(IPS) HUD Changes Demolition Rules after Abuses by AHA, Others

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This article first appeared on the Inter-Press Service at: http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=106648

ATLANTA, Georgia, Feb 3, 2012 (IPS) – Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced the publication of a new notice which significantly tightens its procedures for the processing of public housing demolition applications by local housing authorities.

The change – known as Notice PIH 2012-7 (HA) and which perhaps seems like policy minutae – in fact should drastically reduce the number of approved public housing demolitions each year in the U.S. and put the brakes on a number of currently pending or planned applications. 

Between 2000 and 2008, more than 99,000 public housing units were demolished or disposed of, and applications for the demolition or disposition of another 16,672 units were pending at the end of that period, according to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition

There are currently about 1.2 million public housing units in the U.S., which advocates describe as a critical part of the social safety net for low-income people. 

As previously reported by IPS, housing authorities across the country – with the Atlanta Housing Authority (AHA) taking the lead – have been taking advantage of a number of loopholes in HUD’s Demolition/Disposition procedures, and HUD had approved several public housing demolitions that were in fact unjustified and should never have occurred. 

For example, in Atlanta, HUD approved 12 demolition applications in 2008 and 2009, which eliminated all of Atlanta’s remaining large family public housing communities as well as two senior highrises. 

After IPS fought to obtain and review the demolition applications, it was clear that, at least in some cases, the AHA’s justifications for the demolitions – that the buildings were physically “obsolete” – were unfounded. 

Indeed, according to Praxis 3 architectural firm, hired by AHA to examine the properties, both Hollywood Courts and the Palmer House senior highrise could have been renovated to address the physical problems with the buildings for around 85,000 dollars each. 

Yet AHA argued it would be more expensive to repair the buildings than to tear them down and build something new – even though AHA had no plans to build anything new and the lots are still sitting vacant today. 

They did this by submitting a rehabilitation budget that included hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs for landscaping, swimming pools, recreation centres, remodeling, and other improvements that, while nice, were not necessary for the buildings to be adequate, safe, and functional. 

HUD’s new procedures will prevent such abuses from happening again. 

“If a PHA (public housing authority) proposes to demolish public housing or non-dwelling structures under 24 CFR section 970.15, HUD reviews the PHA’s certification and supporting documentation in accordance with the following to determine that rehabilitation of the public housing is cost prohibitive,” the Notice states. 

“Rehabilitation cost-estimate includes only work-items necessary to address the project’s immediate needs (up to three years)… Rehabilitation cost-estimate includes only work-items necessary to return the project to an average quality.” 

“Rehabilitation cost-estimate includes only necessary repair costs… and hard construction costs… (generally anything inside a dwelling and within five feet of the exterior walls, but not site improvements, parking lots, security cameras, playgrounds, community center),” it says. 

“We did it!” Diane Wright, former president of the citywide Resident Advisory Board and of the Hollywood Courts resident association, told IPS, calling HUD’s action a victory. 

In 2008 and 2009, Wright, Eleanor Rayton, president of Palmer House resident association, and this reporter sent numerous packages containing detailed correspondence and documentation regarding AHA’s demolition applications to HUD. This reporter also sent the information packages to Congressional offices, including Representatives Barney Frank and Maxine Waters.

Linda Couch, senior vice president for policy and research of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, called the Notice significant. 

“We don’t have data on the number of times housing authorities have cleverly gotten around the physical obsolescence tests and thresholds. We have over the years heard consistent problems from local advocates and residents wondering why what they consider to be decent housing gets approved for demolition and meets the physical obsolescence standard,” Couch said in an interview. 

“When we met with HUD – this was an effort of not only NLIHC, but the National Housing Law Project and other members of Housing Justice Network – we have found HUD to be really responsive to these concerns. The HUD secretary has said many times, every unit is important, every unit is critical,” she said. 

“This notice speaks to HUD’s intention of protecting the stock,” Couch said. 

There had been an effort among affordable housing advocates to convince Congress to discontinue the demolition/disposition programme, but such an action seems highly unlikely with Republicans currently in control of the U.S. House. HUD has discretion to issue this Notice without Congressional approval, though, and also is expected to initiate a process to change its own regulations, which implement the federal law, soon. 

There are some other important changes in the Notice. 

“One thing, it clearly says you cannot start relocating people until the application has been approved. The fact that has to be written anywhere is somewhat astounding,” Couch said. “For all those residents that get pushed out when the application is still in the pipeline, this offers protections.” 

“A lot of residents fear retribution (for speaking out). The Notice makes clear residents and others can comment directly to HUD on an application and don’t have to go through the housing authority at all to make those comments,” she said. 

“Here they (the housing authority) have to submit to HUD all the comments they received and the responses to those comments. This whole notion to sort of say, okay, okay, move on, move on; you have to consider in some thoughtful way the comments,” Couch said. 

“The housing crisis is so severe, we need it all. We can’t afford to lose any of these of these units,” she said. 

(END/2012)

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