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As Repair Backlog Grows, Public Housing Tries Private Funding

Quiana Baker of Woodhill Homes says she's been waiting for months for an updated bathtub. [Justin Glanville / ideastream]
Quiana Baker stands in her apartment at Woodhill Homes.

Ask Quiana Baker to describe her decorating style, and she’ll give you one word.

"Cute," says Baker, 37, who works in fashion retail and moved into Woodhill Homes in 2018. She elaborates: "I have my own place, and it's clean and it's cute."

‘Cute’ really does describe the way she’s set up her one-bedroom apartment. Tropical plants frame the windows. A wall stencil shows a steaming cup of coffee. And a goldfish she's named "Abigail Fishy Fish" flits in a bowl on her kitchen counter.

But Baker says there’s one room she cannot make cute no matter how hard she tries. And it's an important one: the bathroom.

Abigail Fishy Fish swims in a bowl on Baker's kitchen counter. [Justin Glanville / ideastream]

"This is how I gotta turn my darn tub on," she says, cranking the faucet in the bathroom sink. Water won't flow to the tub, she explains, unless the sink is running first.

Maintenance workers have told her both the tub and the sink date from 1939, when Woodhill was built. But Baker says what really bothers her even more than the sink-tub trick is the ring of grime around the bathtub's perimeter, built up over decades of use. She can’t scrub it off no matter how hard she tries. As a rent-paying tenant — she pays about $300 a month, a rate tied to her income — she feels that’s not acceptable.

Baker demonstrates how the sink in her bathroom must be turned on before water will flow to the bathtub. [Justin Glanville / ideastream]

"If any one room in your house ain’t together, your house don't feel complete," she says. "But damn, the bathroom? You know, this is where you unwind your whole day at."

A backlog the size of Ohio

Baker’s is the kind of story you could hear from many of the nation’s public housing developments. Two-thirds of them were built before 1970 and the subsidized rents tenants pay don’t come close to covering the costs of maintenance. At the same time, federal funding hasn’t been sufficient to fill the gap.

Nationwide, the pricetag for the repair backlog currently stands at an estimated $70 billion, about the same amount as  the enitre annual budget for the state of Ohio. As many as 10,000 units of public housing, 1 percent of the total supply, go offline every year because people cannot live in such a state of disrepair. That’s against a national backdrop of  overall housing costs rising faster than wages and a growing number of people who can't afford to buy or rent a home.

Conditions aren’t as bad in Cleveland as in some cities. None of the city’s public housing properties, including Woodhill Homes, scored below a passing grade on HUD’s most recent round of inspections. Compare that to New York City, where the city’s housing authority faces a lawsuit alleging unchecked mold, rat infestations, leaks and chipping lead paint inside apartments.

Public housing inspection scores released in 2019 show that Woodhill Homes (grouped into a set of properties called "Eastside") and other CMHA properties in Cleveland received passing scores (60 or above) or better. [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development]

Still, "it's at a point where the units are old enough and the gap is large enough that it takes a substantial rehabilitation in some cases to get the units to where we feel that they should be," says Michael Shea of the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA), the agency that manages public housing in Cleveland.

A new (but limited) tool

CMHA has been looking for new ways to raise money — not just for one-off repairs, but comprehensive rehabiliation, Shea says. One of the most promising opportunities is the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, authorized during the Obama administration. RAD gives public housing agencies access to new financing, including conventional mortgage debts and low-income housing tax credits.

Low-income housing tax credits are when private investors get a break on their taxes for financing low-income housing. With mortgages for public housing, banks underwrite loans similar to a home improvement line of credit. The housing agency then pays the debt back using tenant rents and HUD funding.

CMHA has already used this tool with a few of its developments and says it could work for Woodhill Homes, too. But even as RAD becomes more widely used nationally, an independent federal report warns the loans could expose public housing to foreclosure, which could take even more units offline.

Meanwhile, some units may be too distressed to qualify for loans, according to Adrianne Todman, CEO of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, which represents public housing agencies across the country.

"It's a good tool for right now," Todman says. "It is not the universal tool for everybody, everywhere."

New, direct funding from HUD, in the form of a boost to the federal public housing capital fund, is the thing that would truly fix the maintenance backlog once and for all, she says. But such a boost has not yet come, even as the difficulty of finding and keeping decent, affordable housing continues to grow.

"Housing instability has become a shared experience not just amongst low-income families but also the middle class, people who might have lost their homes to foreclosure, people can't afford where they are living," Todman says.

CMHA’s Michael Shea says the agency will look for other ways to fix Woodhill Homes, including local funding, even if available HUD tools don’t work out.

In the meantime, residents like Baker (and Abigail Fishy Fish) will be kept waiting — and waiting — for repairs.

This story is part of a  two-year reporting project about the past, present and future of Cleveland’s Woodhill Homes public housing development .

Justin Glanville is the deputy editor of engaged journalism at Ideastream Public Media.