NOEL KING, HOST:
Mold, leaks, rodents and crime - these are some of the things that people who live in public housing have to worry about. A lot of public housing has been falling into disrepair in this country for decades, and it could cost an estimated $50 billion to fix it up. The Trump administration wants to eliminate the fund that's used to repair public housing in favor of a more market-oriented approach. NPR's Pam Fessler has that story.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Tyrone Garrett heads the Washington, D.C., Housing Authority and admits that thousands of public housing units he oversees are unfit for human habitation.
TYRONE GARRETT: Would we want our parents, our family members, our mothers to - or our children, for that matter, to live in units that are decaying around them?
FESSLER: The answer obviously is, no. But 5,000 D.C. residents now live in such conditions.
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FESSLER: Richardson Dwellings in Northeast Washington is typical. Like much of the nation's public housing, these two-story brick apartments are decades old and have been patched together with one Band-Aid repair after another until now.
GARRETT: You have roof leaks, some ceiling leaks, probably stemming from something on the roof - decaying floors, walls.
FESSLER: Just about everything in this five-bedroom unit needs fixing.
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FESSLER: The smoke detector is beeping because it needs a battery. The carpet on the staircase is so loose it's hard to tell where one step ends and another begins. In the bathroom, the grout between the tiles is black.
GARRETT: You can see where the mold is building up on - and this is probably more than likely from a lack of ventilation in this particular unit.
FESSLER: These apartments were built in 1953 before exhaust fans were standard. Two million people live in public housing. Most are seniors, people with disabilities and children - those who can least afford poor living conditions.
GARRETT: Is Ms. Fields home?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes.
FESSLER: Jamell Fields shares a nearby unit with several people, including her two daughters and grandchildren. Fields tells Garrett that the stuffy air inside the apartment is hard on all of them.
JAMELL FIELDS: Everybody in here is asthmatics.
FIELDS: It's so dry in here a lot, and the asthma has gotten really bad for all of us. You know, she has medicine for it. I have medicine for it. My other daughter, she has medicine for it. Her son - he got a little bit, but he don't have as much as we do.
FESSLER: There's a lot here that threatens the health of children. The apartment also has lead-based paint. And a tree right outside is decorated with stuffed animals and pinwheels - a memorial to a 10-year-old girl who went out to buy ice cream last summer and was caught in a hail of gunfire. She died clutching her five dollar bill, and her family's now suing the housing authority for not providing enough security in an area prone to violent crime. This city is hardly alone.
BEN CARSON: You know, there are two possible solutions. You can just throw more money at it, or you can say, why is that happening? And why is it getting worse? And is there anything that we can do about those factors?
FESSLER: Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson admits that many of the nation's public housing residents live in deplorable conditions. But he thinks what the country has been doing - spending more money on repairs - is not the answer. He told Congress recently that the administration prefers using tax breaks enacted in 2017 to encourage private investment in areas called opportunity zones.
CARSON: Because a lot of money will be pouring into those, and a lot of these distressed areas are in the opportunity zones - 380,000 public housing units.
FESSLER: About a third of the total - Carson predicts tens of billions of dollars will be invested in these communities, aided by reduced regulations and other government incentives. But there's no guarantee investors will put their money into affordable housing. They can also build stores, hotels or other businesses. Sunia Zaterman, executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities, says on opportunity zones, the jury is still out.
SUNIA ZATERMAN: No one has yet said, this is the silver bullet that is going to solve our distressed community problem. And the concern is whether it really will benefit low-income households.
FESSLER: Don't get her wrong. She and other housing advocates think public-private deals have a big role to play, but they can take years to complete. D.C. housing director Garrett says the crisis is now. He needs $324 million this year alone for emergency repairs and has no idea where he'll get the money. President Trump's newest budget would eliminate the $3 billion fund used for public housing repairs. Congress probably won't go that far, but it's unclear what funding lawmakers will approve.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Next item on our agenda is the approval of the March 13, 2019 board of commissioners...
FESSLER: At a recent meeting of the D.C. Housing Authorities Board of Commissioners, residents said they're worried about what all this means for them. They don't care where the money comes from, they just want living conditions to improve.
LINDA BROWN: It's stressful. We don't know what's going to happen and when it's going to happen.
FESSLER: Linda Brown lives in public housing with her disabled daughter and pays a third of her income in rent. After the meeting, Brown said she fears being displaced if her building is torn down. Affordable housing in D.C. and elsewhere is extremely scarce.
BROWN: We should be mindful that we're talking about human beings and not numbers. We are talking about families that have already been uprooted.
FESSLER: Often moved from one poorly maintained unit into another - both the city and HUD Secretary Carson promised to keep poor families housed. But it's not clear right now how that will happen and in what kind of conditions they'll end up living.
Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
KING: All right, how did HUD secretary Ben Carson, who you just heard in Pam's story, end up posing for a picture with a package of Oreos? Carson testified before a House committee yesterday. He faced questions from Katie Porter of California. She asked him about homes foreclosed upon by the Federal Housing Administration. And in her question, she used the acronym REO.
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KATIE PORTER: Do you know what an REO is?
CARSON: An Oreo?
PORTER: R - no, not an Oreo. An REO, REO.
CARSON: Real estate.
PORTER: What's the O stand for?
CARSON: E - organization.
PORTER: Owned - real estate owned. That's what happens when a property goes to foreclosure. We call it an REO. And FHA loans have much higher REOs. That is, they go to foreclosure rather than to loss mitigation or to non-foreclosure alternatives like short sales than comparable loans at the GSEs.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now, Carson later got in on the joke about mistaking REOs for Oreos. He posed for that photo of himself holding the cookies but never did engage Porter's larger question whether federal policies drive more homes into foreclosure. At the hearing, he said it wasn't his job to get in the weeds.
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