On the afternoon of Thursday, May 26, Samira–a pseudonym for this article for the resident’s protection–prepares the agenda for a residential meeting with neighbor, friend and fellow Defend Glendale advocate Ladan Yusuf. Sitting on Yusuf’s couch overlooking student housing development projects out of living room window, Samira recalls strategies to preserve the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority’s Glendale Townhomes and the history of what she calls her home.
A Somali refugee from Pakistan, Samira first stepped foot into Glendale Townhomes two years ago. Located in Prospect Park, Glendale is a culturally and economically diverse community of Hmong, Lao, Somali, Oromo, African American and White American seniors and families. Samira had spent the last five years at a different Minneapolis public housing complex (which she preferred not to name for this article), but when she became pregnant with her second child she had requested her family be moved to a bigger unit. Instead of transferring her, MPHA hit Samira with fees more than double her monthly rent.
“I was paying between $480 a month to $530 a month. Never late. No changes to my income. But then I was told to pay $2,000 for no reason,” Samira said. After months of failed exchanges with MPHA, Samira received a letter charging her $2,000 to pay up front or face eviction. “They [MPHA] never told me why I had to pay. I ask them why and they never answered.” For fear of being put out of her home, Samira subsided and paid $2,000 before the deadline.
Months later after her payment, Samira received another letter from MPHA stating her payment was a “mistake.” Confused, she wanted her money back and urged MPHA to have her $2,000 returned to her, but she faced a deadlock. MPHA never gave her reasons for the charge nor an apology of their actions, and never gave Samira her money back. Samira did not want to have any more problems with MPHA, like asking for simple repair issues, for fear of retaliation.
Things seemed to be looking up after her family’s transfer to Glendale. The day Samira and her family moved in, Samira had the keys to her townhome, but then she heard chants coming from her new neighbors down the street. A group of residents–both adults and children– were chanting “we won’t leave our homes” outside the Luxton Park Recreational Center. At the time, Samira had no idea she was witnessing the birth of the housing advocacy tenant group Defend Glendale. Alarmed, she stepped towards a Somali woman and asked her what was happening.
In typical East Coast wit and urgency, the woman responded, “We are being put out on the streets.”
The woman Samira met was Ladan Yusuf. A single Somali working mother of one with a master’s in public administration from New York University, Yusuf informed her of MPHA’s plans to convert her new home to a privatized model of housing. The plan Yusuf and Samira were just beginning to learn about was the Rental Assistance Demonstration.
Samira had gone from one MPHA residence to another, followed by new problems and fears of eviction at each, with little communication from MPHA in the whole process. What’s happening at Glendale and in Minneapolis thanks to Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) has happened across the country. Housing advocates nationwide agree: RAD brings more problems than solutions to public housing residents.
What is RAD and how it will impact the future of affordable housing
Each year since the early 2000s, several million dollars of federal subsidies have been sequestered from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and instead allocated to other government departments, agencies and programs, most notably defense and law enforcement. As a result, HUD estimates there is more than $26 billion backlog capital needs (maintenance and renovation) for 1.3 million public housing units nationwide. As tenants exercise their agency to address repair issues, and public housing authorities struggle to find ways to fund these issues, the Capitol began to look for other ways to financially cover these needs.
In 2012, HUD Secretary Julian Castro implemented a pilot program, the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) as a response to growing capital needs. Public housing authorities (PHA) see RAD as a saving grace from increasing debt as it allows them to privatize public housing areas and incentivize continued housing assistance through tax credits. The infusion of private capital is promised to financially sustain affordable housing by addressing repairs and renovating properties.
HUD promises that RAD will maintain the number of affordable housing units for residents and encourages this pilot program to be enacted throughout the country as an innovative and “cost- efficient” solution. Since its implementation, 58 percent of PHAs nationwide have already applied for RAD, including the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority. In 2015, Congress lifted the initial cap of 60,000 public housing units to 185,000 units that can participate in the pilot program.
RAD has and hasn’t worked nationwide
Despite RAD’s popularity with PHAs, tenants voice their concerns about their legal rights and worry about their displacement. Last year, the National Housing Law Project (NHLP), an ally of tenants rights, drafted a memorandum to HUD highlighting a litany of tenant concerns. The preservation of existing tenant legal rights, such as grievance procedures and pet policies, are not articulated clearly in the pilot program.
HUD’s original statement was that, “tenants shall at a minimum, maintain the same rights.” However, NHLP argued that the continued observance of tenants rights could possibly be weakened as, “RAD requirements are not in a permanent authorizing statute.”
HUD has since strongly advised each jurisdiction to proactively engage tenants in every stage of the decision-making process. For example, the San Francisco PHA works with tenant associations on relocation plans, continued to enforce tenant legal rights to organize and removed rescreening requirements. In return, San Francisco has been able to move forward with privatizing 100 percent of public housing.
Jessica Cassela, San Francisco housing attorney with NHLP, noted that it is crucial that tenants get involved in the process and the public housing authorities operates with respect, transparency and communication to protect tenants.
“This is a call for action during these conversions of the privatization of public housing” among everyone involved, she said.
But, in other cities, there is growing disagreement and speculation about RAD and concerns about the permanent loss of public housing altogether.
Demetrius Bonner, born in Chicago and raised in public housing, is co-founder of the Chicago Housing Initiative. Bonner said he sees no difference between RAD and HOPE VI, a program implemented in 1993 with the aim to rebuild existing public housing for families in need.
