Thursday, September 26, 2019

Some rural public housing is crumbling after decades of USDA program funding cuts and reduced oversight

An Okeechobee Center house has crumbling
outer walls. (NBC photo by Suzy Khimm)
An Agriculture Department program that subsidizes affordable housing for more than 400,000 low-income rural families is supposed to ensure that the properties are "decent, safe and sanitary." But an NBC News investigation found that some of the housing is crumbling. "Tenant advocates fear that years of under-investment and neglect could leave aging properties in such poor shape that they ultimately become uninhabitable, accelerating the affordable housing crisis in rural America and putting its most vulnerable residents at risk," Khimm reports.

"Amid staffing cuts and with limited resources to fix aging buildings, the USDA has pared back its housing inspection protocol, provides little public information about properties’ physical conditions, and can be slow to take enforcement action when housing fails to meet federal standards, NBC News found in an investigation based on USDA documents, including inspection records and emails; government watchdog reports; and interviews with tenants, local officials and a dozen current and former housing officials," Khimm reports.

The number of USDA staffers overseeing the rural housing program has dropped 26 percent over the past decade, while repair and maintenance requests have increased. "About 15 percent of properties built through the USDA’s two main rental housing programs are in poor or below average condition, according to a 2016 analysis commissioned by the agency," Khimm reports. "The report estimated it would cost $5.6 billion over 20 years to make all the capital repairs the properties need." However, the Trump administration wants to eliminate funding that could help fix the dilapidated properties. 

The USDA blames conditions at some properties on landlords and tenants at places like at the Okeechobee Center in Belle Glade, Florida, which houses more than 370 farmworker families. Residents at the center complained for years about mold, roaches, peeling paint, leaking sewage, and other problems, but say they have few alternatives in the area. The local housing authority estimated long-term repairs would cost more than $17 million.

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