US: Public Housing Cutbacks Jeopardize Low-Income People

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Work permits are displayed in front of the New York City Housing Authority’s Ocean Bay Apartments Bayside complex during renovations, part of the US Housing and Urban Development Rental Assistance Demonstration program, in the Queens borough of New York, US, on Tuesday, July 17, 2018.
© 2018 Bess Adler/Bloomberg via Getty Images

(New York) –The United States federal government’s cuts to public housing funding have jeopardized the living conditions of up to 2 million low-income people throughout the country, Human Rights Watch said today, releasing a video about the situation. The video features interviews with public housing residents in New York City and calls for Congress to dramatically increase funding for this critical resource to make repairs and ensure its upkeep.

Public housing, governed by Section 9 of the US Housing Act, was created based on the principle – consistent with the international human right to adequate and affordable housing – that everyone, regardless of income, deserves a decent, affordable, and accessible home. Compared with other housing assistance programs in the US, public housing has been particularly effective and dependable at providing housing for people with the lowest incomes. It is a critical resource for marginalized people across the country, especially for people of color, older people, and people with disabilities.

“When Grandma first moved in about 37 years ago, this place gave her financial liberty again,” said Ramona Ferreyra, a public housing resident in New York City featured in the video, whose grandmother also lived in her building. “I would come here, throughout elementary school; the building was in great condition … so, this was like my favorite escape.” Ferreyra is also a social entrepreneur and co-founder of Save Section 9, an advocacy group fighting to secure increased funding for public housing.

Over the last two decades, the condition of the building has deteriorated as funding for public housing was slashed. Ferreyra and others have dealt with water leaks, mold, and peeling lead paint, among other issues. Residents often must wait months for needed repairs. “You’re constantly told that none of those things can be done because there is no money,” Ferreyra said. Across New York City, according to the National Housing Preservation Database, over 100,000 units of public housing have failed the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) inspection scores and require immediate reinvestment.

But issues like these are not confined to New York. The US has about a million public housing apartments, and residents in communities large and small have been affected by disinvestment. Nationwide, about 10,000 public apartments are lost each year due to deterioration.

The $1.6 trillion Build Back Better Act, a reconciliation package proposed by US President Joe Biden, would have included $65 billion for public housing, but negotiations over the legislation have stalled.

Talks about reviving portions of the bill are ongoing, as are negotiations over the 2023 federal budget, which allocates money to the public housing program. President Biden’s 2023 budget request proposes a $332 million increase in funding for public housing repairs. This is a modest step in the right direction, Human Rights Watch said. But the amount requested is still, in real terms, 25 percent less than 2000 funding levels and is far from the over $70 billion that housing advocates estimate is required to fully renovate the nation’s public housing stock.

“It is critically important for lawmakers to ensure that the 2023 federal budget and any revised reconciliation package protects the rights of residents by sufficiently funding the repair and upkeep of public housing,” said Jackson Gandour, New York University School of Law fellow at Human Rights Watch and author of a report related to housing in New York City.

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