Replacement of leaking, drafty windows.
Abatement of asbestos and lead-based paint.
Demolition of failing exterior decks.
This work and other capital repairs at 15 public housing developments throughout Minnesota will be done with the help of $10 million allocated by the state legislature this year.
While the state’s investment demonstrates a strong commitment to preserving housing options for Minnesotans with low incomes, a closer look reveals it is a drop in the bucket compared to the total repair and rehabilitation needs of more than 20,000 public housing units, many located in buildings constructed almost 50 years ago.
The 2019 Publicly Owned Housing Program rehabilitation funding approved by the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency will impact only 1,154 units of the state’s total public housing units.
These funds will address some serious public housing deficiencies, but there are still critical issues in many other buildings that will go unmet. Even though the state’s contribution since 2014 has been $40 million, state funds for repairing and rehabilitating public housing in any given year covers less than 25% of the need.
When public housing was first initiated in President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1933 New Deal, the federal government pledged its support. Over the years, however, federal funding for maintenance and repair has not kept pace with the needs of the aging buildings.
Today, federal money coming to fund publicly owned housing in Minnesota has dropped to meet about 10% of desperately needed repairs. No one is predicting an increase.
There has been no public appetite for adding government-owned public housing buildings since the Section 8 housing voucher program started in 1961. This shifted government subsidies for affordable housing from supporting the buildings to direct support of income-qualified tenants.
A nationwide renewing of support for existing public housing buildings is needed in order to preserve it for current and future low-income families and individuals. Preserving existing housing is a cost-effective solution to the shortage of affordable housing in Minnesota and the nation.
Cities and counties, through their local housing authorities, said “yes” to having public housing built within their borders and became the recorded owners of the land and buildings by signing the federal housing agreements. Most did this because they wanted to provide their residents living below the poverty line with a place to call home.
A re-dedication by local governments and communities to this goal is necessary today to foster hometown support for apartments and other multi-family residential buildings that are, in essence, “the people’s houses.” Their condition is a reflection on the city or county that holds the keys to the front doors.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees 900,000 public housing units owned and operated by local housing agencies, recently announced it will reduce the lead-time for inspections.
While HUD’s more timely and critical oversight is needed, it does little to solve the overwhelming problem of lack of funds to fix identified deficiencies. Mold, exposed electrical wiring, broken front doors, inoperable safety devices, and inadequate play areas at family housing developments are common deficiencies.
Looking to state and federal funds to fully support critical improvements and repairs will not get the work done. Funds from these sources are scarce and becoming more scarce.
Local governments and communities need to look closer to home for the solutions.
Concern about the quality of life of people living in their public housing has resulted in some communities taking action by extending low-interest loans, tax increment financing, community development block grants, and funds from the city budget.
Added to these efforts should be a holistic community response with assistance coming from all sectors, including government, foundations, community organizations and churches.
A community’s pride is often bolstered by the quality and attractiveness of its publicly owned spaces and buildings: parks, boulevards, city halls, libraries, police and fire stations, and community centers. Publicly owned housing, “the people’s houses,” should also be on this list.
An opinion of the Adams Publishing – ECM Editorial Board. The Forest Lake Times is an APG-ECM newspaper.