Mold. Leaks. Rodents. Crime. These are just some of the things the nation's 2 million public housing residents have to worry about. Many of the buildings they live in have been falling into disrepair for decades. Public housing officials estimate that it would cost $50 billion to fix them up.
But the Trump administration wants to eliminate the federal fund now used to repair public housing in favor of attracting more private investment to fix up and replace it.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson says the country needs a new approach because the current one is not working. He admits that living conditions for many public housing residents are extremely poor.
"There are two possible solutions. You can just throw more money at it, or you can say 'Why is that happening and why is it getting worse and is there anything that we can do about those factors,' " Carson recently told a House appropriations subcommittee.
Part of the problem stems from a steady decline in public housing repair funding over the past decade. About $2 billion to $3 billion has been appropriated in recent years, half the amount approved in 2000. At the same time, the needs have grown at a more rapid rate, creating a massive backlog.
Tyrone Garrett, executive director of the District of Columbia Housing Authority, is one of many housing officials across the country trying to deal with the fallout. Earlier this year, Garrett announced that his agency faced "a monumental crisis." About 2,500 public housing units in the city — about a third of its stock — are in such disrepair that Garrett says they're unfit for human habitation.
"Would we want our parents, our family members, our mothers, or our children for that matter to live in units that are decaying around them?" he asks. Garrett says the answer is obviously "no," but about 5,000 Washingtonians now live in those units. He says his agency needs $343 million in emergency funding to meet the most urgent needs.
Garrett shows what he's talking about at Richardson Dwellings, a public housing complex in Northeast Washington. Like much of the nation's public housing, these two-story brick apartments are decades old and have been patched together with one Band-Aid repair after another. Today, some of the units are beyond repair.
"You have roof leaks, ceiling leaks, probably stemming from something on the roof, decaying floors, walls," says Garrett, pointing to water stains above him in one unit and chipped linoleum on the floor.
The apartment's living room is small and crammed with furniture, piles of personal belongings and a big refrigerator standing in one corner. It's difficult to walk through the room. Scarlet-colored carpeting on the stairway is so loose, it's difficult to walk upstairs because it's unclear where one step begins and another one ends. Upstairs, Garrett points out more water stains on the ceiling in one of the bedrooms, and to black grout between the bathroom tiles.
"You can see where the mold is building up and this is probably more than likely from a lack of ventilation," he says. These apartments were built in 1953 before exhaust fans were standard.
The majority of public housing residents here and elsewhere are seniors, people with disabilities, and children — those who can least afford poor living conditions.
Jamell Fields shares an apartment at Richardson Dwellings with several people, including her two daughters and grandchildren. When Garrett stops by, she tells him that the stuffy air inside has become a problem for all of them.
"Everybody in here is asthmatic," says Fields, who has lived there for two years. "It's so dry in here a lot and the asthma has gotten really bad for all of us. [My daughter] has medicine for it. I have medicine for it. My other daughter, she has medicine for it. Her son, he got a little bit, but he don't have as much as we do."
The apartment has other hazards, including lead-based paint, which has made Fields and her family eligible for emergency vouchers to relocate to other housing. She says at least the bug infestations aren't as bad as they used to be.
"It's just the mice. The mice is out of control a little bit," she says.
There's a lot at this complex that threatens the health of children. A tree in the courtyard outside is decorated with stuffed animals and pinwheels — a memorial to a 10-year-old girl who was caught in a hail of gunfire when she went out to buy ice cream last summer and died clutching a $5 bill. Her family is now suing the housing authority, saying it did not provide enough security in an area prone to violent crime.
Garrett says D.C. is not alone. "Other housing authorities throughout the country are in the same boat. We're looking for opportunities to be able to improve the lives of our families, and it's becoming increasingly difficult with the funding cuts," he says. Garrett estimates it would take more than $2 billion to fix up all of the city's public housing over the long run.
