Public Housing Can’t Work If We Don’t Adequately Fund It

Residents of a public low-income housing project in Denver report that their building is facing profound neglect, calling it a “glorified homeless encampment.” Their story shows that it’s not enough to build public housing — we have to maintain it too.

A woman walks through the lobby of a public housing building on June 11, 2018, in New York City. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

Jesse Parris, thirty-six, was homeless for nearly a decade before he moved into a one-bedroom apartment at Fusion Studios in Denver, Colorado. But since moving into the permanent supportive housing development in March 2020, Parris says he’s considered moving back onto the streets because of the living conditions.

First came the rats, which Parris said continue to invade his kitchen and contaminate his food today. Then came the bed bugs to rob him of his sleep. Parris added that there were a few times during the past couple of winters where the building lost heat. Hot water has been sporadic, and the building’s poor ventilation has caused infectious diseases to circulate among residents, he said.

Parris added that the building has also lost the sense of community it once fostered, when new residents arrived hopeful about starting their lives over at Fusion Studios. “It’s a glorified homeless encampment,” Parris said. “You get a roof over your head, but that’s about it.”

Other Fusion Studio residents share Parris’s concerns. David Heitz, a journalist with NewsBreak who lives at the complex, has written extensively about issues he’s faced since moving in in June 2020. He’s written about people using and making drugs in the complex and property managers denying journalists access to the building — even when they were accompanied by Denver City councilmember Shontel Lewis, who previously worked for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless (CCH), the organization that owns and operates Fusion Studios.

But the pests are the most pressing concern for Heitz. The rats infested a food pantry for residents last summer, causing it to close. They also roam the halls and ceilings at all hours of the night, which makes it hard for residents to sleep, Heitz wrote in an op-ed in October. Heitz said that CCH staff have retaliated against him for complaining about the living conditions on social media.

“Most rooms have worse infestations than mine. My room is clean. And I still have rats,” Heitz wrote.

Outside of Fusion Studios, a recent audit from the Denver Auditor’s Office found that many of the city’s affordable housing developments are neither well maintained nor safe and habitable for residents. To be clear, these units are not considered “affordable” in a market sense; they are subsidized and income-restricted housing units.

Subsidized housing units are a key social safety net feature for low-income earners across the country. However, both federal and local governments have been drastically underfunding development and maintenance of subsidized housing units since the 1980s. Former president Ronald Reagan notoriously slashed federal funding for public housing construction and local government assistance, two moves that many experts cite as causes of the current homelessness crisis in America.

Reagan cut these programs under the false pretense that America’s subsidized housing programs had been given a fair chance to work and simply failed to produce meaningful results. In reality, public housing programs have faced significant opposition from real estate interest groups to presidents like Bill Clinton, who signed the Faircloth Amendment in 1998 to prohibit the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) from financing the construction of new public housing units.

When you can’t build new public housing and don’t have funding for maintenance, dilapidation and demolishment seem like the only reasonable outcomes. It’s like ripping out the bones from someone’s legs and then asking them to stand up again.

“Glorified Homeless Encampments”

Denver’s auditor detailed several examples of the poor living conditions at affordable housing complexes across the city. There were missing door handles in entryways, pet or human waste in public spaces, and several potential fire code violations. Similar issues were cataloged in the auditor’s first audit of Denver’s affordable housing development practices in 2017.

The audit also argues that the living conditions largely lay at the feet of agencies like the Department of Housing Stability (HOST) and the Denver Housing Authority (DHA), which are responsible for building and overseeing the city’s affordable housing developments, and not the residents themselves.

One of the biggest issues the audit identified is that HOST is not ensuring DHA’s compliance in agreements to build affordable housing units and inspect them after they are completed. For instance, the audit specified that HOST’s property inspections regularly missed issues like broken windows and doors and damaged exterior walls.

Parris said Fusion Studios has an inspector that will check on unit conditions and perform light exterminator duties when rodents and pests are found. However, getting an inspection can be a hassle because Fusion Studios residents need to move their furniture away from the windows and walls before they can spray pesticides in the units, Parris said. He added there have been times when he received no notice before an inspection and the inspectors passed over his unit because his furniture wasn’t moved.

“You really can’t get adjusted to living here,” Parris said.

Cathy Alderman, the chief communications and public policy officer at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, told Jacobin in an email that the organization is aware of the issues residents are having with bugs and rodents. CCH has budgeted between $5,000 and $10,000 for pest control services and is awaiting vendor contracts, she added. Staff have begun making repairs like “sealing holes around piping and air conditioning units, providing residents with storage containers for food items, and setting out traps” to address the concerns, Alderman said. She also confirmed that Fusion Studios property manager Becca Winman is also no longer working for CCH.

Alderman added that CCH conducted a full-building inspection in November 2023, and is planning to conduct monthly and quarterly inspections going forward. Right now, Alderman said Fusion Studios staff “do not always know what repairs need to be made in individual rooms unless [they] are notified.”

Outside of living conditions, the audit also identified several contract performance issues regarding the development and operation of affordable housing properties. For instance, the audit found that the DHA is 301 units short of meeting its obligations under a 2018 agreement to build 518 affordable homes for households who earn between 50 percent and 80 percent of the city’s median income, or roughly between $62,000 and $99,000 for a family of four. Agency leaders were also unable to clearly articulate how they calculated which units would count toward the agreement, the audit said.

Jacobin reached out to HOST and DHA for comments about the audit’s findings and any steps the agencies will take to rectify the issues going forward, but did not hear from them before press time.

The audit mentions that both HOST and DHA have struggled to maintain their workforce since the pandemic began, which may explain why the audit found so many issues. For people like Parris, who suffers from mental health challenges, the workforce issues have also resulted in shuffling through several case managers and therapists. This can make it difficult for people like Parris to leave subsidized housing for a market-rate rental of their own, which is a common goal shared by many subsidized housing programs.

No Place Like Home

The issues identified in the audit don’t seem likely to fade either. HOST rejected the auditor’s recommendation to improve building inspections, saying that the agency conducts inspections “annually, effectively, and consistently” already.

HOST also disagreed with the auditor’s recommendation to give less time to property management before an inspection is conducted. The audit found that the fourteen-day window that HOST gives its property managers gives them enough time to effectively hide issues before an inspector shows up on site. HOST said its policies currently align with HUD’s best practices and that decreasing the notification window could infringe on their residents’ right to privacy.

“Changing our inspection policy to less time for notification, per the Auditor’s Office, would place us in non-compliance with HUD and our Policy and Procedures for our partners,” HOST wrote in response to the audit’s findings.

There seems to be no incentive for city agencies to change the way they approach public housing, because public housing often does not generate tax revenue. For instance, many governments provide tax exemptions for public housing properties while also asking agencies to fund subsidy programs that put people into public housing. Under this setup, governments rarely break even from supporting public housing developments.

On the other hand, market-rate residential developments can generate revenue because they attract higher-income earners who pay property taxes, which are often set at much higher rates than the sales and excise taxes levied against consumer purchases. This may explain why DHA built 203 market-rate units instead of meeting its extremely low- and moderate-income housing benchmarks, according to the audit.

Regardless of the motivation, the impact to residents like Parris is the same. That home of his own that he’s been dreaming of still seems out of reach. “It’s defeating,” he said.