Ocasio-Cortez Gets Traction to Lift 20-Year Public Housing Cap

Federal spending for new public housing units would be allowed for the first time in more than 20 years under House Democrats’ infrastructure legislation.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) attached an amendment to repeal the “Faircloth amendment” — which bars construction of new public housing — to H.R. 2, the $1.5 trillion infrastructure package the House passed on July 1.

House Democrats are also advancing a fiscal 2021 spending measure that would provide $49 billion in emergency funds for housing infrastructure. The House Appropriations Transportation-HUD Subcommittee advanced the bill by voice vote on Wednesday. Republicans on the committee indicated, however, that they don’t support the bill’s emergency funding, which also includes $26 billion for transportation infrastructure.

Renewed interest in housing comes as Americans struggle to cover their rent or mortgage payment amid millions of job losses stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.

Governments prohibited evictions temporarily at the start of the pandemic. Since then, many state and local moratoriums have expired, or will soon. A ban on evictions from buildings backed by federal mortgage programs, enacted as part of the CARES Act (Public Law 116-136), expires after July 24.

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) speaks as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) listens during a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019.

Housing Crisis

Repeal of the Faircloth amendment would allow housing authorities to build more public housing beyond the cap sent in 1999. Lifting the ceiling is “key to tackling our housing crisis,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted.

Faircloth repeal has been included in other housing legislation from progressive lawmakers, including the Green New Deal for Public Housing legislation (H.R. 5185; S. 2876) from Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and the Homes for All Act (H.R. 5244) from Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). The latter measure would also fund 12 million units of new public housing and private affordable dwellings.

Housing advocates called the repeal, as well as the emergency funding in the House Transportation-HUD measure, necessary.

Adrianne Todman, CEO of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, said the Transportation-HUD bill is the first she’s seen that “talks about real numbers” with public housing. The pandemic has made affordable housing more of a priority as unemployment numbers grow and tenants can’t pay rent, she said.

“It’s not enough, but it’s more than what folks were talking about a year ago,” Todman said. “The housing affordability issue is no longer just a low-income issue. It’s also an issue of the middle class.”

The policy change would need to be worked out with the Republican-led Senate. A spokesperson for the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs had no immediate response to an emailed request for comment.

Construction Ban

The Faircloth amendment was part of the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998, a Clinton-era response to growing public dissatisfaction with public housing. The provision curbed any increase in such units above 1999 levels.

Since then, the public housing supply has steadily decreased. In 1996, the U.S. had more than 1.3 million units, and in 2019 there were 987,000, according to the Housing and Urban Development Department.

“Faircloth wasn’t even the most prominent element of this legislation, but it did signify the United States was getting out of the business of building new public housing, and it was now in the business of tearing it down,” said Alex Schwartz, an urban policy professor at the New School.

In the 1990s people saw public housing as a failed program that brought drugs and violence to neighborhoods, Sue Popkin, director of the Urban Institute’s Housing Opportunities and Services Together Initiative, said. Almost no new public housing was built after 1975, and the Nixon and Reagan administrations shifted funds toward the private market, Popkin said.

“A lot of what caused the situation in the first place was not the buildings themselves or the people in them,” Popkin said. “It was the legacy of segregation; it was the disinvestment.”

Scrapping Faircloth would be a good first step, but Congress needs to invest more in affordable housing overall, Deborah Thrope, deputy director of the National Housing Law Project, said. Many of the buildings were built decades ago, so more resources need to go to repairs as there are more demolitions, she said.

“Repealing the Faircloth amendment is incredibly important for staff to open the door to more public housing developments, which of course is an incredibly important resource for poor families throughout the country,” Thorpe said. “But it alone isn’t enough.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Samantha Handler in Washington at shandler@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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