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‘A steady deterioration’: US communities face a public housing crisis

Jared Kofsky/ABC News

(NEW YORK) — In Platte County, Missouri, the signs of growth are on almost every corner, with new apartment buildings and shopping centers becoming a common sight. Yet signs for affordable housing remain few and far between.


“There’s still this perception that Platte County is a rich community and that there’s no poverty in Platte County, which couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Becky Poitras of the Metro Lutheran Ministry.

Over the last decade, typical rents in Platte have risen 30 percent, pricing out residents whose income hasn’t kept up, according to an ABC News analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.

As rents have risen, so too have wait times for subsidized housing: County residents placed in public housing in 2012 had waited two years on average. Last year, residents receiving housing had waited nearly twice as long.

“There are waiting lists that are so long that people don’t bother applying, and then sometimes, the waiting lists aren’t even open,” said Maggie Thomas, a colleague of Poitras.

An ABC News and ABC Owned Television Stations investigation found that dozens of counties around the country have even longer subsidized housing wait times than those in Platte.

“Today what we’re seeing is a housing crisis unlike one that we’ve seen since the mid-20th century,” said San Diego State University Assistant Professor Valerie Stahl.

As public housing becomes increasingly difficult to access, especially in areas with growing population and rising cost of living, many of those who are struggling to afford a home question how we got here.

“It’s ridiculous that the waitlist and the waiting time is this long,” said Brenell Whitfield, who has been waiting for housing in California for over a decade.

American public housing dates back to 1937, when Congress created local housing authorities to build public housing for millions of people who were struggling after the Great Depression.

In the subsequent decades, large public housing projects were constructed nationwide. But without sufficient investment, many fell into disrepair, amassing a capital needs backlog now estimated at around $70 billion, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

“We’ve seen a steady deterioration of the quality of public housing since the ’80s and ’90s,” said New York University Associate Professor Jacob Faber.

The U.S. hasn’t built any large-scale public housing since the 1970s when then-President Richard Nixon put a moratorium on its construction, Faber said, preventing expansion to keep up with population growth in counties like Platte.

In the 1980s, amid negative perceptions of neglected public housing buildings and their residents, federal and local governments turned to the private market to address its public housing problem.

Instead of investing in its existing housing portfolio, the federal government launched Section 8, which aimed to deconcentrate poverty by providing vouchers for people in need of housing to use on the private real estate rental market.

“This approach reproduced the same concentrated poverty and inequalities, as discrimination in the private market led to housing segregation,” said Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto Prentiss Dantzler, who has spent the last decade studying affordable housing in the U.S. and Canada.

“We can’t just leave it up to private market actors to solve these issues,” Dantzler said. “The government has a place in that.”

The U.S. government also tried to address its decaying housing stock through the private market, implementing the Hope VI program to give grants to developers to demolish and revitalize public housing. Thousands of units were torn down nationwide, but only about half were replaced, and many of the replacement units were unaffordable to displaced tenants, according to Prentiss Dantzler.

“A lot of the housing stock that was targeted were predominantly Black public housing residents,” Dantzler said, adding that many of these residents “were just pushed out of public housing altogether.”

In 1999, the Faircloth Amendment solidified the federal government’s shift away from public housing, halting new public housing construction and capping units at their existing levels. This legislation is still in effect today, despite recent efforts to repeal it.

“It’s an enormous problem,” Faber said, noting that tens of millions of Americans meet income eligibility requirements for housing assistance. “We simply don’t have the units.”

While most counties nationwide are at or near limits of federally funded public housing allowed under the Faircloth Amendment – with fewer units than they had 24 years ago – due to a lack of resources and a political move away from traditional public housing.

“We’ve seen this really big shift in public housing priorities towards this voucher-based system,” Faber said. Even still, he added the government is “severely underfunding” both public housing and Section 8 vouchers program.

Alantis Perkins spent over seven years on the Quincy, Mass. Section 8 waitlist. Once he finally got his voucher, he struggled to find an affordable unit that fit program guidelines in the three-month timeframe he was given to find housing.

“It was nerve-racking,” Perkins said.

Just before the deadline, Perkins was able to move into an apartment, but he now worries his rent may increase beyond the limit allowed by his voucher.

As the rental market tightens, it becomes more difficult for voucher holders like Perkins to find a place to live.

Faber and Stahl pointed to a lack of federal action to increase support for public housing and vouchers.

Under the current system for both public housing and Section 8, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provides grants to local housing authorities, but with long or closed waitlists at existing authorities and no new housing authorities being created, the volume of people seeking housing overwhelms the capacity to house them.

HUD declined multiple interview requests from ABC News, but released a statement calling for increased rental assistance funds from Congress.

Poitras said that in places like Platte County, thousands more affordable housing units are needed as growth continues. Of Missouri’s 95 housing authorities, 84 are already at their Faircloth limits or have room for few additional units, all while homelessness remains a concern.

“If we don’t do something as a community to make change, we’re going to continue to have rising homelessness,” Poitras said.

Platte County Presiding Commissioner Scott Fricker acknowledged that the county’s growth has priced out residents, but he disagreed that more public housing is the solution.

“I don’t think government does a good job of owning housing and a lot of private owners don’t do a very good job either, but you can definitely use government subsidies in private development to create affordable housing,” Fricker said.

But relying on the private market to meet low-income Americans’ housing needs becomes tricky when the rental market is hot, some experts say.

“Public housing and Section 8 vouchers are a stable, affordable form of housing, and unfortunately, the private market is not providing that type of stability or affordability right now,” Stahl said.

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