a $1.3 million HUD grant to redevelop Bartram’s Village, adjacent to Bartram’s Gardens. Although details are still unclear, it seems a safe bet that the Housing Authority will opt to entirely rebuild the complex as a mixed income development and many if not most residents will not receive replacement units. Local critics have opined that the redevelopment scheme will only add to the gentrification pressures upon southwest Philadelphia, and indeed that this is the primary purpose of the project.
As Philadelphia continues to see a rapid boom in the construction of luxury housing units, experiences sharply increasing rents, and struggles to service a growing population of homeless residents, it seems to this author that Philadelphians would do well to consider the role of public housing in contributing to housing insecurity. In the coming years, the fight to defend, or even expand public housing, could play a decisive role in stabilizing Philadelphia’s housing market and preserving the right of Philadelphia’s low-income residents to remain in their multi-generational communities. In the face of a culture of entrenched local corruption and a federal government disinclined to provide resources for low-income housing support, this fight won’t be easily won, indeed, it will require a movement spanning the length of the country, demanding housing rights for all.