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Ben Carson’s favorite housing program failed to properly track its spending, report finds

And Congress is poised to double down on the program anyway

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 19: A person walks by an East Harlem public housing complex on May 19, 2015 in New York City. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his 10-year approach to fixing New York City's ailing public housing authority in an appearance Tuesday at the at Johnson Houses Community Center in Harlem. The plan will call for exploring the development of underused housing sites with mixed-income development. In the plan, half of any new residential units would be for low-income families. The New York City Housing Authority has an annual budget of about $3 billion and provides housing for more than 400,000 residents.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 19: A person walks by an East Harlem public housing complex on May 19, 2015 in New York City. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his 10-year approach to fixing New York City's ailing public housing authority in an appearance Tuesday at the at Johnson Houses Community Center in Harlem. The plan will call for exploring the development of underused housing sites with mixed-income development. In the plan, half of any new residential units would be for low-income families. The New York City Housing Authority has an annual budget of about $3 billion and provides housing for more than 400,000 residents. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The Department of Housing and Urban Development is not properly monitoring a program responsible for solving the country’s backlog of public housing repairs, according to a new Government Accountability Office audit. HUD’s failure to monitor this program, according to the report, jeopardizes the ability of thousands of low-income residents to remain in their homes. Despite this, members of both parties in Congress and HUD Secretary Ben Carson have proposed dramatically growing the program — doubling the number of public housing units under the Rental Assistance Demonstration Program (RAD) — to address America’s $49 billion backlog in public housing repairs.

The RAD program enjoys bipartisan support and has been touted as the solution to addressing the deteriorating state of 1.1 million public housing units. Under the program, housing authorities renovate or rebuild public housing complexes by partnering with private funders such as developers who benefit from bonds and tax credits. After the project has been completed, private developers then own and sometimes manage the public housing properties, and they are required by law to keep each renovated unit affordable, both for existing and for future tenants.

But the GAO report, released on Thursday afternoon, found HUD was not adequately tracking the amount of private or public money spent on RAD projects, nor has HUD been sufficiently tracking the program’s outcomes, like changes in rent or the relocation of households. Nor does it assess some potential long-term risks that could jeopardize the long-term affordability of converted units, or enforce tenants’ rights.

“These are precisely the issues that our network has experienced on the ground with these RAD conversions,” said Jessica Cassella, a staff attorney with the National Housing Law Project. “We remain extremely concerned about HUD’s capacity to monitor and adequately oversee these conversions, especially if the number of units that are converted are doubled as proposed” in Congress’ omnibus bill.

In a statement, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who requested the report in 2015, said public housing must remain affordable since it is “critical” to the lives of low-income residents including seniors, veterans, people with disabilities, and families with children.

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“I have long expressed concerns that the conversion of public housing, under RAD, will risk the long-term affordability of this important housing resource and this GAO report serves as confirmation that RAD is in desperate need of reform,” Waters said in a statement. “The failures GAO has identified in this program must be addressed. I stand ready to engage in a meaningful dialogue with my colleagues in Congress about a more appropriate and resident-centered approach to revitalizing public housing.”

Secretary Ben Carson’s favored project is fraught with flaws

RAD has been one of the few existing HUD programs that the department’s Secretary Carson has touted and sought to expand.

“The [RAD] program, continues to be one of our best tools to serve Americans more efficiently,” Carson said in January. “RAD gives public housing authorities the ability to reinvest in public housing stock by shifting toward private investment and Section 8.”

Congressional Republicans appear to agree: The proposed $1.3 trillion “omnibus” appropriations spending bill that the House passed Thursday would expand RAD by lifting the cap on the number of units that could be converted nationwide in 2018 through the program from 225,000 to 455,000, Casella said.

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But the GAO report’s findings of RAD’s problems shouldn’t be news: housing advocates have long expressed concerns about RAD’s implementation and its impact on tenants. National Housing Law Project Executive Director Shamus Roller in an Oct. 11 letter cautioned HUD that it needed to be more proactive in enforcing tenants’ rights and preventing a loss of affordable housing.

In a preview of what the GAO would find in its own report, Roller’s letter warned HUD officials that the department had not evaluated the program’s impact on tenants and that units with the greatest need for repairs were not being prioritized. He also wrote that tenants sometimes received limited information about the revitalization of their unit or where they will be temporarily relocated during construction, were illegally rescreened after a RAD conversion, and prevented by new managers from organizing to address quality-of-life issues.

The GAO report specifically confirmed fears about HUD’s ability to ensure those converted units would remain affordable, and the report cited a lack of monitoring or oversight as a culprit.

Putting the fox in charge of the hen house: Inadequate oversight and lax monitoring that endangers residents’ rights

Since 2016, HUD has left it up to public housing agencies and post-conversion owners to maintain resident logs and collect key information, according to the report — effectively putting for-profit housing managers and owners in charge of reporting back to HUD that the program is working for tenants. HUD has not yet created a process for reviewing those logs or any data it has collected on an ongoing basis.

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“Without a comprehensive review of household information and procedures for fully monitoring all resident safeguards, HUD cannot fully assess the effects of RAD on residents,” a summary of the audit’s findings read.

Furthermore, HUD has not assessed the impact that potential risks such as foreclosures or defaults would have on the long term affordability of RAD units as required by law, according to the audit.

The GAO report recommended several steps HUD should take to resolve its issues: better monitor the amount of private versus public dollars are being spent on conversion projects, and make stronger assurances that RAD tenant rights are being enforced. That includes using data beyond the resident logs (that housing authorities and RAD conversion owners create). HUD must also better assess how effective its long-term affordability protections are.

HUD in return responded to the report by accepting the GAO’s findings and claimed it would look at implementing the recommendations. The department claimed it would continuing relying on information outlined in the resident logs but would see if there was other data it could add to its assessment.

“In RAD, HUD has established the most robust set of resident rights of any HUD program,” the department said in the report. “No other HUD program aimed at improving and/or redeveloping affordable housing adopts such a comprehensive suite of rights to ensure that residents benefit from the conversion.”