Residents look at changes proposed for public housing

David Taber

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is contemplating major changes to regulations regarding federally subsidized low-income housing. The proposed legislation could bring private investors into the ownership structures of public housing developments and change tenant organizing rights.

At a Sept. 22 meeting at the Anna Mae Cole Community Center at the corner of Heath Street and Columbus Ave. in the Bromley-Heath housing development, about a dozen residents and advocates discussed how to get their voices heard as the US Congress and HUD officials engage in ongoing discussions about the proposed legislation—called the Preservation, Enhancement and Transformation of Rental Assistance act (PETRA).

“Maybe my view is one-sided, but I have spent 50 years here, and when I leave I don’t want to know… about it,” said Anna Mae Cole, a Bromley-Heath resident, and the community center’s namesake, at the meeting, joking about her hopes for the long-term stability of the public housing development.

Cole was referring to provisions in the proposed bill that some think could threaten federal public housing like Bromley-Heath. The most recent version of PETRA includes mechanisms that make public housing more similar to privately owned Section 8 housing. The possibility of private investors becoming involved with the ownership of public housing has residents concerned about the possibility of foreclosure, the eventual conversion of low-income housing to market-rate housing and displacement of tenants in the name of redevelopment.

The version of the proposed legislation discussed at the meeting is not the latest version. In response to Gazette questions at a press conference Monday, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan and US Congressman Barney Frank—who heads the House Financial Services Committee, which held a hearing on the original proposal in May—said a second version of the proposed legislation is still in the works.

“We are in the early phases of the conversation,” Frank said, lauding Donovan’s work to preserve public housing.

“We have made a lot of progress on the preservation of public housing,” Donovan said, citing, in particular, provisions of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that provided federal funding for state-run public housing developments, “PETRA is ahead of us in the next Congress.”

In an e-mail, HUD spokesperson Tiffany Smith told the Gazette the proposed legislation has changed significantly since it was initially proposed in May, “We’ve gone through an extensive process of listening to our stakeholders and believe that they have made a number of suggested changes to the bill that the next version should reflect,” she said.  

If it passes, PETRA would change the rules for tenants in public housing as well as tenants in Section 8 housing developments—known as “project-based Section 8”—and tenants with Section 8 vouchers that can be used to offset the costs of market-rate rental units. It would—at first, at least—be voluntary for public housing authorities (PHAs)—like the Boston Housing Authority—to sign onto, housing advocate Mac McCreight of Greater Boston Legal Services said at the meeting.

According to information provided by the Boston Housing Authority (BHA), there are just over 1,000 units of public housing in Jamaica Plain, including at Bromley-Heath in Jackson Square; Amory Street Apartments at 125 Amory St. and Pond Street Apartments on Pond Street. The latter two provide housing for the elderly and disabled. The BHA-administered South Street housing development is funded by the state. The BHA also administers 452 units of HUD-subsidized project-based Section 8 housing in JP.

But that is not nearly all of JP’s Section 8 housing, because other public and quasi-public agencies also administer Section 8 programs. Academy Homes, for example, developed by the non-profit community development corporation Urban Edge, has 87 Section 8 units funded through a program administered by the quasi-public residential development financer MassHousing.

The version of PETRA being discussed by the community requires that affordable housing units be replaced when public housing complexes are redeveloped, but not necessarily in the same place. The replacement units would be required to be within a 25-mile radius of the original housing.

“We want to give PHAs enough flexibility to find land and property that’s affordable for them to use, but we’re also serious about making sure that families aren’t simply shuttled to different neighborhoods that suffer from the same issues of concentrated poverty and disinvestment that we’re seeking to address,” Smith said of the 25-mile rule.

The proposed legislation contains provisions that would fold participating public housing programs into systems more similar to project-based Section 8 development. Those privately-owned developments reserved for residents receiving federal housing subsidies are subject to “expiring use,” meaning they could become market-rate housing after a fixed period of time—usually 20 to 40 years.

Expiring-use has been a problem in JP and around the state in recent years. In 2008, 90 units of expiring Section 8 housing were saved at Forestvale Apartments at 129 Forest Hills St. after a real estate investment company owned by former Red Sox slugger Mo Vaughn bought the property from Francis Colanino, who had threatened to take the development market-rate. In the late 1990s, the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation’s purchase of Pond View Apartments preserved 60 Section 8 apartments that were subject to expiring-use.