But HUD Secretary Carson says the federal government has limited funds and needs to attract more private investment. He told Congress that the administration hopes to address the problem, in part, with a program enacted in the 2017 tax law that provides large tax breaks for investments in what are called "opportunity zones."
"A lot of money will be pouring into those and a lot of these distressed areas are in the opportunity zones — 380,000 public housing units," he told lawmakers.
Carson predicts that tens of billions of dollars will be invested in these struggling communities, aided in part by reduced regulations and other government incentives.
But housing advocates say there's no guarantee investors will put their money into affordable housing. The tax breaks are also allowed for investments in stores, hotels and other businesses.
Sunia Zaterman, executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities, says the jury is still out on opportunity zones.
"No one has yet said this is the silver bullet that is going to solve our distressed community problem, and the concern is whether it really will benefit low-income households," she says.
Zaterman thinks public-private deals can help in the long run, but notes that they can take years to complete and the crisis is now. Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill have also expressed skepticism about the administration's proposal to eliminate the fund for public housing repairs, although it's not clear how much money lawmakers will eventually approve.
This has left residents worried about what will happen to them. At a recent meeting of the D.C. Housing Authority's Board of Commissioners, several tenants said they need their living conditions to improve. They don't care where the money comes from.
"It's stressful. We don't know what's going to happen and when it's going to happen," said Linda Brown, who has lived in public housing for 12 years with her disabled daughter. She fears being displaced if her aging complex is torn down. She notes that affordable housing is extremely scarce in Washington, D.C. There are currently 41,000 families on the city's waiting list for housing assistance.
"We should be mindful that we're talking about human beings and not numbers," says Brown, who like other public housing residents is required to pay a third of her income in rent. "We're talking about families that have already been uprooted."
Both the city and HUD's Carson have promised to keep poor families housed, but it's not clear yet how that will happen and in what conditions they'll end up living.
NOEL KING, HOST:
Mold, leaks, rodents and crime - these are some of the things that people who live in public housing have to worry about. A lot of public housing has been falling into disrepair in this country for decades, and it could cost an estimated $50 billion to fix it up. The Trump administration wants to eliminate the fund that's used to repair public housing in favor of a more market-oriented approach. NPR's Pam Fessler has that story.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Tyrone Garrett heads the Washington, D.C., Housing Authority and admits that thousands of public housing units he oversees are unfit for human habitation.
TYRONE GARRETT: Would we want our parents, our family members, our mothers to - or our children, for that matter, to live in units that are decaying around them?
FESSLER: The answer obviously is, no. But 5,000 D.C. residents now live in such conditions.
(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)
FESSLER: Richardson Dwellings in Northeast Washington is typical. Like much of the nation's public housing, these two-story brick apartments are decades old and have been patched together with one Band-Aid repair after another until now.
GARRETT: You have roof leaks, some ceiling leaks, probably stemming from something on the roof - decaying floors, walls.
FESSLER: Just about everything in this five-bedroom unit needs fixing.
(SOUNDBITE OF SMOKE DETECTOR BEEPING)
FESSLER: The smoke detector is beeping because it needs a battery. The carpet on the staircase is so loose it's hard to tell where one step ends and another begins. In the bathroom, the grout between the tiles is black.
GARRETT: You can see where the mold is building up on - and this is probably more than likely from a lack of ventilation in this particular unit.
FESSLER: These apartments were built in 1953 before exhaust fans were standard. Two million people live in public housing. Most are seniors, people with disabilities and children - those who can least afford poor living conditions.
GARRETT: Is Ms. Fields home?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes.
FESSLER: Jamell Fields shares a nearby unit with several people, including her two daughters and grandchildren. Fields tells Garrett that the stuffy air inside the apartment is hard on all of them.
JAMELL FIELDS: Everybody in here is asthmatics.
