An oped by:
Shamus Roller is the executive director of the National Housing Law Project. He is formerly the executive director of Housing California.
Jessica Cassella is a staff attorney at the National Housing Law Project’s Washington, D.C., office.
After a public housing property in Hopewell, Virginia, was privatized through the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, some families were threatened with eviction and calls to Child Protective Services when their children took out the trash or were left home alone. Others were deprived of reasonable accommodations, including one resident who was denied a first-floor unit despite her heart condition. She later died of a heart attack. Some residents were improperly relocated several times to units that did not accommodate their household size, including one tenant who lost custody of her child in part because the relocations signaled instability to a judge.
While these violations are extreme, they signal a larger challenge with the implementation and oversight of HUD’s RAD program, a tool that facilitates the privatization of public housing to preserve and repair aging infrastructure. As with privatization of any public asset, there will always be promises and perils on the path. To deliver on its promise, the program requires more oversight from HUD, and local advocates must be involved in RAD conversions to support low-income residents.
The main challenge with the RAD program is that the articulated tenant rights are not always implemented or enforced. Many communities will see most or all of their public housing converted through RAD, likely with many different private property owners, so the lack of oversight and inconsistency of the program can have major impacts on residents.
Residents will need to adjust to a new property owner, perhaps a different method of paying rent, new leases and house rules, and possibly temporary relocation on- or off-site that disrupts daily routines. Elderly and disabled residents will need additional assistance to adjust to these changes and ensure that their needs are met. Residents who have emergencies during or after the RAD conversion must be accommodated in a time-sensitive and safe manner. Applicants on current public housing waiting lists will need to learn how the RAD conversion will affect their applicant status. And the local government and housing authority must determine what their role will be in monitoring and overseeing the RAD-converted properties in their community to ensure that residents are protected and that the property remains habitable and affordable for the long term.
Across the country, our network of legal services attorneys and other resident advocates have seen many violations of these important rights. The Hopewell, Virginia, example noted above was one of the most egregious. Because of this, resident advocates filed complaints for a wide range of violations of RAD rights and federal law, including failure to provide reasonable accommodations for residents with disabilities, discrimination against families with children, failure to allow residents their right to return to the RAD-converted property, and inappropriate and unsafe temporary housing relocation. Their complaint sparked a HUD investigation that resulted in a settlement agreement with $225,000 in monetary compensation for the five named complainants and an additional $112,300 for the other 25 affected residents, fully funded after-school and summer programs for children at the property, changes to existing policies, and significant monitoring of the new owner and housing authority.
A recent complaint from resident advocates in Baltimore, Maryland, alleges that RAD residents have been routinely evicted without access to a grievance procedure and without proper notification. That HUD investigation is ongoing. Additionally, a HUD Office of Inspector General report found that residents in Spokane, Washington, were told that they were going to be kicked out of a RAD-converted property because they didn’t meet the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit income limits, even though this clearly violates RAD program rules. We have also seen examples of owners who have tried to block residents from organizing or have improperly tried to increase rents after a RAD conversion. The National Housing Law Project (NHLP) sent a letter to HUD Secretary Ben Carson in October 2017 outlining additional concerns with the implementation and lack of proactive HUD oversight of RAD conversions nationwide.
On March 22, 2018, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a 72-page report evaluating the program. The report, Rental Assistance Demonstration: HUD Needs to Take Action to Improve Metrics and Ongoing Oversight, mirrors many of our concerns and experiences with HUD’s implementation and oversight that we expressed to Secretary Carson last year. GAO’s report includes findings of inadequate HUD oversight of tenant protections, serious questions about the long-term preservation of RAD properties, and inflated reports of private funding leveraged through RAD. The report describes HUD’s inability to comprehensively monitor RAD residents’ rights and HUD’s reliance on resident logs kept by housing authorities and private owners. As the report states, “Without a comprehensive review of household information—one based on information in HUD data systems as well as resident logs—HUD cannot reasonably assess the effects of ongoing and completed RAD conversions on residents and compliance with resident safeguards.” The report also finds that approximately one-third of RAD conversions nationwide do not involve any repairs at the time of the RAD conversion, despite the $49 billion backlog of public housing repair needs nationwide. While we support the broad goals of the RAD program to preserve and repair public housing, we are extremely concerned about HUD’s capacity to monitor and adequately enforce residents’ rights as Congress continues to rapidly expand the RAD program. Local enforcement and education of these rights is especially critical.