A Cross-Country Tale of Flint: Why Federal Housing Policies Are Dangerously Behind the Science on Lead

[This blog post was co-authored by Emily Benfer, founder and director of the Health Justice Project at Loyola University Chicago School of Law.]

We have all heard about the tragedy unfolding in Flint, Michigan.  Public officials made fiscal decisions for a cash-strapped town that resulted in the permanent and damaging exposure of Flint’s mostly poor and minority residents to lead-contaminated water. This simply does not happen in affluent, predominately white communities. 

Young girl seatedFlint, however, is a not an outlier. Another quiet tragedy has slowly unfolded across the country.  The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), one of the nation’s largest providers of affordable housing, offers housing assistance to close to 5 million households, with approximately one-third of those households including children. Yet HUD is decades behind in ensuring that HUD-funded housing does not expose children to lead. HUD’s existing policies, developed during the Reagan administration, are simply not in line with the directives of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the broader medical and scientific community on how to keep children safe from lead exposure.  

Many families living in HUD-funded housing are being forced to choose between the health and future of their children and their housing assistance. HUD’s current policies set lead poisoning levels at three to four times the rate of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This means that children in HUD-assisted housing, a disproportionate percentage of whom are racial minorities, may be exposed to lead at levels considered unsafe and dangerous. Moreover, these families generally have very limited rights to leave their housing without losing their federal housing assistance. 

HUD policies also lag behind in terms of how lead should be identified at all, resulting in young children being the human inspectors for HUD, by virtue of action being taken after they are exposed. At that point, the damage is permanent and profound, and these children have been denied the chance to develop into the amazing human beings we all hope for them to be. We cannot rob more children of their futures simply due to politics or, quite frankly, money. The costs of continuing to ignore the consequences of lead exposure to millions of children living in HUD-assisted housing are unimaginable

This week, the Loyola Health Justice Project and the Shriver Center, along with a coalition of national housing organizations, children’s rights advocates, scientists, medical providers, public health experts, and civil legal aid groups took action. We filed a citizen’s petition for rulemaking with HUD that urges critical amendments to the “Lead Based Paint Poisoning Prevention in Certain Residential Structures” regulations. If adopted, the requested amendments will ensure that a lead hazard is identified before a child moves into a federally assisted housing unit and will align HUD’s rules with the prevailing science.

Families should no longer be held captive in homes that have poisoned their children. This is Secretary Castro’s moment to take decisive action to protect the millions of children who rely upon HUD not only for their housing but for their future. Join us in asking HUD to amend its lead-based paint poisoning regulations.   

Why We Can't Let the Congress Ignore the Nation's Housing Crisis

Homeless Child by http://www.flickr.com/photos/ixtlilton/3645409747/While political pundits reminisce about the month-long government shutdown of 1995-96 as the current budget battle takes place, I can only think of a political cartoon from that time. In December 1995, my local paper ran a political cartoon depicting two homeless men huddled together in front of a fire on a blustery winter day. In that cartoon, a member of Congress walks by and proclaims, “What a relief! For a minute I thought you were burning a flag!” That more than 15-year-old symbol of Congressional disconnect from the real-life challenges facing low-income people still rings true today. As our national poverty rate among children is set to hit a record 25%, the U.S. House of Representatives proposes to cut $61 billion from the FY 2011 budget, representing the largest cut to domestic spending programs in U.S. history.

Among hundreds of programs that help low-income households, H.R. 1 proposes deep cuts to housing programs that prevent homelessness and provide stability to low-income households. H.R. 1 proposes to cut $5.4 billion from domestic housing programs, which could mean fewer available rental vouchers (which help families rent housing in the private market), the loss of 10,000 vouchers for homeless veterans, almost a 70% cut to programs providing affordable housing for the elderly and disabled, a $1.1 billion cut to capital money needed to repair and maintain public housing, and the loss of HOME dollars, which enable local governments to meet local affordable housing needs.

These deep cuts to critical housing programs come at the same time the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released a report, finding that “worst case housing needs” grew by 1.2 million households, or more than 20%, from 2007 to 2009. “Worst case housing needs” are defined as low-income households who pay more than half their monthly income for rent, live in severely substandard housing, or both.

To avoid a government shutdown, the House and Senate must figure out how to fund the remainder of FY 2011 by March 18, 2011. Given the hard lines being taken in this budget battle, more proposed cuts are expected to domestic spending programs, including housing. Campaign rhetoric cannot ignore everyday people and children, who rely upon this Congress and President to protect them from deep poverty and homelessness. In the end, domestic spending cuts that eliminate critical housing programs will not save us money—they will cost us money. Research has shown that homelessness costs us more than paying for programs that prevent/address it. Indeed, a recently published study found that the cost of family homeless programs far is nearly double the cost of the nation’s rental assistance programs. These housing programs deliver real assistance on a daily basis so that seniors, families, and persons with disabilities do not have to choose between medicine, food, and housing. Wake up Congress, put aside this political blustering, and provide the necessary support for our nation’s low-income housing programs.


Adding Eviction to Injury: When Did It Become OK to Blame Crime Victims?

Congress and several states take actions to stop evictions of victims of violence

For women and children in this country, domestic violence is one of the leading causes of homelessness. Survivors of domestic violence (of which 90 to 95% are women), dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking living in rental housing are particularly vulnerable to homelessness because they are often threatened with eviction after an incident of violence. These evictions are frequently born out of property owners’ stereotypes about survivors of violence as individuals accountable for the acts of their abusers. Indeed, up until a few years ago, when victims of violence who lived in federally assisted low-income housing called the police to report intruders, being shot, or otherwise terrorized by their abusers, they would immediately receive an eviction notice.

