Public housing

With federal funds in hand, social housing is also high on Mayor Wu’s agenda

Such is the challenge facing the fledgling Wu administration as it explores ways to address one of the nation’s deepest affordable housing crises. She is armed with millions of dollars in one-time federal funds, thanks to Congressional COVID relief legislation, and has pledged to funnel the money into comprehensive solutions, including support for home ownership programs and housing construction.

But the much more difficult question is how to preserve and maintain the existing and dated public housing system, which experts say is a crucial part of any solution to Boston’s dilemma.

Competing needs raise questions about how much the city can and should invest in an aging public housing system amid a sharp decline in federal support, but which has served as a rare anchor for low-income residents to stay in Boston as accommodation. prices are skyrocketing.

“It’s the only thing guaranteed to be affordable,” said Alonso Espinosa of the United Front Against Displacement, a national group that organizes social housing tenants in Boston.

Municipal and federal governments should invest in and expand these government-run complexes, he said, arguing that they provide a sense of community that private units do not provide.

“The government could invest money in this, but they choose not to,” he said. “It’s a deliberate thing.”

The Boston Housing Authority operates about 10,000 public housing units in complexes such as Mildred Hailey, a number that does not include approximately 16,500 subsidized rental vouchers for living in private housing. Twice as many people are on the waiting list for vouchers or a place in an HLM.

Most families living in public housing earn less than $15,000 a year and pay an average of $392 a month in rent, according to figures from the Boston Housing Authority. The fair market rent for a three-bedroom apartment in Jamaica Plain, on the other hand, is $3,375 per month, according to calculations by the Housing Authority.

Media and others were on hand for Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s announcement about affordable housing outside the Mildred C. Hailey Apartments in Jamaica Plain in January.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

In January, Wu committed $50 million in city and federal funds to repair the Mildred Hailey Complex, Boston’s largest financial commitment to preservation. public housing stock in recent years. By all accounts, that’s barely enough to meet the needs of Mildred Hailey and the entire system.

Try $1 billion in total, according to some housing advocates.

“Boston needs to look at a long-term strategy,” said Councilman Kenzie Bok, a former senior policy and planning adviser for the Boston Housing Authority, who suggested the $1 billion figure as a capital investment on a decade in public housing. .

“That sounds like a lot of money, and it’s — but it’s not unfathomable,” she said. “It’s definitely worth it, as an investment in public infrastructure.”

Wu has previously said she will direct “the bulk” of the remaining federal COVID funds the city plans to support homeownership programs and build housing. The city recently said about $300 million in federal funds remained undesignated.

But what remains unclear is how much financial support the city will spend on social housing programs. The Housing Authority calculates – using figures from the federal housing and urban development agency – that running and maintenance costs over the past 25 years have been underfunded by more than $99 million. The negligence and backlog of repairs resulted in the need for $1.5 billion in capital expenditures.

Wu administration officials would not say whether increased support for public housing would be part of the city’s new housing program, noting only that they acknowledge the lack of stable federal funding.

“There should be this investment every year in housing,” said Sheila Dillon, the city’s chief housing and development officer. “It’s just a significant problem in most major cities.”

Kate Bennett, head of the Boston Housing Authority, which operates independently of the city, said her office is committed to preserving public housing as funding allows, acknowledging the role such housing plays in enabling Boston’s most vulnerable — its seniors, families, and people with disabilities — to stay in the city. Wu’s $50 million pledge to Mildred Hailey will fund plumbing, window and kitchen repairs to more than 500 units.

“We need to find a way to invest in these buildings to serve another generation,” she said.

But Bennett said the authority has turned to other federal programs, including voucher programs, to help subsidize rents in private housing., saying that these platforms often provide more funding to individuals and with greater protections.

Even if the authority built more social housing, she said, it would need funding to preserve and maintain that housing.

Bennett proposed expanding voucher schemes, while preserving and maintaining the public housing the authority already operates, calling them the only anchors low-income families can use in a competitive market. Due to declining federal funding, she estimates the authority will eventually be financially able to maintain ownership of about 6,500 homes, while supporting other families with voucher programs.

“Public housing in Boston is part of every neighborhood’s history, part of every neighborhood’s fabric, and it’s critical to every neighborhood’s future,” she said. The units “will always be part of the profile of the Boston Housing Authority.”

Affordable housing advocates say the loss of social housing is a national crisis; more than 10,000 public housing units are lost across the country every year, due to obsolescence and disrepair. Housing systems need $70 billion to repair existing structures, according to HUD estimates. While low-income families can still access vouchers, advocates say, these programs often lack the sense of community and support services that housing complexes can provide.

“The biggest benefit is that it provides stable housing for those who need it most,” said Diane Yentel of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “Unfortunately, the feds left him in the situation he is in now.”

Yentel and other advocates said cities like Boston are increasingly being required to commit their own resources and are at a pivotal time to make meaningful investments.

John Wheeler raised two daughters in his home at the Mildred C. Hailey Apartments. “Lately,” he said, “it hasn’t felt like home.”Matthew J Lee/Globe Staff

“Nobody houses vulnerable populations like public housing does,” said Sunia Zaterman, of the Council of Major Public Housing Authorities, a coalition that studies and advocates affordable housing policies.

“There is no room in the [private] market for them, especially in a place like Boston,” she said.

Tia Wheeler, 36, who lives with her sister and father in Mildred Hailey, said she saw a sense of community grow in the complex, with residents quick to support her father as he struggled to raise two daughters as a single parent.

“At times we struggled, but we struggled where people in the community were looking in our direction,” she said.

Now, she says, the apartments are in disrepair and no one seems to take responsibility.

“People are more distant, keep to themselves,” she said. “There are a lot of hesitations.

She remains hopeful that there will be a new commitment to Mildred Hailey and other housing complexes. But she said: “We’ve heard a lot of promises from a lot of different mayors. There are many people who believe that all these promises are not for them, [that] they will be driven out to bring in people from outside.

Milton J. Valencia can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia and on Instagram @miltonvalencia617.