Change is hard. But when it comes to public housing, change is desperately needed.
For 13 years, I ran the Boston Housing Authority. Every day, I saw for myself how irreplaceable public housing resources are. But I also saw something else: the current system fails too many people. I saw how public housing can isolate residents and segregate the neighborhoods they live in from the jobs, schools and opportunities they need to succeed.
Today, 6 million Americans pay more than half their incomes for housing. Family homelessness is on the rise. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of affordable homes are being lost every year. In the last 15 years alone, the country has lost 150,000 units from its stock of public and assisted affordable housing to sale or demolition.
Unfortunately, this "hidden housing crisis" is about to get worse. Recovering from our recent economic crisis is pushing the Federal government to tighten its belt, yet at the same time America's Public Housing program is facing a $30 billion backlog of unmet capital needs that demands immediate attention.
Put simply, our country needs the affordable homes public housing provides more than ever -- but if we don't act now, we will lose them forever.
That's why the Obama Administration has proposed a strategy to preserve and enhance America's public housing system and transform the way the Federal government provides rental assistance to more than 4.5 million of our most vulnerable families.
Virtually everyone agrees that the current system is failing, yet for some, change is not only hard - it's unsettling. So, allow me to highlight some of the key components of the Administration's proposal, the Preservation, Enhancement and Transformation of Rental Assistance Act (PETRA):
- Preserving publicly-owned housing for generations to come. For years, we've seen public housing agencies lose affordable units for essentially the same reason: because they can't access the capital and other resources that everyone else who builds and maintains affordable housing can. PETRA would allow public housing authorities to repair and rehabilitate older public housing units with the same flexible funding tools we already use to develop new affordable housing; doing so would mean local agencies and owners will be able to leverage some $25 billion in new resources for our most vulnerable populations. Indeed, by ensuring city and state governments, the private sector, local not-for-profits, and all the other partners that have emerged in housing finance in recent decades work together as a broad coalition with a real stake in public housing's success, PETRA will preserve publicly-owned housing for generations to come.
I have been in the affordable housing business since 1972, in both the public and private sectors. I've seen how we can harness the resources of the private market to further the important mission of public housing. Were I still the director of the Boston Housing Authority, I would tell you that PETRA provides precisely the tools I'd need to preserve affordable homes for the families who depended on me -- and to connect those homes to the opportunities and choices in life those families need.
I've had some people ask me, "Why now?" My answer has been, "if not now, when?" I do not want to wait until we have lost another 50,000-75,000 affordable homes. My response also has been, "if not us, who?" President Obama has personal experience working on the South Side of Chicago to increase affordable housing. No president in our history better understands that public housing is the platform for stability and opportunity in communities that need it the most. And Shaun Donovan--the architect of New York City's innovative plan to build and preserve 165,000 affordable homes--brings the most experience--and success--preserving affordable housing ever to the job of HUD Secretary. Together, they represent our best hope to lead communities across the country to preserve, enhance and transform America's stock of public and affordable housing.
We continue to work on PETRA with Congress, residents and the other stakeholders who know public housing best. As we have shown throughout the process of developing this legislation, this Administration not only welcomes public input and constructive feedback when it comes to facing big challenges -- we absolutely need it to get the solutions right.
But with all the challenges facing us, it is clear that this President, this Housing Secretary and this proposal represent our best chance to save public housing. Let's seize it.
Sandra B. Henriquez is the Assistant Secretary for Public and Indian Housing. To find out more about the Obama Administration's 21st century strategy to provide affordable housing to America's most vulnerable families, go to www.HUD.gov/TRA