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COVID-19 has exposed the consequences of decades of bad public housing policy

Very low-income Americans have been left at the

Very low-income Americans have been left at the mercy of landlords and private rental companies and COVID-19 has exposed the consequences. Credit: Getty Images/smartboy10

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Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released an order that would prevent evictions for most renters through the end of the year. This order responds to tenant advocacy groups' calls for eviction moratoriums and comes amid stalled Congressional negotiations over an extension of the Cares Act. In July, over one-quarter of people in the United States either could not or feared they would not be able to pay their rent. The order will help stop these tenants from facing evictions.

But tenants will still be responsible for back payment of rents, which many will find difficult to make, particularly given the high rates of unemployment and the expiration of the extra federal unemployment benefits. And the order does nothing to address the root cause of this eviction crisis — a half century of federal retrenchment from providing low-income housing and the rejection of traditional multifamily public housing as a viable and effectual anti-poverty program. Very low-income Americans have been left at the mercy of landlords and private rental companies and COVID-19 has exposed the consequences.

Public housing always had flaws. Its placement often worsened racial and economic segregation, separating low-income, disproportionately African American tenant families from centers of economic and political activity, public transportation, jobs and more. Yet, residents — and some politicians — offered alternative visions for what it could be. By the late 1960s, many public housing residents envisioned fully-funded public housing in which residents played a decisive role in decision-making, rents stayed affordable and the housing itself would be augmented by initiatives designed to help people out of poverty including job training, day cares, health centers and more.

In 1969, public housing tenants in St. Louis organized a rent strike that brought the St. Louis Housing Authority to the brink of bankruptcy and forced Congress to pass legislation capping tenant rents at 25% of their incomes. Leaders of the St. Louis rent strike — many of whom were women — embraced a mixture of what they called "Woman Power," which borrowed greatly from Black Power while rejecting some of its masculinist underpinnings, and welfare rights advocacy. They ended up constructing something best labeled tenant power, in which tenants' grass roots activism drove housing policy and shaped the lived experience of public housing.

Yet, over the following decades, politicians and governmental agencies institutionalized and co-opted the ideas of power to the people without pursuing structural change.

Rather than recognizing tenants' power and enabling community control, politicians' focus became the "empowerment" of individual tenants through the increasingly popular political ideas of personal responsibility or self-sufficiency. In practical terms, this shift — which also permeated education, health care and welfare policies — resulted in Democratic and Republican politicians alike touting empowerment as a key policy goal for public housing reform but seeing it as something that they had no responsibility for facilitating. Instead, they could withdraw resources from public housing under the auspices of helping residents to gain self-sufficiency.

One of the most ardent believers in a connection between empowerment and personal responsibility was Jack Kemp, Housing and Urban Development Secretary during the George H.W. Bush presidency. Kemp played a major role in co-opting and redefining the term "empowerment" for the Republican Party, vociferously advocating for tenant empowerment through his pet projects of resident management and resident ownership of their units. Kemp believed that these programs would facilitate the self-sufficiency of public housing tenants.

But Kemp's advocacy illustrated the fundamental flaw in this vision: when tenants assumed primary responsibility of day-to-day management duties over their housing, they did so without access to or power over the federal funds allocated to their housing authority. Accordingly, tenant management groups often struggled to effectively implement their vision for management.

By the mid-1990s, a consensus had emerged among Democrats and Republicans, including the Clinton administration, that empowerment should be a goal for public housing reform.

But the term had become completely divorced from its original intention of promoting significant structural reform and providing adequate resources to help lift Americans from poverty.

Instead, by 1996, Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., could assure skeptical Democrats, "It would be hypocritical, in my judgment, to suggest that somehow we shouldn't empower people" — even as he advocated for reducing federal funding for public housing. And Democrats and Republicans alike ignored the necessity of adequate funding, and control over that funding, for achieving actual empowerment. Congress and HUD cut the budget for public housing by a whopping $17 billion during the Clinton administration alone.

In the mid-1990s, Congress and the Clinton administration took another leaf out of Jack Kemp's book regarding the empowerment of public housing residents. As HUD Secretary, Kemp had promised to empower the "good" public housing tenants by weakening due process rights with regard to evictions, so as to "get rid" of criminal occupants of public housing. Kemp repeatedly promised to get "tough on due process" as a means of empowering tenants - whether tenants seemed enthusiastic about his solution to the problem of crime in public housing.

The 1996 One Strike Act mandated that housing authorities immediately evict entire families when a family member or acquaintance was implicated in drug-related activity. In practice, this policy meant that an entire family could be evicted if they knew someone suspected of smoking a joint. The One Strike Act corresponded with efforts to empower the "good" tenants by evicting the "bad." Often, though, One Strike led to the eviction of whole families, sweeping out good tenants.

The One Strike Act had severe ramifications for families living in public housing. A HUD survey indicated that at a minimum, Public Housing Authorities evicted 223.4% more families in the six months following One Strike than the six months preceding the act. HUD also noted that in seeking existing residents' updated signatures on leases in accordance with One Strike provisions, many families left of their own initiative, fearing eventual eviction.

Many public housing tenants argued that the One Strike Act represented part of an overall strategy to depopulate public housing as HUD began the process of attempting to convert it to mixed-income developments.

Yet, again, empowerment was at the root of this action. Politicians spanning the ideological spectrum had concluded that the solution to public housing's ills was to transform most if not all traditional multifamily public housing developments to mixed-income developments with a third of units each allocated to market rate renters, lightly subsidized renters and public housing resident families. Politicians framed this policy shift using the language of empowerment, arguing that mere proximity to higher-income families would help public housing tenants get jobs and empower themselves out of poverty.

While mixed-income developments could have ameliorated the racial and economic segregation of public housing tenants, the policy as implemented in the '90s and 2000s failed to address the structural issues contributing to racial and economic inequality in the first place. Significantly, transforming current public housing properties into mixed-income developments displaced residents and lessened the number of families served by public housing under the guise of empowering these same families.

Taken together these policies represented the triumph of a politics which made a mockery of empowerment. Instead of listening to public housing tenants, politicians made top-down determinations about what was good for them. The result was a far cry from what the tenant power movement had envisioned: the federal government retreated from providing safe, affordable housing, leaving more low-income families at the mercy of private rental companies and landlords in a moment of extremely heightened vulnerability for all but the wealthiest Americans.

Before the CDC order, landlords were heading to courts to try to evict non- and underpaying tenants. Should landlords pursue these claims in 2021, the economic repercussions of COVID-19 will probably exacerbate inequality, demonstrating the real impact of empowerment politics that didn't actually empower anyone.

Rosenblith is a historian of race, space, gender and poverty in the 20th century U.S. and currently a postdoctoral research associate with the Memory Project of the University of Virginia's Democracy Initiative. This piece was written for The Washington Post.

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