As with expiring-use, “To ensure that owners don’t opt out, converted public housing properties will be subject to a use agreement for a minimum of 30 years, requiring the owners to continue to house the lowest income families at rents they can afford,” Smith told the Gazette. “HUD will require owners of converted public housing to accept extensions of the contract in nearly all circumstances…The only exception would be in situations where it is demonstrably not in the best interests of residents to maintain the contract at the current property.”

Some public housing tenants at the September meeting took a dim view of the private investment proposals. “HUD is trying to get out of the housing business. They have been for years,” Ron Shepard said at the meeting. Shepard, president of the Boston Chapter of Massachusetts Senior Action, is a resident at Boston’s Hampton House, a public housing development for elderly and disabled residents.

“If your question is, could you get stuck and end up getting thrown to the wolves, the answer is yes,” housing advocate McCreight told the crowd at the meeting. “The answer is organize, organize, organize.”

While most of the meeting attendees and other affordable housing advocates the Gazette spoke to agreed that the proposed PETRA legislation needs clarification, if not significant alteration, many said the basic idea is fundamentally sound.

One of proposed legislation’s main goals is to normalize the rules for over a dozen different subsidized housing programs that HUD administers, including public housing and various Section 8 programs.

“Combining everything into one big program with a single funding stream is kind of intriguing, maybe even visionary,” Michael Kane, head of the JP-based Massachusetts Alliance of HUD Tenants, told the Gazette in a phone interview.

And HUD is desperate for funding to preserve and maintain public housing nationwide —to the tune of between $20 and $30 billion dollars, according to information on the HUD web site.

But Kane told the Gazette that he thinks, rather than allowing private interests to invest directly in public housing, HUD should seek the authority to issue bonds—a funding mechanism that would offer profits to investors, but keep them out of public housing ownership structures.

“We’re certainly considering bond funding as a potential financing tool. In fact the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998 already established the legal authority for PHAs, to repay bonds as a percentage of their future federal assistance,” Smith said. But that program, since 1998, has only generated about $500 million for PHAs, she said.

At any rate, in addition to potentially providing much-needed investment dollars, provisions in the proposed legislation that codify rights to organize and establish a grievance procedure for Section 8 tenants are a qualified plus for the bill, advocates say.

Those rights are already enjoyed by public housing tenants, and in both cases, they could lose some rights under the new proposed rules, they say.

Currently, grievance procedures for public housing include a mandatory informal resolution effort, but that provision is not included in PETRA. Officially recognized tenant organizations are entitled to funding from HUD to the tune of $25 per tenant, but PETRA would replace that guaranteed funding with a competitive funding process for tenant organizations.

Smith did not respond to Gazette questions about tenant task force funding, but did say that the grievance procedure rights for public housing tenants will actually be stronger if the legislation passes. They would include review “by an independent person…the [rights] to inspect relevant documents at a reasonable time in advance, to bring a representative to the review, and to receive a written decision,” she said.

PETRA would also allow public housing tenants the opportunity to obtain Section 8 vouchers and move out of public housing after two years in the program—a prospect that some see as a benefit.

But, once again, how much public housing subsidies will come to look like Section 8 subsidies is a concern. Public housing subsidies are more stable than Section 8 subsidies, which must be renewed every year. Impermanent ones were seriously threatened, advocates said, in 2006, under the G. W. Bush administration.

Then-Gov. Mitt Romney “stepped up to Bush and said he did not want Massachusetts to lose its Section 8 vouchers” after a concerted organizing effort by HUD tenants, Willie Mae Bennett-Bradley of the Committee for Boston Public Housing told the Gazette.

That organizing spirit needs to be rekindled as PETRA moves forward, advocates said at the September meeting.

“This hall should be packed,” said Mildred Hailey, executive director of the Bromley-Heath Tenant Management Corporation.

HUD’s current Director of Public Housing, Sandra Henriquez, is the former head of the Boston Housing Authority, and strategies for combining public and Section 8 housing were tried in Boston under her watch, Hailey said.

The only reason private partnerships have not been tried at Bromley-Heath has been the diligence of the community, Hailey said—“because people think we are crazy.”

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