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Senators say housing repairs at East St. Louis, elsewhere will suffer under budget cuts

Illinois’ two U.S. senators are pressing for answers on conditions of properties in the East St. Louis Housing Authority and elsewhere.

Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth on Thursday asked U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson for answers on the state of public housing infrastructure in East St. Louis. They asked Carson about the growing backlog of repairs at public housing authorities and whether HUD is meeting its oversight authority to ensure that residents living in the properties such as those in East St. Louis are provided with decent, safe, and sanitary living conditions.

They also expressed disappointment with the Trump Administration’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget that calls for deep cuts in federal funding to HUD’s affordable housing programs.

“If enacted, these cuts would mean that residents of ESLHA’s 2,100 complexes would have to wait longer for basic services such as apartment repairs to be addressed and would only serve to further accelerate deterioration of public housing units nationwide. Your purported reason for underfunding our nation’s crumbling public housing infrastructure — fiscal discipline — rings especially hollow given a May 16 finding by the Government Accountability Office that, as HUD Secretary, you broke the law by authorizing the spending of $40,000 taxpayer dollars for a new dining set and dishwasher for your office,” the senators wrote in a letter to Carson.

Durbin and Duckworth specifically mentioned concerns about the proposal to eliminate the Public Housing Capital Fund, which provides annual funding to housing authorities to address repairs and maintenance issues. Like most public housing authorities nationwide, East St. Louis’ public housing units are aging and in need of immediate repair and rehabilitation — the city’s housing authority has estimated that it needs $42 million in immediate funding to address backlogged capital repairs and improve living conditions at its complexes.

Residents of the East St. Louis Housing Authority continue to report unsafe and hazardous living conditions, including maintenance repair requests that have gone unaddressed. Last August, ProPublica published an investigative report revealing that in 2017, a HUD inspection gave nine East St. Louis housing complexes a failing score and found a total of 5,405 safety violations — 24 percent of which HUD deemed life threatening.

Here is the full text of Thursday’s letter:

June 6, 2019

Dear Secretary Carson:

We write to express concern about the state of our public housing infrastructure given the growing backlog in capital repairs at Public Housing Authorities (PHAs)like the East St. Louis Housing Authority (ESLHA) and in light of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Fiscal Year (FY) 2020 Budget proposal to eliminate the Public Housing Capital Fund (Capital Fund)—from which the ESLHA receives roughly $3 million annually to implement maintenance repairs that improve and protect the safety and health of its residents.

In 2017, HUD entered into a transition agreement to end the 32-year federal receivership of ESLHA. Under the terms of the Enhanced Oversight Plan that was included as part of the transition agreement, HUD has a responsibility to work with ESLHA to help meet the benchmarks outlined in the Plan, including the development of a Physical Improvement Strategy that ensures all ESLHA properties are meeting the standard for decent, safe, and sanitary housing in good repair—including addressing all maintenance and capital repairs and outstanding building deficiencies identified by HUD inspection reports.

Like most housing authorities nationwide, ESLHA’s housing units are aging and in significant need of repair and modernization—ESLHA estimated in 2016 that it needed a total of $42 million in immediate capital funding to address needed repairs and to improve living conditions at its complexes. Under the Capital Fund, ESLHA receives roughly $3 million annually to fund these repairs. Moreover, ESLHA has also benefitted in recent years from a $250,000 emergency safety and security set-aside grant under the Capital Fund that is available to all PHAs that face high rates of violent crime and drug-related activity. Since 2015, as a result of this funding, ESLHA received a total of $500,000 to install closed-circuit security cameras and lighting systems at two of its properties, which house a total of 606 residents.

However, residents of ESLHA continue to report security and maintenance repair requests that have gone unaddressed and addressing longstanding concerns regarding unsafe and hazardous living conditions at ESLHA developments remains critical to improving the lives of ESHLA residents. This issue isn’t unique to ESLHA or Illinois. Nationwide, a 2010 HUD study estimated that its backlog of deferred maintenance at public housing complexes stood at $26 billion. According to the same study, we lose 10,000 units of public housing every year because of the failure to repair and rehabilitate our nation’s public housing stock. A critical aspect of this issue is the underfunding of the Capital Fund, which provides PHAs with the funding they need to address unmet capital repairs.

Last fall, we sent you a letter requesting information about the steps the agency was taking under your leadership to increase ESLHA’s ability to provide safe and healthy housing to residents and to meet the benchmarks established under the two-year Transition Agreement. In an October 2018 response, you stated that HUD would continue efforts to address necessary maintenance and security requests and would communicate with Congress should it need further resources.

And yet, given the pressing concerns about unmet backlogs in capital repairs at ESLHA and other PHAs, the President’s FY 2020 Budget Request to Congress called for the elimination of funding for the Capital Fund, the key funding source relied on by PHAs to address necessary infrastructure upgrades at their complexes. Moreover, the President’s budget proposes reducing funding to the only other program—the Public Housing Operating Fund—that PHAs use to address maintenance by a level of 38 percent under the FY 2019 level. If enacted, these cuts would mean that residents of ESLHA’s 2,100 complexes would have to wait longer for basic services such as apartment repairs to be addressed and would only serve to further accelerate deterioration of public housing units nationwide. Your purported reason for underfunding our nation’s crumbling public housing infrastructure—fiscal discipline—rings especially hollow given a May 16 finding by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that, as HUD Secretary, you broke the law by authorizing the spending of $40,000 taxpayer dollars for a new dining set and dishwasher for your office.

In light of these concerns expressed above and in accordance with HUD’s responsibility during the transition period to ensure ESLHA is meeting the benchmarks established under the Enhanced Oversight Plan, please answer the following questions:

1) How do you intend to ensure that HUD is meeting its oversight authority to ensure that residents living in ESLHA properties are provided with decent, safe and sanitary living conditions as outlined by the Enhanced Oversight Plan should the Capital Fund be eliminated?

2) As far back as 2017, HUD inspectors failed 9 of 12 ESLHA housing properties based on the Department’s housing quality standards. Given that residents continue to report filing capital repair forms that have not been addressed, how does recommending the elimination of the Capital Fund—from which ESLHA receives funding to address repairs—align with HUD’s goal to ensure that ESLHA residents can live in their homes without threats to safety or health?

3) What steps is HUD taking to ensure that ESLHA is able to meet its benchmarks under the Enhanced Oversight Plan in light of the proposed cuts to affordable housing programs included in your FY20 budget proposal? How does gutting this crucial program help protect the health and safety of the residents living in East Saint Louis Housing?

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