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New Study Shows Fresh Approach Needed to Fix Public Housing

A report sponsored by the Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated today that the nation’s public housing developments faced $26 billion in unmet needs for repairs and renovations in 2010.  Many renovation projects supported by the 2009 Recovery Act’s $4 billion in public housing capital funding were just getting underway when the study was carried out, but even after those projects are done, the unmet need will still stand well above $20 billion, threatening the long-term viability of an important part of the safety net.

Public housing provides decent, affordable homes to more than 1 million low-income households, nearly two-thirds of which include at least one person who is elderly or has a disability.  But years of federal underfunding have led to the extensive repair needs that the new report identifies, which range from leaky roofs to old and inefficient heating systems.  Many developments have deteriorated to the point where they must be demolished or sold, squandering decades of federal investment.  More than 165,000 public housing units have been lost and not replaced by new public housing since 1995.

Funding for public housing renovation has fallen by 46 percent since 2001 in inflation-adjusted terms, and the $2 billion that Congress provided for this fiscal year (2011) won’t even cover the new repair needs that accumulate each year.  For 2012, Congress must avoid further cuts that would hasten the deterioration of developments — and also adequately fund separate subsidies that help cover the developments’ day-to-day operating costs.  But the new report makes clear that even a sizable increase in capital funds won’t come close to matching the need.

We need a new approach, and the President’s 2012 budget would provide one that holds promise.  It would fund a limited number of public housing developments through the Section 8 rental assistance program rather than the public housing program.  As our analysis of the plan explains, this would provide more adequate and reliable funding.  More important, it would allow agencies to obtain private investment more easily, providing a major new resource to renovate public housing.

Public housing repair needs are daunting, but the President’s plan offers a realistic and cost-effective step toward addressing them.  It deserves prompt action by Congress.