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Authority provides reassurances, but some residents question process, results
ASHEVILLE – “Together we will succeed” is painted on the walls of the Hillcrest Community Center. On the evening of May 25, David Nash stood in front of it, telling 30 people — most of them residents of the public housing project located near downtown Asheville — that better things were around the corner.
Nash is the chief operating officer for the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville, an agency backed by the federal government that owns and manages 1,500 units in 12 developments throughout the city. About 3,100 people live in public housing in Asheville.
Nash was at Hillcrest – the second of four such meetings he held in May – to discuss proposed changes at the agency that, if approved, could start an unprecedented overhaul in the way almost all of Asheville’s public housing is funded, what kind of projects it can pursue and who it can partner with.
Public housing around the region, and even the country, is hit hard by sharp budget cuts and an uncertain future. By taking advantage of a new federal program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development called Rental Assistance Demonstration, which allows public housing to shift its funding from its traditional sources to government voucher funds, Nash said Asheville’s housing authority would be on firmer financial ground.
Despite the sweeping nature of the change, he told the residents that they wouldn’t see much difference on the ground if the housing authority adopts it. If anything, he said, they would see improvements: overdue repairs made, an end to a community service requirement (there was audible relief when that was mentioned) and a housing authority better able to serve their needs.
“With this, we can plan for the future,” he said.
The authority is poised to adopt the plan in a vote on Wednesday, but residents and area nonprofits are concerned and plan to ask the agency’s governing board to delay implementation until leaders gather more input from residents and new information sessions are held with a third-party facilitator.
Concerns, fears arise
While it might seem like a simple bureaucratic change from one fund to another, adopting the project would pose a huge shift for a major part of Asheville’s housing supply, affecting the lives of thousands of its citizens in Western North Carolina’s largest public housing agency.
Today, Asheville’s is the only housing authority in WNC approved for the Rental Assistance Demonstration conversion. It is also one of the only ones in the country planning to convert all but one of of its housing developments to Section 8 housing by next year. (Lee Walker Heights is the exception, and the authority is considering redeveloping it.)
And that day at Hillcrest, not everyone was so sure that Nash was living up to the words on the walls he stood in front of.
The fear among skeptics of the shift – including a coalition of residents – is that the change will open up a way to privatize and gentrify housing for Asheville’s low-income population, many of whom are African American. Some resiodents asserted that the agency has not been transparent about the nature of the shift. And, they said, they want assurances their rights will be protected.
At the meeting, Hillcrest resident Bella Jackson cautioned him to keep in mind the “history of relations between power-holders and oppressed people is one of appeasement and betrayal. I hope this all goes down as nicely as you say.”
“You have my word that these protections will apply,” Nash said. “I’m not going to say everything’s going to go smooth and hunky-dory, because I’m sure there will be some bumps in the road, but these protections are part of the law.”
“This feels a lot like urban renewal,” Olufemi Lewis, a Hillcrest Apartments resident and activist, said at the meeting, referring to the 1970s programs that eventually displaced some African-American communities.
“The biggest concern we’ve heard so far is that we’re going to tear down the developments and sell them to private owners,” Nash replied. “We’re not going to do that.”
A new course in the face of budget cuts
Still, the Rental Assistance Demonstration project is a fairly new program, just implemented in 2012 to help deal with the problem of perpetual underfunding of the nation’s public housing authorities.
“We’re looking long term at shrinking federal funds, an aging housing stock and residents that are experiencing a whole variety of challenges,” Nash said. “The overall goal is long-term sustainability.”
Currently, Asheville’s public housing, like much throughout the country, is funded by a stream called Section 9, while Section 8 is generally used to supply vouchers so residents can find housing on the private market.
Section 9 is rarely fully funded by Congress, and it was hit even further by the sequester, leaving housing authorities throughout the country scrambling to make ends meet.
Asheville’s housing authority is no exception. The federal government chopped $1 million from its budget in 2013, leading to staff cuts and maintenance delays. Between layoffs and not filling the positions of employees who retired or left, the authorities’ staff shrank from 112 at the beginning of 2013 to 90 today — a loss of nearly 20 percent.
