Different roads: the future of Asheville’s public housing

by David Forbes January 5, 2015

There’s a major debate about the future of Asheville’s public housing. Here’s a regularly updated account of what’s happening and why it matters.

Above: a 1964 booklet from the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville touting “urban renewal” programs. The devastating impact of that program continues to cast a shadow over discussions of the future of public housing. From UNCAD. H. Ramsey Library Special Collections

There’s a major debate about the future of Asheville’s public housing going on right now. It’s something I’ve mostly chronicled in a series of articles for Carolina Public Press (which you should read and support) but it’s something Asheville Blade readers — and everyone interested in the future of our city — should be aware of.

This morning, CPP published an in-depth piece on concerns sparked by a rise in evictions from some of the city’s housing projects for “lease violations,” a broad category which could include everything from cleanliness to a community service requirement some critics said is arbitrary or unduly burdensome. This piece delves into the numbers, the concerns about the evictions and their context, taking place during a major overhaul to the city’s public housing.

Here’s how things got to this point.

After a meeting in late July, the governing board of the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville chose to move forward with final approval of a major overhaul in management and financing. For its advocates, including HACA’s staff, it’s a way to save public housing from a funding crunch. But skeptics, including many residents, say the process hasn’t been transparent and worry it’s an opening for possible privatization.

The approval came amid confusion about whether the board was voting on final approval of the changes or not, and a number of questions. The board’s chair told the about 30 people in attendance the move wasn’t the final vote, but after the meeting HACA staff said otherwise.

At the July meeting, HACA CEO Gene Bell asserted that he was open to talking to anyone about the issue, but hadn’t been approached. After the vote, Southside Advisory Board Chair Priscilla Ndiaye said that she’d spoken with many residents are concerned about the changes in public housing, but most of them feel intimidated about voicing their criticisms.

In a city with no shortage of affordability issues, the public housing owned and run by HACA houses 3,100 people in 1,500 units.

As the federal government has sharply cut housing funds, HACA’s faced mounting difficulties; in 2013 it had $1 million chopped from its budget and had to lay-off about 20 percent of its staff.

HACA’s not alone in being stuck between this particular rock and a hard place: low-income housing faces a severe crunch across the country and WNC. with other agencies reporting that they also have increasing problems providing shelter to those in need.

In addition, many of the buildings HACA runs are quite old, some dating back to the early ’50s, and funds for repairs and maintenance are also suffering from the tight budgets.

So HACA’s going forward with a new federal program, Rental Assistance Demonstration, to try to make up the lost funding and get back on stable ground. RAD allows HACA to shift its funding from Section 9, the federal government’s public housing funds, to Section 8 funding that the federal government has largely left untouched.

“We had to do some layoffs, we had to cut benefits and staff hours,” HACA Chief Operating Officer David Nash said, when interviewed for the CPP story, of the severity of last year’s cuts. “It was a major, unexpected impact. That was the blunt force that led us to this path.”

HACA staff say this will allow them to gain back the lost money and make needed improvements.

While RAD at first just might seem like a simple bureaucratic change, it’s going to affect the lives of thousands, and Section 8 does allow more leeway around resident protections and private partnerships than traditional funding sources. In other areas fears of potential privatization around RAD sparked major political battles. Here, HACA has assured residents that it will protect their rights. Right now, for example, HACA and the city of Asheville are going forward with a plan to redevelop its oldest project, Lee Walker Heights, something they promise will both make needed improvements and give existing residents a better place to live.

But the shadow of “urban renewal” programs that devastated many local African-American communities in the 60s and 70s looms large, as does that of programs like HOPE VI in the ’90s. HACA unsuccessfully pursued HOPE VI funds as late as 2008-09, the last time lease violation evictions were high, to redevelop several projects. In each case, residents reminded HACA staff, people were told that the result would be an improvement, only to face the loss of their homes and the break-up of their communities. Despite the reassurances, some residents aren’t so sure this time will be different.

“This feels a lot like urban renewal,” Olufemi Lewis, a Hillcrest resident and activist, said at one of the RAD information sessions in May.

When interviewed for the CPP story, Pisgah View Residents’ Association President Iindia Pearson noted that with property values in downtown and West Asheville rising sharply, public housing “is prime real estate.”

“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.

Skeptical residents, increasingly organized in a nascent alliance — the Public Housing Advocacy Coalition — asserted that the process wasn’t transparent and, together with an array of local nonprofits, made a series of short-term demands. They wanted final approval of RAD delayed pending new information sessions with a third-party facilitator and inclusion of resident representatives on the board overseeing the transition.

In addition to pushing for delays, they’re also looking at a tenants’ bill of rights and investigating the possibility of using RAD to shift the city’s public housing to cooperatives that might ensure residents can’t be displaced in the future.

Before a June 26 HACA board meeting, the coalition sent a letter with its immediate demands. At the meeting, residents asserted that some plans involving RAD weren’t adequately distributed. HACA officials, after some back and forth, acknowledged that residents had a point. While they moved RAD another step forward, some of the residents present said they felt that HACA staff were listening more than before.

The morning after the meeting, they went a step further. In a letter to the coalition HACA CEO Gene Bell and Nash, agreed to many of the residents’ demands. While they didn’t agree to delay RAD, they did promise to include resident representation, more information sessions and a third-party facilitator over the coming month. The coalition members hailed it as a victory.

But in the coming months, organizing the meetings proved challenges, as they involved juggling the competing schedules of residents, HACA staff, non-profit representatives and potential facilitators. In the end, the hoped-for information sessions didn’t emerge before the HACA board took its vote.

“Due to hectic timing and some circumstances beyond our control, the info sessions with a third party facilitator regarding RAD did not get scheduled before the board vote,” Just Economics’ Vicki Meath wrote in an mail to fellow coalition organizers on July 29. “Due to summer, crazy schedules and unforeseen circumstances, this didn’t come together as easy as we had hoped.”

But the coalition members also wrote that there was still considerable value in holding the sessions to better inform residents about the RAD changes, and that residents will take the lead in organizing these sessions.

As more developments happen, I’ll update this post to reflect that, and offer a handy primer on this important issue.

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