Is RAD all that rad?

DESPITE OUR CURRENT, PHOTOfriendly, “It City” status, the percentage of Nashvillians living in poverty is 18.9 percent, according to the most recent Metro Social Service’s Community Needs Evaluation. This is above both the levels for the state of Tennessee (17.9 percent) and the country as a whole (15.9 percent). All told, some 40,000 Nashville households do their best with an annual income of less that $15,000. To put that into perspective, $15,000 — which is the high end of the poverty spectrum — comes out to about $60 per day for a household before taxes.
     No matter how you slice it, it’s not an easy way to live. Combined with the day-to-day issues residents of places like Nashville’s James A. Cayce Homes must endure — crime, blight, crumbling infrastructure — just getting by is a struggle for many.
     As it stands, the poor already start behind the proverbial curve ball capital-wise, and if the population of a given area grows faster than the money coming into it, that level often drops from generation to generation. In his best-selling 2005 book “The End of Poverty,” American economist Jeffrey Sachs argues that the best way to escape these poverty traps is for agencies to behave more like venture capitalists — not trickling in a portion of the money needed to address issues over a long period of time, but rather dousing the spreading flame of poverty with one larger, all-quenching shot of capital.
     There’s a new idea gaining steam to address projects like Cayce, and it sounds like skater slang: it’s called RAD, or Rental Assistance Demonstration. It’s a concept that gets to Sach’s privatization idea, at least in implementation. Its proponents believe that it will help solve the capital problem crippling Cayce and similar projects. Others, including members of the Cayce United Leadership Team, aren’t so sure. (See sidebar with open letter to the community from the leadership team.)
     Under the new plan, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will allow the Metropolitan Development and Housing Administration (MDHA) to use RAD to convert all of Nashville’s public housing to place-based Section 8 housing. Currently, all of Nashville’s public housing is federally owned and managed by MDHA. Under the RAD umbrella, the MDHA — meaning, in this case, Metro government — will own the properties. This ostensibly allows MDHA to use the land as collateral for loans.
     The Cayce United Leadership Team is worried about RAD’s accelerated implementation, and point out that there is, as of yet, little data on its efficacy. Whereas current affordable housing is more or less guaranteed by the federal government to be inexpensive for the long-term, under RAD, this guarantee is only good for about one generation — 20 years. There also is the risk that if the MDHA borrows money to redevelop Cayce (or any other affordable housing), and for some reason can’t pay back the loan, the land subsequently becomes the property of the lending institution. That is a concern for housing projects like Cayce sitting atop highly coveted real estate.
     However successful the beta testing has been on RAD, there are still other, as-yet-unanswered worries — namely, that putting the fate of public housing in the hands of local public housing authorities will lead to only the more economically viable projects being selected. The MDHA’s failure to directly address questions about RAD at a recent board meeting hasn’t helped the Cayce United group sleep any easier. (The MDHA didn’t respond to a request for comment prior to publication.) HUD estimates some $26 billion is needed for repairs to our country’s 1.2 million public housing units — or about three weeks’ worth of the Untied States’ 2015 military defense budget. In our current political climate, lawmakers are loathe to ask the public for any additional money for federal programs, for fear of ballot-box backlash when the next election cycle rolls around. All of which has led us to where we are now.
     Regardless of the current data (or lack thereof), it appears that the U.S. is inching ever closer towards an overwhelming privatization of public housing. Whether this alleviates the many problems still facing these residences remains to be seen. To those living in public housing — and their children, and their children’s children — the current debate could literally have life-or-death consequences.