At Home with the Providence Housing Authority- the Largest Landlord in the City

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Deborah Wray arrived in Rhode Island from California in the midst of the blizzard of ’78.  Like many, she found herself snowbound and unable to travel.  But unlike many, Deb was charmed by the glistening snow, and she decided to stay in the Ocean State.  As an unemployed single mother in immediate need of housing, Deb soon found her way into an apartment in Hartford Park, a public housing development run by the Providence Housing Authority (PHA) and funded by the US Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD).  Deb’s income qualified her for a housing subsidy that enabled her to pay no more than 30% of her income towards her monthly rent.  Forty-five years and three more children later, Deb is still a PHA tenant, as well as a housing advocate and community leader.

In these days of increasingly high rents and growing numbers of unhoused people, the existence and experience of the PHA, which is housing those with extremely low incomes, is instructive.  The average annual income for PHA residents (and residents in Section 8 housing) in 2023 was $17,297, primarily coming from non-wage sources such as child support, unemployment benefits, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and Social SecurityForty-seven percent of the public housing residents living in the family developments are working families. Seventy-two percent of PHA households in FY2023 were identified as extremely low income, meaning that they make less than 30% of the area median income ($27,650 for a family of three).  The average monthly rent (i.e., total tenant payment) in FY2023 was $370.

In total, PHA houses more than 5,600 residents in 2,606 apartments – making it the largest landlord in the capital city and the State of Rhode Island.  Nearly 80% of PHA housing developments are occupied by families with an average size of 2.7 family members.  The rest of the public housing units serve seniors and adults with disabilities, most of whom live alone.  Apartments in public housing developments range from studios to seven bedrooms.  Residents of PHA-owned housing pay no more than 30% of their income regardless of the size of their apartment or family.

The PHA also administers the Section 8 voucher program, which provides public housing assistance known as Housing Choice Vouchers (HCV) to make it possible for eligible individuals to rent housing units in privately-owned buildings. A voucher may be either “project-based” – where its use is limited to a specific apartment complex, or “tenant-based”, where the tenant is free to choose a unit in any “suitable” privately-owned building anywhere in the United States.

Currently, there are approximately 2,700 HCVs in Providence, supporting housing for approximately 6,000 residents.  More than 90% of these are “tenant-based vouchers”, with fewer than 10% of vouchers limited to specific, privately-developed housing complexes.

Similar to publicly-owned housing developments, individuals or families with a voucher typically pay 30% of their income for Section 8 housing.  The PHA pays any remaining balance directly to the landlord with federal funds.  While Federal law does not require landlords to accept vouchers, a Rhode Island law enacted in 2021 prohibits landlords from discriminating against apartment seekers simply because they have a Section 8 voucher or receive other forms of government assistance.  However, HUD’s FMR (Fair Market Rent) and the PHA’s payment standard does place limits on the total monthly rent that it will subsidize, which, in practice, results in little, if any, Section 8 housing in high-rent neighborhoods.

Supply and demand for public housing
A far greater barrier to obtaining Section 8 housing is the woefully inadequate number of vouchers available to those in need of affordable housing.  PHA maintains a waiting list of those who are looking for either a Section 8 voucher or an apartment in a public housing development.  Currently, there are 14,466 applicants on the waitlist for Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers, with an average wait time of 8 – 10 years.  The public housing waitlist has 2,611 applicants with an average wait time of 3 – 7 years.  Even internal transfers for current PHA tenants whose family size has changed can take several years because turnover is typically less than 250 units per year.  Furthermore, there is no time limit on how long a tenant can remain at a PHA development, with the average length of stay being close to 12 years, and some, like Deb Wray, staying far longer.

This untenable shortage of federally-subsidized housing can be attributed to three major factors.  First, in the late 1990s, the federal government placed a cap on the total number of public housing units, effectively shutting down the construction or expansion of public housing.  In doing so, the federal government signaled its strong preference for private sector solutions to affordable housing through the Section 8 program.  Second, despite this preference, the number of Section 8 vouchers – which is set by budget appropriations to HUD — has not kept pace with the need, even as aging public housing units have increasingly fallen into disrepair.  And, third, during roughly the same time period (2001-2018) median renter household income rose just 0.5 percent, while rents rose nearly 13 percent, after adjusting for inflation – thereby increasing the need for housing subsidies.

PHA informational flyer about waiting lists

Living in public housing
Deb Wray readily acknowledges the hardships of living in public housing, including, at times, rodents, lack of heat, poor maintenance, drugs, and violence – all of which she has endured.  Still, she considers herself extremely fortunate to have been able to obtain, and remain, in public housing.  Deb shared that “Hartford Park was a community, and people looked after one another.  I always felt safe.” And, she added, “I never locked my door.”  Perhaps most importantly, Deb emphasized, “I could afford the rent and didn’t have to pay gas, electric, water, sewer, or taxes”, which provided security for a single mother of four, and “protection from becoming homeless and out on the street.”