“We had to do some layoffs, we had to cut benefits and staff hours,” Nash said. “It was a major, unexpected impact. That was the blunt force that led us to this path.”
Section 8, on the other hand, is usually funded at a higher level and is far more stable. Nash said that for Asheville’s housing authority, which owns many aging properties in dire need of improvements and maintenance, shifting all of its units over to this new funding stream should bring back lost dollars and simplify paperwork.
Some of the properties date as far back as the 1940s and need repairs to plumbing and electrical systems among other issues.
“This will keep our properties affordable and in decent condition,” he told Carolina Public Press.
The program also allows the housing authority to build up a larger funding reserve to make major improvements and potentially to even borrow money on the projects, though he said they have no plans to use that latter ability.
Technically, under the Rental Assistance Demonstration project, Asheville’s housing authority will lease the projects to a nonprofit, Asheville Affordable Housing, that it controls to manage the properties. The housing authority will continue to own the property.
Residents, he said, will stay in their apartments largely under the same terms, with similar rents and the same residents’ councils. He noted that the Rental Assistance Demonstration proposal has been discussed in information sessions last Spring and at the authorities regular board meetings.
However, Rental Assistance Demonstration has led to upheavals and political battles in other areas, because Section 8 gives housing authorities some leeway over resident protections and private partnerships that they don’t have under more traditional funding methods.
“There was some concern among the residents that we might sell the properties, which was never our intent, or contract them out to a private, for-profit management company,” Nash said. “We’re trying to structure it in a way to address those concerns.”
But, he said, “if we wanted to contract out management of our properties, we could do it already.We don’t want to, and we don’t intend to. That doesn’t mean another leadership might not come in 10 years down the road and make a different decision.”
However, there will be some additional changes besides just simplified administration and more funds. Some public housing residents who pay less than $50 in rent each month will see costs rise gradually to that amount.
Also, due to differences in what Section 8 allows, an employment assistance program, Resident Opportunities for Self Sufficiency, attached to Section 9 funding will end. That program employs two staffers to help housing residents with training, finding and keeping jobs.
While Nash hopes to “strengthen connections” with local nonprofits, he admitted it’s unclear if the Rental Assistance Demonstration project will bring in new dollars for non-profits replace those services, though he says he hopes some of the increased funds from the project will make up for the program’s loss.
The shadow of urban renewal
One reason for the wariness, both housing authority officials and skeptical residents acknowledge, is that historically sweeping efforts to overhaul or improve public housing have often left residents holding the short end of the stick.
Lewis grew up in Charlotte and remembers the Hope VI program, an attempt to repair crumbling public housing several decades ago that resulted in many areas with communities losing units. The shadow of the “urban renewal” of the 1970s, which particularly harmed African-American communities throughout the city, also looms large.
At the Hillcrest meeting, some residents pointed out that during both those eras, community members were also told that things would improve, only to instead see communities scattered and displaced.
With property values going up in downtown and West Asheville, public housing “is prime real estate,” Iindia Pearson, president of the Pisgah View Residents Association, pointed out.
“If RAD goes through, it opens the door for private ownership, and to pushing a lot of people out. Because this is Asheville, that may happen,” Pearson said.
“If you go back to urban renewal, that’s what happened,” she told Carolina Public Press. “They were supposed to be making Asheville better, but you had hundreds of people that were displaced.”
Gentrifying pressures — such as a sharply rising cost of living and a growing influx of older, wealthier and white new residents — around the city and a rise in evictions from public housing over the past two years, Pearson added, deepens skepticism of the timing and motive of a big change like the Rental Assistance Demonstration project.
“We see all this happening around us, and it’s like we don’t even fit into the equation,” she said.
Pearson first found out about the project attending the information sessions, but “I felt like I didn’t get enough information; something just didn’t sit right.”
She also doesn’t believe the housing authority has been sufficiently transparent in informing the residents about a major change, and worries that the committee it established to oversee the Rental Assistance Demonstration project doesn’t have any resident representation.
Pearson’s also concerned that while housing authority staffers presented residents who showed up at the information with the handout, the actual change to housing rules caused by the proposal were far harder to find.
