Posted by: Sheila Crowley, President, National Low Income Housing Coalition

The conservatives who have been trying to get rid of public housing for years must be having a good laugh about the attacks from the left about the HUD proposal to reform rental housing assistance and preserve public housing. HUD says its proposal called PETRA (Preservation, Enhancement, and Transformation of Rental Assistance) will provide some public housing agencies with new resources to improve and protect the existing public housing stock. Critics accuse the Obama Administration of trying to privatize public housing. Low income housing and homeless advocates are taking sides.

HUD’s proposal has now been stopped in its tracks and there is no viable alternative to it in the offing. But while we are arguing over the potential loss of public housing someday in the future if one part of PETRA were to become law, public housing agencies are already demolishing and selling off public housing under current law.

Public housing, a critical element of the safety net, has been neglected for decades. Unlike other publicly owned institutions like libraries and schools, access to public housing is means-tested, i.e., eligibility is limited to low income people. It is also funded directly by Congress, not by local governments.

Because public housing lacks a constituency with any influence, it has been easy for Democrats and Republicans alike to come up with just enough money to keep public housing open, but not enough for it to be sustained. Public policy has allowed the slow starvation of public housing. Over 12% of public housing units have been lost in the last 15 years. Units sit vacant for lack of funds to repair them. Plumbing, electrical, and heating systems are antiquated. Many public housing units cannot pass basic building codes.

Let me be clear. PETRA as presented by HUD is at best a work in progress with many reasons for concern by low income housing tenants and advocates. But make no mistake. Shaun Donovan is the first HUD Secretary in recent memory who has made the preservation of public housing a priority and who has given serious thought about how to do that. The current and future residents of public and assisted housing will be better served by this HUD Secretary working on their behalf than by those who defend the status quo.

People interested in the future of public housing can learn more at The National Low Income Housing Coalition submitted comments to the House Committee on Financial Services for the record for the May 25 hearing on PETRA. NLIHC’s weekly newsletter, Memo to Members, has covered PETRA (formerly TRA) and will continue to do so. The chapter in our 2010 Advocates’ Guide to Housing and Community Development Policy on public housing provides background information.