My husband, Tom, and I are reluctant landlords. We have just been told by Preston Prince, the new director of the Fresno Housing Authority, that we have a “small portfolio” of rental properties. What Prince is referring to is a little triplex we bought about 10 years ago that is now worth approximately half of what we paid for it and sucks up maintenance money we could otherwise be spending on a vacation in Thailand. That’s what’s called a “small portfolio.”
Our intent with the triplex was and always has been to make some housing available to low-income or even homeless people. Through the Housing Authority, we rent one unit to a small family who has lived there about five years, and the other two units are rented to a variety of people who have come and gone—strippers, ex-felons, single mothers, students and unemployed people with nowhere else to go.
The Housing Authority links landlords and tenants in a mutually beneficial relationship called the Housing Choice Voucher Program (popularly known as Section 8 housing), whereby the federal government pays a significant portion of the rent and the tenant pays the rest.
Working with the Housing Authority as a landlord has been, to say the least, exasperating. Within the last month, Tom and I have had to deal with its antiquated phone system (“If no one answers within 30 minutes, please call back later…”), a time-consuming inspection process and the distinct possibility that our tenant family would have to leave because the Housing Authority suddenly changed the rules for electrical outlets.
This personal experience with the Housing Authority has conflicted with what we read in the Fresno Bee about an increasingly enlightened bureaucracy that works hard to provide housing for the homeless in Fresno.
To reconcile our personal experience with what we were reading, I had several lengthy conversations with Prince, the new Housing Authority director.
Our conversations were lengthy because we began with history. The Housing Act of 1937, passed at the beginning of the second Franklin Roosevelt administration, allowed the federal government to loan money to towns and cities to build public housing. To appease Roosevelt’s conservative opposition, the act was stuffed with negative provisions.
For those interested in American history, the parallels in the demonization of the Roosevelt and the Obama administrations might be humorous if their consequences weren’t so sad.
First, the Housing Act limited public housing to low-income people, excluding subsidized mixed-income housing. Second, the housing had to be built in blighted and undesirable areas. Third, the housing had to be built at low cost, leading to shabby construction and the absence of amenities, such as doors on kitchen cabinets. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that tile was added to apartments in federal housing for the poor. For 30–40 years, public housing had concrete floors.
In 1937, Roosevelt was confronting a conservative reaction to stimulus spending much like what we are experiencing today. He retreated from the kind of spending that resulted in the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a reversal that quickly upended a trend toward relief from the Depression. The results—including a massive reduction in the number of people employed by such programs as the WPA—were catastrophic. From the fall of 1937 to the summer of 1938, industrial production declined 33 percent, wages decreased 35 percent and national income fell 13 percent. Not surprisingly, the unemployment rate jumped, with an estimated 4 million workers losing their jobs.
The three reactionary proscriptions that undermined the 1937 Housing Act had predictable consequences: concentrated poverty with low construction standards located in environmentally undesirable parts of the community. Such housing projects dot the landscape of our urban centers; they can be found in the major cities of the East Coast and in the poverty ghettos of San Francisco surrounded by some of the most unaffordable luxury homes in California.
In Fresno, the initial housing projects were all built in west Fresno (or “Chinatown”), where the poor lived in isolated fiscal neglect, experienced police abuse and—to be sure—consisted of a rich mixed ethnic culture of blacks, Mexicans, Japanese, Armenians and a few poor whites. The first two projects—the Sequoia Courts with 30 duplexes and the Sierra Plaza with 70 units—were initially occupied in 1942. In 1952, two additional projects were added to the west side culture of concentrated poverty. In that same year, the first Fresno project built outside of the west side was constructed at the intersection of Tyler and North First streets, a location now caught in the cross-hairs of freeways 41 and 180. Since then, three projects have been built in southeast Fresno and one more was built on the west side. Fresno housing projects have never been built in upscale north Fresno.
In the 1970s, efforts were made to make low-income housing accessible throughout communities with the implementation of Section 8 housing. Through Section 8 housing, tenants are able to find their own housing outside the projects, including single-family homes, townhouses and apartments.
Section 8 is entirely dependent on willing landlords who have to put up with an improving, but still bungling, bureaucracy—one that gives people like Tom and me an aching empathy with the tea party. This is the housing program Tom and I participate in when we attempt to rent to people on the edge of homelessness. Prince wants to improve the relationship the Housing Authority has with property owners to encourage people to rent to the poor and, to that end, he assured me his organization is prioritizing improvement of the phone system so property owners like Tom and me can quickly and easily discuss problems with Housing Authority staff, the problem that triggered this entire discussion.
Since the Reagan administration, federal housing assistance has supported middle-class homeowners over renters. For every dollar of federal money spent on rental assistance, almost four federal dollars are spent on helping the homeowner. Think about the mortgage interest deduction; it subsidizes the homeowner to the tune of $127 billion a year. Because of these kinds of federal funding priorities, homeownership increased from 62 percent to 68 percent of the population in the two decades before the Obama administration.
President Obama is making efforts to reverse this trend. He wants to put the federal funding focus back on rental housing—both public housing and housing choice vouchers, as well as other federal housing programs. New federal stimulus funding, green dollars and supplemental housing choice voucher funding are coming from the current administration. The Fresno Housing Authority has provided housing vouchers to 500 families on the waiting list since 2008. It is also moving away from those three initial reactionary practices of consolidating poverty, putting housing projects smack dab in the middle of blighted areas and making housing out of cardboard, asbestos and lead.
Instead, the re-minted Housing Authority values housing for mixed-income families made with durable materials and using principles of green design. The local focus is in accord with the housing policy of the Obama administration, which is based on the idea that housing is a key to creating viable and sustainable communities.
The Housing Authority has been retooling its programs and creating focus groups with staff, residents and interested community members. Tom and I will be part of one focus group involving landlords.
When asked how a homeless family gains access to housing through the Housing Authority, Prince replied that, in the beginning, the Housing Authority partnered with the City to move nearly 100 homeless people out of an encampment into privately owned rental housing. About 30 or more were moved into existing nonprofit housing programs. The Housing Authority is now using stimulus funding to house homeless individuals and families. The Housing Authority has 70 vouchers that target homeless veterans and 120 vouchers for homeless people who need supportive services. Finally, the Housing Authority is working on three “housing first” developments that will add 115 housing units.
When asked about barriers to eligibility for Housing Authority housing, an oft-repeated question of people seeking housing assistance, Prince responded, “There is a mixture of locally adopted and federally adopted rules. We do not screen someone for suitability; we do screen for eligibility. To be eligible, someone must be income-qualified, a resident of the U.S., and not have a felony conviction within the last 10 years.” This is a critical concern of project and Section 8 tenants because they can suffer rejection or eviction because of a criminal history, but Prince never fully answered my questions on this subject.
According to Prince, the Housing Authority is now providing housing to more than 35,000 residents through the Section 8 program. It works with more than 5,000 property owners, most of them like us, with “small portfolios.”
Thanks to the Obama administration’s new priorities, the Fresno Housing Authority is making offers on old downtown buildings and empty lots to increase the Central Valley’s stock of low-income housing in concert with downtown revitalization. The Housing Authority is building “green housing” in the recently demolished public housing across the street from the Veteran’s Hospital on Clinton, to be called Park Grove Commons. And, of enormous import to our community, the Housing Authority is working to increase housing for the mentally ill in Fresno.
I’m relieved. As I told Prince in one of our several e-mails, “I support government. I think it should provide health care, education, housing, food, basic survival income, and other things that allow for a relatively decent standard of living” for everyone, including the poorest among us. He has assured me that, soon enough, it will also answer the phone.