“Nightline” Exposé on Public Housing Tells Incomplete Story

January 28, 2011 at 5:27 pm

Wednesday’s ABC “Nightline” story on misspent funds and poor living conditions in public housing run by three local agencies didn’t adequately explain the causes of these problems  — or proposals that could help address them.

The abuses in Philadelphia, the main focus of the report, highlight a major blind spot in federal oversight of housing assistance:  an experimental program known as Moving to Work (MTW).  This misnamed program, which actually does little to support employment, exempts Philadelphia and 32 other agencies from many federal rules meant to ensure that taxpayer funds are spent as intended, making effective oversight by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) more difficult.

Some MTW agencies have used this flexibility responsibly.  But as the Center warned a year ago, overall these agencies provide housing assistance to many fewer families per dollar of federal funding than other agencies do.  That leaves tens of thousands of families on waiting lists, even though the money is available to assist them.

HUD needs additional tools to rectify bad housing conditions more expeditiously in MTW and non-MTW agencies alike.  The Transforming Rental Assistance proposal, which the President proposed in his 2011 budget and was introduced in the last Congress, would give it some of those tools, such as the ability to compel an agency to hire new management for a property and to allocate available capital funds to meet emergency needs.

Transforming Rental Assistance would also use market mechanisms to help ensure that publicly owned housing provides decent homes to the vulnerable families and individuals it serves:

  • It would allow housing agencies to borrow private funds to perform needed renovations.  Not only would this help agencies make up for years of federal underfunding, but private-sector lenders would provide another source of oversight to help prevent mismanagement.
  • It would give more choices to public housing tenants.  Under current rules, public housing residents lose their housing assistance if they move; in contrast, low-income people who have federal housing vouchers to rent housing in the private market can use their voucher to move to a new apartment.  Transforming Rental Assistance would allow people who have been in public housing for two years to move to a private apartment without losing housing assistance if a voucher is available.

Public housing performs a critical role, providing affordable homes to 2.3 million low-income Americans, large numbers of whom are elderly or have a disability.  HUD and Congress need to make sure it does so both effectively and efficiently, by making the necessary policy changes as well as providing additional oversight.

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More About Barbara Sard

Barbara Sard

Sard rejoined the Center as Vice President for Housing Policy in 2011 after 18 months as Senior Advisor on Rental Assistance to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan.

Full bio | Blog Archive | Research archive at CBPP.org

6 Comments Add Yours ↓

Comments are listed in reverse chronological order.

  1. 1

    The title of this blog may have led readers to believe they were going to read a refutation of Nightline’s sensationalistic and damaging story about public housing. Instead readers were subjected to yet another shot at the Moving to Work (MTW) program. These comments reflect CBPP’s tepid support for the nation’s Public Housing program.

    Instead of rising to the program’s defense, CBPP used this opportunity to once again attack MTW, which according to a recent HUD report (www.hud.gov/offices/pih/programs/ph/mtw/), is one of the few HUD programs that is increasing the number of families housed while simultaneously leveraging billions of capital dollars needed for the preservation of public housing.

    Implying that MTW is somehow to blame for events at the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) is outrageous. Individuals may act inappropriately or make poor business choices in either a regulated or deregulated environment. The implication that MTW fosters malfeasance is not based in fact and is simply not true.

    Further by attacking MTW, the CBPP continues to ignore a fundamental operational benefit of the program. In the face of possibly very deep funding cuts, MTW agencies have much greater flexibility and greater choice about how to preserve the programs we administer on behalf of the families we serve.

    With discretionary spending on the chopping block, wouldn’t your time be better spent defending public housing rather than “completing” the “story” by demeaning MTW?

    • CBPP #

      We have often pointed out the value of public housing and the importance of providing the funding and tools to preserve most projects — here, here, here, and here, for example.

      But it would be a mistake to discuss the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s problems and ignore the agency’s flexibility under Moving to Work to shift funds with little accountability. Housing agencies not in MTW must use voucher funds to help families rent modest housing. If those agencies shifted millions of dollars to vague service contracts or costly development efforts, it would be clear that something was amiss.

      But when Philadelphia moved funds in this way for years, it seemed simply to be using the flexibility that MTW permits it. We won’t know the details of Philadelphia’s funding shifts until the ongoing audits are done. MTW, though, clearly made it easier for the agency to shift large amounts of voucher funds and escape accountability for how those funds were used..

      The tight budget context makes the use of funds under MTW more — not less — important, since it will be all the more crucial to use funds to help as many people as possible. Data show that MTW has caused far fewer families to be assisted per dollar of funding, mainly because voucher funds were shifted to other uses. (It’s true that a HUD report claimed that MTW raised the number of families assisted, but that report looked at how many families HUD had authorized agencies to assist — not how many they actually helped.)

  2. Nancy Latham #

    I saw you just sent the corrected link – many thanks!!

  3. Victor Bach #

    I’m glad to see the blog, since public housing has long needed the equivalent of an anti-defamation league. Try the Center for Public Integrity piece ‘Public Housing, Private Frustration’ condemning wasted money on belly dancers, sex offenders, and the dead. Even some of the best reporters find public housing all-too-easy a target.

  4. Nancy Latham #

    Hello – thanks for this post – in the email containing a link to this blog there was also a link to “additional analysis of Moving to Work demonstration,” but when I clicked on it, it just took me to the same blog post. Maybe you can re-send a corrected link? Or put the link directly in this post? THANK YOU!

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