“Residents have not been well-informed,” she said. “That’s a problem. You can’t move forward with something if the people most directly impacted by the program don’t understand it and may not even want it.”
“David Nash works for the housing authority; there’s no way he can be neutral,” Pearson added. “Not everyone understands the language he was using. That’s a big problem. The residents have to understand what’s going on, because it’s going to affect us; it’s not going to affect him.”
Lewis sounded a similar note.
“With the history the housing authority’s had with their residents,” she said, “it would have been smarter for them to have a third party come in and translate this information. This should have been something the resident council should have been delivering.”
Asked about some of these concerns, Nash noted that information sessions were held with residents before the authority applied to the federal housing agency for the Rental Assistance Demonstration program in 2013.
He also points to the Rental Assistance Demonstration’s requirement, unlike Hope VI, that — if residents are displaced because of renovations or the replacement of old units – the housing authority must find them housing and allow them to return once the changes are over.
“Under RAD, we’re required to replace every unit we tear down, even if they’re not in the same place,” he said. “Hope VI didn’t require one-to-one replacement. RAD does. RAD provides an absolute right for tenants in the development at the time to move back into new units. That prevents the displacement.”
On May 30, public housing residents and representatives of local non-profits packed around the kitchen table of 17A, a Hillcrest unit converted into a support center for residents. They’re part of a nascent group — the Public Housing Advocacy Coalition — that’s met for several months in an effort to organize residents and push to get their concerns dealt with.
There, Pearson talks about how she and fellow Pisgah View residents are going through the Rental Assistance Demonstration’s new rules line by line to better understand them. Other residents talk about their ongoing research on setting up a housing cooperative. They broach the idea of putting together their own list of major points about the proposal.
“We can’t just listen to what they’re saying,” Pearson said. “We need to read the documents for ourselves.”
Particularly, many around the table were worried about the potential for private investors getting increasingly involved in public housing over the long term.
Despite their desire to slow the process down and their belief that it needs more transparency, the residents involved also see a potential opportunity in the Rental Assistance Demonstration project. Around the kitchen table, they talk about ways to push toward allowing resident-owned co-operative housing under a land trust, and about the possibility of a tenants’ bill of rights.
Nicole Hinebaugh, director of the Women’s Wellbeing and Development Foundation, which is helping to organize the coalition, said that while some initial concerns about the project — fears of credit checks for residents, for example – have been allayed, there remain questions about where it will shift public housing over the longer term, including the end of some of the tenant services program without clear funds designated to replace them.
“Some of those concerns were put to rest, at least temporarily,” she said. “But in three to five years, we don’t have a really clear idea of what the future of public housing is going to look like.”
A different path
The coalition’s approach is two-fold: push for more transparency and a delay of the Rental Assistance Demonstration project to take resident’s concerns into account while looking at ways to turn the program into what they see as a more positive end: a co-op ownership structure to give residents more power over their communities and a tenants’ bill of rights to assure that those rights will continue.
On the first front, residents and nonprofits like the development foundation, Just Economics and Children First/Communities in Schools plan to present a joint letter to the meeting of housing authority’s governing board on Wednesday, June 25, asking them to delay the program and address a number of the residents’ concerns.
Residents in some cities, notably Charlottesvilla, Va., have secured such a bill and stopped implementation of RAD in their area, worried that it could undermine those protections. Hinebaugh said she believes “it could help restore a lot of trust going forward.”
At the Hillcrest meeting, Nash said he was open to the possibility of a tenants’ bill of rights.
“Let’s see what the residents want,” Pearson said. “This program may not be a bad thing; I’m sure there are some pretty good things that can come out of it.
“But there’s a way to do things, and this isn’t it.”
Instead, she said she supported turning one of the developments into a co-op.
“Asheville is different, let’s try to do something different,” she said. “If this fails, everybody fails.”
The foundation is helping to research the possibility, Hinebaugh said.
“What if some of these communities were to fall back into the hands of the people who live there?” she said. “It’s important for us to start introducing new ways of thinking about these communities — in terms of how do we best benefit the people living there as opposed to how do we move everyone out.”