Public Housing and the Pandemic: Ensuring the Safety of Vulnerable Tenants

By: Evan Chiarelli

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, public housing provided a lifeline to low-income and extremely cost burdened families. Public housing is a federally funded, locally operated rental housing assistance program that has provided access to safe, decent, and affordable housing since for impoverished individuals since 1937.[1] Compared to other rental assistance programs like the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program, public housing is “more likely to be accessible to people with disabilities.”[2] It is also the only form of permanent affordable housing in many communities. Whereas the owners of units produced by the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) and the Project Based Rental Assistance (PBRA) program can raise rents once their obligation to keep prices low ends, public housing must stay affordable for those who earn no more than 80% of the area median income (AMI).[3]  For many families, public housing is the only thing saving them from permanent housing displacement and homelessness.

During the pandemic, Public Housing Authorities (PHAs) struggled to stretch waning budgets to keep vulnerable tenants safe and provide critical housing services. The public housing population is at a higher risk of catching COVID-19. Public housing is only available to extremely low-income individuals, with many residents required to fall within 0 to 30% of AMI.[4] Second, over half of the 1.13 million Americans in public housing are seniors and people with disabilities, which early research indicates are two groups most at risk of serious complications if diagnosed with COVID-19.[5] Third, approximately 65% of public housing residents are people of color, who are at an increased risk of experiencing serious illness or structural barriers to receiving medical treatment once diagnosed.[6] Taken together, the public housing population is poorer, older, and includes more people of color, thus leaving them particularly exposed to COVID-19.

Outside of demographical information, those in public housing face additional health risks that could exacerbate a COVID-19 diagnosis. The aging public housing stock, alongside the inability or unwillingness by PHAs to perform necessary repairs, has left many units in poor conditions that create additional health risks.[7] Instances of broken boilers, mold, mildew, rodent infestations, and fires have detrimental effects to the health and safety of public housing residents.[8] One particular example involves families residing in the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) units who did not have operational heating units in their home for over ten years.[9] The extreme cold of the winter resulted in more severe cases of Asthma among children in the unit.[10]

In the face of these challenges, PHAs have worked diligently to provide necessary services to its most vulnerable residents. This past week, the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing, Community Development, and Insurance conducted a hearing to discuss PHA responses to COVID-19 and address areas of concern moving forward.[11] Georgi Banna, the Director of Policy and Program Development at the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials (NAHRO), listed three critical services PHAs undertook during the pandemic.[12] First, when schools moved to online learning in March 2020, PHAs began providing internet services at no extra cost to families whose children would otherwise have been unable to attend school.[13] These PHAs also provided headphones and other school supplies so students could focus while learning at home. Second, PHAs worked to combat food insecurity among its residents by working with local food banks to provide meals for those who had either lost their jobs or were unable to go to the grocery store because of a heightened risk of contracting COVID-19.[14]  The Tampa Housing Authority, for instance, turned the food insecurity crisis into an opportunity by creating an urban farm that will provide thousands of eggs and thousands of pounds of produce for those in public housing. Finally, PHAs across the United States organized clinics to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine and worked with community partnerships to provide personal protective equipment to thousands of residents.[15] These activities were critical in promoting the health and well-being of public housing residents.

These monumental efforts in the face of extreme adversity are laudable, but it will take significant federal investment to ensure that public housing residents can be protected from the dangers of unsanitary housing and the impact of communicable diseases like COVID-19. While Congress did appropriate $685 million for the Public Housing Operating Fund in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, public housing has been sorely underfunded for decades.[16] Over the past 20 years, federal funding for public housing capital repairs fell 35%. More than 10,000 public housing units are lost annually to substandard and unsafe housing conditions because PHAs do not have the resources to repair them.[17] Affordable housing advocates have estimated that the federal government will need to spend $70 billion in order to reverse this trend and make the substantive repairs necessary to save public housing.[18]

While $70 billion is a significant investment, the federal government makes a similar investment to help homeowners through the Mortgage Interest Deduction. This deduction allows homeowners to save money on their taxes by claiming a tax break for debt incurred to “purchase or substantially rehabilitate a home.”[19] In 2018 and 2019, this deduction cost the federal government $100 billion in revenue.[20] Put another way, the federal government subsidized home repairs for middle class families while the poorest among us live in housing that is borderline uninhabitable. If we can scrape together $100 billion for middle class homeowners, surely we can find $70 billion for seniors, people with disabilities, and extremely low-income families living in public housing.