Given that most tenants live in PHA housing for many years, according to Jacqueline Martinez, PHA’s Deputy Director of Housing Programs and Operations, the PHA is much more than a landlord and its housing developments offer residents much more than low-cost housing.  Martinez explained that the PHA has a dynamic resident services department with a staff of approximately 25 who help to provide an array of programs and services for residents, including adult education, job training, workforce development, youth programs, health and wellness programs, family self-sufficiency classes, and more.

During the height of the COVID pandemic, PHA significantly expanded its services, providing COVID testing and vaccination, food distribution, rental relief assistance, and other health and social services to protect and support its residents. “Our staff is very committed to our residents,” Martinez said.  “We take great pride in the care, safety, and well-being of our community.  And she added, “The stigma of people in “the projects” being lazy, on drugs, or violent is unfair.  Like everywhere, there are some bad apples, but we also have many working families who are trying to get ahead.  We have great residents…great kids…and a great team of staff.”

During her 45 years living at Hartford Park, Deb Wray participated in many of the opportunities that were available to tenants, including education and training that eventually led her to a job as a “voucher examiner” for HUD.  Deb also became a leader in her Hartford Park community, advocating for decent living conditions and fair treatment for all residents, and eventually serving for 10 years as the president of the Hartford Park Tenant Association.

Deb took her experience as a community activist and leader to a city-wide level, serving as Board Chair for Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE), a grassroots social justice organization, and later, as Chairwoman of the Providence External Review Authority (PERA) Board.  Deb’s long-standing commitment to advocating for the rights and dignity of economically disadvantaged Providence residents led to her being inducted by Mayor Brett Smiley into the City’s Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Hall of Fame in 2023.

The PHA was officially established in 1939, following the passage of the U.S. Housing Act of 1937, a New Deal program intended to create jobs and provide affordable, clean, and decent public housing to poor, working families who were living in deplorable conditions. Over the subsequent 58 years, the PHA constructed thirteen public housing developments throughout Providence, including family developments like Hartford Park (Olneyville) and Chad Brown (Wanskuck), elderly and disabled developments such as Dexter Manor (downtown), elderly-only housing such as Carroll Tower (Smith Hill), and smaller “scattered sites” in several other neighborhoods.  In 1974, the law was amended to create the Section 8 program.

Today, the PHA community is an extremely diverse one.  Seventy-two percent of the head of households in PHA family housing units identify as Hispanic, and 62% primarily speak Spanish.  Twenty-five percent  are Black/African American, and 71% are female.  Twenty-two percent of PHA residents have a disability.  And children under the age of 17 comprise 35% of PHA residents.

Source: PHAStratPlanUpdate7-asPrinted.pdf (provhousing.org) (page 6)

Looking ahead
Unfortunately, though the Federal government historically played a crucial role in providing public housing for those in dire need, its contribution continues to dwindle.  According to PHA’s Jacqueline Martinez, public housing units are aging, and renovations are extremely costly and of limited effectiveness.  Furthermore, with the total number of public housing units capped by federal law, new approaches are needed.  One such approach is what PHA calls “repositioning”, a term that refers to converting or expanding current housing developments to include both traditional public housing units and privately-owned Section 8 housing.  This would enable the PHA to braid federal funds with private sector investment to renovate existing units and increase the total number of housing units by building outward and/or upward on existing PHA sites.  Martinez added that this would require major policy changes, feasibility studies, and additional funding sources – and will likely take many years – but exploring “repositioning, preservation, and other development tools” is very much a part of PHA’s vision for the future.

Deb recently reflected on what it has been like to live in “the projects” for most of her adult life.  She recalled that Rhode Islanders were not as friendly as Californians when she first arrived – neither in her factory job nor in her community — but she made a point of regularly greeting her co-workers and her Hartford Park neighbors all the same.  She also noted the significant growth in the number of Latinx residents over the years, which, she acknowledged, caused some “growing pains” for a time.  But Deb says that living in public housing has worked well for her, and she “wouldn’t change anything.”

In the past year, Deb moved into the PHA’s Dominica Manor, an elderly housing development on Atwells Avenue overlooking downtown Providence.  She said she feels safe there, and, while most residents are still not as friendly as she is, she still makes a point of saying hello, and some have started saying “hola” back to her.

Rick Brooks serves as Director of Healthcare Workforce Transformation for the RI Executive Office of Health & Human Services, where he is responsible for developing policies and programs to prepare, advance, and support a diverse health and human services workforce.  Before coming to EOHHS, Rick served for 4½ years as the Executive Director of the Governor’s Workforce Board and for 17 years as the Executive Director of the United Nurses and Allied Professionals.  Rick is the son of lifelong New York City news reporter, Stan Brooks.