HUD searches for ways to rescue periled public housing

Public housing in the nation's largest cities is an endangered species, and US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) officials are looking for ways and means to revive an institution once considered a panacea for the housing needs of the nation's poor.

The situation here is so bad that the Boston Housing Authority (BHA), one of the nation's 10 largest local public housing agencies, has been placed in receivership. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court authorized the receivership Feb. 5.

HUD, which has budgeted $741.5 million to support more than 3.2 million units throughout the nation, is determined to prevent deterioration in other troubled cities that could incite future damaging legal actions against local authorities.

And the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials (NAHRO) plans to conduct a series of workshops to urge the private sector to take more than a passing interest in housing for low-and moderate-income families.

Basically, housing experts within and outside of HUD agree on the key causes of public housing problems: not enough funds provided for maintenance, security, and modernizing of public housing; the aging and outdating of older developments , usually located in inner- city ghettos of the nation's cities of more than 500 ,000 population; inflated crime rates; and unemployment and poverty among residents.

Although HUD is working with the appointed BHA receiver here, housing troubleshooter Lewis H. Spence, the federal landford considers the Massachusetts court ruling "a drastic" measure not recommended for other decaying public housing programs.

"We cannot allow another Boston," says Clyde McHenry, HUD assistant secretary for public housing. to prevent "another boston," he adds, HUD has taken some basic steps to improve the nation's current public housing stock:

* Comprehensive Modernization. This program combines the "best" of two HUD pilot efforts -- the Target Projects Program (TPP) of 1975 and the Urban Initiatives Program of 1978 -- to completely modernize and update units in 500 distressed projects, 5 percent of the nation's public housing. Congress has appropriated $218 million to start the program this year and another $218 million to continue it through fiscal year 1981. HUD's goal is to institutionalize this program for all local housing authorities within five years. "This is an effort to prevent future deterioration of public housing," Mr. McHenry says.

* Rehabilitation of present stock and new construction: HUD is asking Congress to divert as much as half the funds allotted to new housing -- current requests are for 150,000 new units this year -- to rehabilitation of present units now in use but not meeting local building-code requirements. "This will be for a limited number of units, and it will not be a free lunch for beneficiaries either," Mr. McHenry says. "We shall have strings and fiscal controls attached. Housing authorities will be told to straighten up and fly right."

* Cooperative programs: Social services and safety measures are offered through 10 federal agencies, including HUD. They coordinate their efforts to make public housing projects livable, sanitary, and safe communities for tenants. They offer anticrime programs, alcohol- and drug-abuse projects, youth and tenant employment activities, urban park and recreational facilities, tenant organization, and tenant security patrols.

Housing specialists in and out of government, however, agree the HUD alone cannot do the job, especially in this age of inflating budgets.

"Most public housing is well-managed," says Joseph Burnstein; chairman of the seminar series, cosponsored by NAHRO and Legal Times, a real estate publication. "But exceptions such as Boston scare everybody. HUD is taking many steps to overcome tremendous problems, but today is not yesterday, and HUD does not have enough money."

Now in private practice in washington after working 37 years as a HUD counselor, Mr. Burnstein favors programs that bring private industry into the low-cost housing market through subsidized (Section 8) housing, turnkey developments, and other initiatives.

HUD officials have taken both formal and informal control of local public housing operations in the past, but never has an authority been placed under receivership until Boston, be says.

He recalls that past actions against local housing authorities ranged from court appointment of a master to enforce desegregation in Chicago to a HUD "takeover" of Los Angeles public housing in the 1950s.

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