“The HOPE VI program was the intentional disinvestment of Chicago’s communities of color,” Bonner said.
In the 1950s, his grandfather was the first black man to help develop Chicago public housing. Recalling his childhood, Demetrius emphasized Chicago at the time was a “Black Metropolis” where many African Americans, like his grandfather, established businesses. Growing up in Chicago, Demetrius witnessed the degradation of the community that his grandfather helped build through the late 1980s and 1990s. The degradation accelerated due to the notorious HOPE VI program. But the program, despite its intentions, is now known for the “eradication of public housing,” Bonner said.
Bonner witnessed loved ones displaced to the outskirts of Chicago during rehabilitation and renovation of public housing. Many were promised they could come back after the construction. Residents moved up to 25 miles from their original home knowing accommodations were only temporary. But these accommodations were made permanent as residents could no longer afford their original homes. The median income for African American families was $13,243 compared to the median income of $35,265 dollars for white families in the early 1990s.
“What happened instead was that tenants did not come back because it was too expensive for them,” recalled Bonner.
In other parts of Chicago, specifically the Southside, the impact of HOPE VI and related programs promoted the privatization of residential buildings was enormous. An average of 2,000 to 7,000 units were lost.
Shared experiences like Bonner’s have made Chicago tenants distrustful of their PHA. Bonner said Chicagoans believe RAD would only worsen the city’s housing inequities. Even worse, Chicago’s PHA is perceived to not have been genuinely engaging with the tenants throughout the RAD conversion process.
“They are moving forward with a 100 percent conversion of public housing without us. It is not the lack of knowledge, it is the lack of engagement,” Demetrius said.
Chicago’s PHA received national attention in 2014 over the Moving To Work scandal in which funds were found to be repurposed to lower Illinois’ debt instead of appropriating towards affordable housing. The distrust is still fresh.
Good PHAs are essential to building communities, Bonner said. With Chicago’s HOPE VI history and recent scandals, a lot needs to be done to build trust and accountability with tenants. Bonner noted that, “this is an entrapment.” Bonner believes RAD is another policy that intentionally disinvests in communities of color.
“RAD is destroying the texture of public housing and the foundation of my community. RAD is no different from HOPE VI. You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig,” Bonner said.
Many question the promise of financial sustainability of RAD. Michael Kane, executive director of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT) remains “skeptical” of Congress and HUD’s promise of long term affordability for tenants.
Kane’s history in housing justice as an activist started in the early 1970s when he helped galvanize residents in the South End of Boston–one of the first cities in the nation where the term gentrification was first applied. Kane witnessed the “indirect” displacement of residents of color–primarily African American–when the Urban Renewal program was enacted in the 1970s, a program that leveraged private investors to build new housing in the South End.
Kane has been on the front lines lobbying beside organizers, activists and attorneys against RAD since the original proposal was conceived in Congress in 2010 by former HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan.
Kane worries the RAD program is Congress’s short-sighted solution to the chronic and “deliberate” disinvestment of government housing.
Kane noted, “private capital has a fundamental different interest than saving public housing long term.”
There are currently no long-term solutions put in place by Congress and HUD for the preservation of public housing.
Bringing it back home
In Minneapolis, RAD has come into play for Samira’s home at Glendale Townhomes, as well as another public housing complex: Heritage Park. MPHA applied for the pilot program for conversion of Heritage Park to project-based Section 8, another form of affordable housing in which HUD makes an agreement with the private sector to own and manage affordable housing in exchange for tax credits. HUD approved that application for the conversion in 2015 and MPHA requested that Glendale Townhomes would be included as part of the portfolio. MPHA also received approval for Glendale’s RAD application.
However, in July 2015 MPHA decided to pause and review Glendale’s redevelopment plans through RAD after “challenges with residents,” said Bob Boyd, MPHA director of policy and special Initiatives.
Those “challenges” being protests, petitions and demands from residents for better communication, an end to retaliatory practices, and only rehabilitation–not displacement–for their homes.
Currently, MPHA is working with financial consultants Sherman & Associates “to identify concepts and development strategies but we don’t know what options would work,” Boyd said.” Discussions around plans have not been inclusive as not one meeting has been scheduled to date between MPHA and Glendale residents to discuss the plans and the impact they would have on residents, Yusuf said.
While discussions around RAD for Glendale have stopped publicly for the time being, the use of the program–and all the problems that come with it–are not entirely off the table.
Now, Heritage Park is the only RAD project underway in Minneapolis.
“Congress approved over 180,000 units [for RAD conversion]. All of those have been applied for in addition to many others,” stated Boyd. “HUD has more than 180,000 requests in their application pool.”
In the most recent legislative session, HUD requested to forego caps all together as a response to the growing demand but Congress denied.
“HUD required a fiscal needs assessment from us that is $15 million of capital needs identified…we will work to preserve public housing or look into alternatives,” stated Boyd.
At Glendale, residents are hopeful as they build, strategize and organize together alongside allies. Their demands are clear and simple–preserve public housing, demand simple rehabilitation without relocation (a non-negotiable stipulation), and center honest conversations about gentrification in Minneapolis.
“No, no. We are not leaving. We have the right to stay,”Samira said.
To read more coverage from the Twin Cities Daily Planet about the Defend Glendale movement and and the behind-the-scenes bureaucracy of MPHA check it out here.
[Editor’s Note: Bob Boyd’s name has been corrected from a previous version of this article.]