FIELDS: It's so dry in here a lot, and the asthma has gotten really bad for all of us. You know, she has medicine for it. I have medicine for it. My other daughter, she has medicine for it. Her son - he got a little bit, but he don't have as much as we do.
FESSLER: There's a lot here that threatens the health of children. The apartment also has lead-based paint. And a tree right outside is decorated with stuffed animals and pinwheels - a memorial to a 10-year-old girl who went out to buy ice cream last summer and was caught in a hail of gunfire. She died clutching her five dollar bill, and her family's now suing the housing authority for not providing enough security in an area prone to violent crime. This city is hardly alone.
BEN CARSON: You know, there are two possible solutions. You can just throw more money at it, or you can say, why is that happening? And why is it getting worse? And is there anything that we can do about those factors?
FESSLER: Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson admits that many of the nation's public housing residents live in deplorable conditions. But he thinks what the country has been doing - spending more money on repairs - is not the answer. He told Congress recently that the administration prefers using tax breaks enacted in 2017 to encourage private investment in areas called opportunity zones.
CARSON: Because a lot of money will be pouring into those, and a lot of these distressed areas are in the opportunity zones - 380,000 public housing units.
FESSLER: About a third of the total - Carson predicts tens of billions of dollars will be invested in these communities, aided by reduced regulations and other government incentives. But there's no guarantee investors will put their money into affordable housing. They can also build stores, hotels or other businesses. Sunia Zaterman, executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities, says on opportunity zones, the jury is still out.
SUNIA ZATERMAN: No one has yet said, this is the silver bullet that is going to solve our distressed community problem. And the concern is whether it really will benefit low-income households.
FESSLER: Don't get her wrong. She and other housing advocates think public-private deals have a big role to play, but they can take years to complete. D.C. housing director Garrett says the crisis is now. He needs $324 million this year alone for emergency repairs and has no idea where he'll get the money. President Trump's newest budget would eliminate the $3 billion fund used for public housing repairs. Congress probably won't go that far, but it's unclear what funding lawmakers will approve.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Next item on our agenda is the approval of the March 13, 2019 board of commissioners...
FESSLER: At a recent meeting of the D.C. Housing Authorities Board of Commissioners, residents said they're worried about what all this means for them. They don't care where the money comes from, they just want living conditions to improve.
LINDA BROWN: It's stressful. We don't know what's going to happen and when it's going to happen.
FESSLER: Linda Brown lives in public housing with her disabled daughter and pays a third of her income in rent. After the meeting, Brown said she fears being displaced if her building is torn down. Affordable housing in D.C. and elsewhere is extremely scarce.
BROWN: We should be mindful that we're talking about human beings and not numbers. We are talking about families that have already been uprooted.
FESSLER: Often moved from one poorly maintained unit into another - both the city and HUD Secretary Carson promised to keep poor families housed. But it's not clear right now how that will happen and in what kind of conditions they'll end up living.
Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
KING: All right, how did HUD secretary Ben Carson, who you just heard in Pam's story, end up posing for a picture with a package of Oreos? Carson testified before a House committee yesterday. He faced questions from Katie Porter of California. She asked him about homes foreclosed upon by the Federal Housing Administration. And in her question, she used the acronym REO.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
KATIE PORTER: Do you know what an REO is?
CARSON: An Oreo?
PORTER: R - no, not an Oreo. An REO, REO.
CARSON: Real estate.
PORTER: What's the O stand for?
CARSON: E - organization.
PORTER: Owned - real estate owned. That's what happens when a property goes to foreclosure. We call it an REO. And FHA loans have much higher REOs. That is, they go to foreclosure rather than to loss mitigation or to non-foreclosure alternatives like short sales than comparable loans at the GSEs.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now, Carson later got in on the joke about mistaking REOs for Oreos. He posed for that photo of himself holding the cookies but never did engage Porter's larger question whether federal policies drive more homes into foreclosure. At the hearing, he said it wasn't his job to get in the weeds.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.