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The Hidden Housing Crisis
by Elizabeth Schulte and Cindy Clumb
August 24, 2004
First Published in Socialist Worker

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If you ride the commuter train from Chicago 40 miles west to Aurora, Ill., youíll pass towns with small shops on tree-lined streets, lush woods, golf courses--and plenty of large single-family homes. But for working-class and poor people who live in Aurora--like more and more cities, large and small, across the country--there is a hidden housing emergency.

With a population of about 143,000, Aurora has the kind of affordable housing crisis that is usually associated with larger cities like Chicago and New York City. Aurora was named the "City of Lights" in 1881 for being the first city in the world to light its streets with electricity.

But the lights are dim in the hallways of Harbor Village public housing. Its residents are forced to endure all the humiliations--and dangers--of substandard public housing.

In 2001, Harbor Village resident Tamika Jamesí 2-month-old daughter Shamia died from respiratory syncytial virus, a condition that is the most common cause of bronchitis and pneumonia in babies. The cause of this tragic death soon became clear to residents--a mold that was growing on the walls and ceilings of the cold, damp apartments.

Cynthia Ralls is an affordable-housing activist from the Aurora area and a founder of a grassroots coalition of residents called JUST Housing. She told Socialist Worker about one resident, who was undergoing breast cancer treatment while living in an apartment where the mold was growing unseen in her closet. "For an immune-compromised person, this is incredibly dangerous," Ralls said.

Several residents complain of respiratory problems, skin rashes and infections. And if the conditions werenít bad enough, strict rules and restrictions required of public housing residents leave them unsure when they might find themselves thrown out on the streets.

Mary Taylor had lived in Aurora Housing Authorityís (AHA) Southwind apartment complex for more than 16 years. She was president of the first Tenant Council and worked closely with police and the AHA to make Southwind what she hoped could be a safe place to live. But that didnít stop her from being evicted after another resident made the outrageous claim that her son--12 years old at the time--"threw a bomb" at him.

Under a federal zero-tolerance policy upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002, local housing authorities have the right to evict public housing tenants if anyone living with or visiting that tenant used drugs in or near their home. In Aurora, the policy was extended beyond drug use to include all violent crimes, whether actual or threatened.

AHA claims that its so-called "zero-tolerance" policies have cut down on crime. But the only crime in the case of Taylor and her son was their eviction. "Considering my time in housing and as a resident who helped create a safe and positive environment and worked very closely with the Housing Authority for 16 years, to be totally overlooked and kicked to the curb without a hearing was outrageous," Taylor said.

After eviction, housing choices vanish into thin air. Living with family or friends is a risky prospect if they also live in public housing, because they could be thrown out for offering you a place to stay.

In Aurora, one "option" is the backyard of Hesed House--where, for almost 15 years, a "Tent City" has served as a shelter for homeless people in the summertime. This year, Tent City had to turn away about 95 people because there wasn't enough room.

If George W. Bush gets his way, the crisis of affordable housing will get even worse. The Bush administration has announced that it is cutting back on Section 8 housing vouchers. With a Section 8 voucher, eligible residents pay 30 percent of their income in rent, and the federal governmentís Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Department pays the rest.

Bush's 2005 budget proposal is $1.6 billion below the amount needed to maintain the current level of assistance. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, some 250,000 households could lose vouchers. In addition, Bush wants to distribute voucher funding in block grants with fewer federal restrictions, meaning that individual states could increase the amount that residents pay--and tens of thousands more people could end up on the street.

As Ralls puts it, "Bushís plan is to end homelessness in 10 years. I want to know exactly how heís going to achieve that with budget cuts to HUD housing. If anything, heís creating more homelessness. The budget cuts that are now coming down are going to make more people homeless--more families, more seniors, everyone. Change is going to have to come from the people themselves who live the problems."

A War on Affordable Housing
Cindy Clumb reports on the struggle for affordable housing in New York City.

In New York City, two successful housing programs are in jeopardy. A program called Project-Based Section 8 provides 83,000 affordable apartments for low-income tenants in the five boroughs. In these privately owned buildings, tenants pay 30 percent of their income and the rest of the rent is paid with a subsidy from HUD.

Under another program, "Mitchell-Lama" landlords receive low-interest loans and tax breaks in return for an agreement to charge a modest rent. Both programs allow landlords to opt out at the end of 20 years. By the end of this year, 33,000 Project-Based Section 8 contracts on apartments are due to expire, and more than 55,000 Mitchell-Lama apartments are at risk.

Project-Based Section 8 landlords can renew their contract through the "Mark Up to Market" program. To qualify, they must pass inspection, and their current contract must be below market rent for similar apartments in the area. If these landlords then agree to renew their contracts for at least five years, they can increase rent to the market rate.

At West Village Houses, a 420-unit Mitchell-Lama development, the owner has promised to triple current rents. "Currently, the South Bronx is one of the poorest districts in the United States," Joyce Culler, of the group Mothers on the Move in the South Bronx, told Socialist Worker. "A lot of residents will be dislocated, breaking up families, or rendered homeless further burdening New York Cityís shelter system."

As of April 2004, there were more than 39,000 homeless men, women and children sleeping each night in the New York City shelter system. Included in this number are 15,900 children and 13,200 adult family members.

Even if you have a Section 8 voucher, this doesnít guarantee you a place to live. Itís not uncommon for vouchers to go unused because a family simply canít find an apartment.

Tenants living in troubled buildings, those with multiple violations, are especially at risk. Once HUD identifies a property as troubled, they may take enforcement actions. One option is to encourage the owner to pre-pay and opt out of the program.

This is the worst-case scenario for tenants. It leaves the building in possession of the slumlord, without any federal oversight. Tenants in this situation face displacement since itís unlikely that their apartments will pass inspection.

Another option is foreclosure. Despite federal laws that encourage tenant protection, community input and local control, most of these buildings are being sold at auction to the highest bidder. Purchasers can acquire the properties regardless of the number of outstanding code violations they may have on other properties or their level of experience owning and managing multiple-family units.

Currently, 14 buildings are facing action and another 17,000 are at risk. Since HUD places no cap at these auctions, the final bids often are more than what the building could support financially as affordable housing.

"HUD has had 20 years to devise a plan to keep housing stock affordable in this city and throughout the nation," Culler said. "Instead, in many cases, they have allowed landlords to mismanage the properties, pre-pay mortgages, opt out of the programs or sell those properties to new owners who have chosen not to stay in any subsidized housing program. This is a war against affordable housing, which in itself is a crime against humanity."

A new bill called the Tenant Empowerment Act has been introduced in the New York City Council, which aims to protect tenants and give them the tools to protect their homes and keep them affordable. Itís important for tenants caught in this situation to form strong tenant associations, if they donít already exist, to strengthen their ability to fight for their rights to remain in their apartments and the program.

"The number one option of these tenants is to organize and join forces via tenant and block associations, and partnering with grassroots organizations," Culler said. "Workshops, public forums, meetings, demonstrations and dialogues with public officials can put pressure on these landlords and HUD/NYCHA to keep these apartments affordable."

Elizabeth Schulte
and Cindy Clumb are correspondents for Socialist Worker. This article first appeared on the SW website

Other Articles by Elizabeth Schulte

* What You Should Know About The John-John Team
* The B Team Gets Ready: Why Kerry and the Democrats Promote US Military Power
* John Kerry Tries to Out-Bush Bush
* Why Does Kerry Sound like Bush?
* Birth of a New Movement for Civil Rights
* The Many Faces of John Kerry: Pro-War, Anti-War, Insider, Outsider, Liberal, Conservative