Two bills in the United States House of Representatives aim to begin the process of repairing the national public housing stock. The Supporting Seniors and Tenants in Subsidized Housing Act, introduced by Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, II, would “provide additional protections for public housing residents during the coronavirus pandemic and would provide supplemental funding for supportive housing for the elderly.”[21] Representative Nydia Velázquez has also introduced the Public Housing Emergency Response Act, which would appropriate additional money to help PHA’s restore their public housing and provide more sanitary housing for low-income families.[22] If passed, these bills represent a step in the right direction, and must be the first in many designed to protect vulnerable residents from health risks found both inside and outside of their homes.


[1] See Maggie McCarty, Cong. Research Serv., R41654, Introduction to Public Housing 1 (2014).

[2] Staff of H. Comm. On Financial Services, 117th Cong., Preserving a Lifeline: Examining Public Housing in a Pandemic 2 (Comm. Print. 2021).

[3] Id.

[4] See Benny Doctor & Martha Galvez, The Future of Public Housing: Public Housing Fact Sheet, Urb. Inst. (Feb. 20, 2020), https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/101482/the20future20of20public20housing20public20housing20fact20sheet_0.pdf

[5] See Mica O’Brien & Susan Popkin, How Public Housing Authorities Are Supporting Vulnerable Residents during COVID-19, Urb. Inst. (Apr. 17, 2020), https://www.urban.org/urban-wire/how-public-housing-authorities-are-supporting-vulnerable-residents-during-covid-19

[6] See Samantha Artiga, Rachel Garfield, & Kendal Orgera, Communities of Color at Higher Risk for Health and Economic Challenges due to COVID-19, Kaiser Fam. Found. (Apr. 7, 2020), https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/communities-of-color-at-higher-risk-for-health-and-economic-challenges-due-to-covid-19/

[7] See Mica O’Brien & Susan Popkin, Our Public Housing Puts Older Americans At Risk, Urb. Inst. (Jan. 30, 2020), https://www.urban.org/urban-wire/our-aging-public-housing-puts-older-americans-risk; See also Luis Ferrè-Sadurní, No Heat for 10 Years, and the City is Their Landlord, N.Y. Times (Dec. 19, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/19/nyregion/nycha-housing-heat.html

[8] See Luis Ferré-Sadurní, 1,713 Mammoth Boilers, and Winter Weeks Away, N.Y. Times (Oct. 17, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/17/nyregion/nycha-heating-boilers.html; See also Molly Parker, Pretty Much a Failure: HUD Inspections Pass Dangerous Apartments Filled with Rats, Roaches, and Toxic Mold, Pro Publica (Nov. 16, 2018), https://www.propublica.org/article/hud-inspections-pass-dangerous-apartments-with-rats-roaches-toxic-mold

[9] See also Luis Ferrè-Sadurní, No Heat for 10 Years, and the City is Their Landlord, N.Y. Times (Dec. 19, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/19/nyregion/nycha-housing-heat.html

[10] Id.

[11] Preserving a Lifeline: Examining Public Housing in a Pandemic: Hearing Before the Subcomm. on Hous., Cmty Dev., and Ins, 117th Cong. (2021) (statement of Georgi Banna, Director of Policy and Program Development, National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials).

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] See Staff of H. Comm. On Financial Services, 117th Cong., Preserving a Lifeline: Examining Public Housing in a Pandemic 4 (Comm. Print. 2021).

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] See Tax Policy Ctr., Key Elements of the U.S. Tax System 372 (2020).

[20] Id.

[21] See Staff of H. Comm. On Financial Services, 117th Cong., Preserving a Lifeline: Examining Public Housing in a Pandemic 5 (Comm. Print. 2021).

[22] See Public Housing Emergency Response Act of 2021, H.R. 235, 117th Cong. (2021).