In 2005, Congress adopted federal protections against evictions and denial of housing for victims of domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking. The 2005 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act prohibits evictions and admission denials of victims of violence who live certain types of federally supported low-income housing. The 2011 VAWA reauthorization should improve upon VAWA 2005 and expand it to cover other types of federal supported low-income housing. Any reauthorization must also extend those protections to survivors of sexual assault. 

On April 27, the Illinois Legislature passed H.B. 5523 and joined several other states, including Indiana, Colorado, Arkansas, Delaware, Texas and Virginia in protecting victims of violence from evictions based upon incidents of violence and/or their status as a victim of violence. Maryland has recently passed a similar bill. The governors of those states should sign the bills immediately.

However, property owners are not the only ones threatening survivors’ housing. A growing number of municipalities have adopted aggressive property nuisance codes or “crime-free” rental housing ordinances that obligate owners, under threat of losing their license to operate rental property, to evict all tenants when there is a crime or multiple police calls for assistance. To limit a survivor’s access to police assistance under threat of homelessness or to blame them for the crime committed against them likely violates their rights under the U.S. Constitution and Federal Fair Housing Act. While we support the idea of improving the quality and safety of rental housing, municipal actions cannot interfere with a survivor’s safety or hold them accountable for a perpetrator’s actions. Municipalities should amend these ordinances to eliminate these harmful and likely illegal provisions.   

Healthy Communities, Housing Choice Vouchers, and Segregation: How Do You Solve a Problem That Won't Go Away?

HousingA new report released by the Illinois Assisted Housing Action Research Project (IHARP) shows that Chicago families in the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) Program continue to live in overwhelmingly poor, African American neighborhoods on the city’s south and west sides. These neighborhoods also experience high rates of crime, mortgage foreclosures, poor health, and high levels of lead.

The HCV program is supposed to give families the chance to rent in “healthy communities,” meaning areas with job opportunities; good schools, services, and transportation options; and low rates of crime. But this study and others like it shows that the majority of HCV families don’t live in those communities.

Being stuck in communities without opportunities is a significant issue not just for HCV families but for all low-income families, especially minority families. A recent Urban Institute report on residential mobility found that “residential churning,” or moving short distances due to financial stresses and housing problems, is prevalent in low-income communities. Nearly half of families originating in the report’s study areas were described as “churning movers” who gained little in neighborhood amenities and opportunities by moving. Strikingly, higher percentages of African-American and Hispanic families who moved were “churning movers” than white families who moved. 

This may be due to the fact that minority households face race-related barriers to residential mobility, and remain in poor neighborhoods due to racial segregation and social and economic inequities. As cited in the Urban Institute report, African Americans are less likely to move to better neighborhoods than other groups, even when they have achieved the same levels of income and education as other groups who moved out.   

We can do more to help HCV families move to healthy neighborhoods. Mobility counseling must be offered and supported provided both before and after families move. The rents offered by the HCV program must also be adjusted to reflect the block-by-block distinction of many communities, particularly in urban environments. If the rents are not set high enough to compete with the actual market rents in a healthy community, then no amount of mobility counseling will make a difference. As well, too many HCV families across the country are denied the chance to live in a healthy community because of open discrimination by property owners. Only by protecting voucher holders against source-of-income discrimination will these types of practices end. Finally, some thought should be given about how to make these moves to healthy communities more permanent--converting some of these vouchers to site or project-based subsidies (so the housing subsidy remains even after the tenant leaves but the tenant receives another voucher) could secure a long-term supply of affordable housing in these communities.

All in all, we need to reconsider how many housing choices not just low-incomes families really have under the current HCV program, but all low-income families in this country have.

This post was co-authored by Elizabeth Frantz.


Do The Right Thing, HUD Secretary Donovan!

During the past eight years, almost 100,000 units of public housing have been approved for demolition, and fewer than 40,000 units of public housing have been constructed, meaning that over 60% of public housing units demolished have not been replaced. In 2007, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD ) approved a request from the San Diego Housing Commission “to get out of the public housing business” by vouchering out its entire stock of over 1,300 units. Vouchers allow residents to rent a unit in the private market. In 2008, the housing authorities in Las Vegas and Atlanta submitted applications to HUD to dispose of all their public housing units.

While most displaced residents receive Housing Choice Vouchers in which to move, the vouchers do not compensate for the loss of public housing to a community. Public housing is a commitment from the government that there will always be a housing resource for our most vulnerable populations—a commitment that the private sector cannot make. Even though vouchers are an important part of the nation’s affordable housing supply, they are not a permanent replacement for hard public housing units. 

On June 15, 2009, the Chairman of the U.S. House Financial Services Committee, Representative Barney Frank, and the Chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity, Representative Maxine Waters, sent a letter to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan asking him to impose a one-year moratorium on the approval of applications for demolition or disposition of public housing units. The Committee noted that, “Until such time as housing authorities are required to replace demolished or disposed units on a one-for-one basis, we risk losing the crucial investment and significant asset these units represent.”

We applaud the decision of Representatives Frank and Waters in making this request and in working on legislation to require one-for-one replacement of demolished public housing units.  In order that the nation not lose any more public housing units, it is imperative that HUD Secretary Donovan declare a one-year moratorium on public housing demolitions so that legislation can be enacted to preserve the nation’s supply of low-income public housing.