Aaron Fairbanks of the We Are New Albany campaign states the case beautifully. Without his persistence, it is doubtful that many candidates in the upcoming primary would have issued statements about Mayor Jeff Gahan’s non-Democratic hostile takeover of public housing in New Albany (links here).
I cannot express in words how appreciative I am of any candidate that has taken it upon themselves to respond to requests for statements on the City of New Albany and New Albany Housing Authority’s plans to demolish approximately half of the City’s public housing stock in phases over 10 years. It is crucial that candidates use their platforms and their voices to shine a light on this issue, because the people most impacted by this issue are often left invisible in the political decision-making process. Unfortunately, this reality makes it politically viable to make decisions that disparately and negatively impact those with the quietest voices.
At the end of the day, We Are New Albany is a grassroots effort to provide a voice to those who have typically found it difficult or unproductive to exercise their voice in public discourse. I’ve canvassed public housing residents on several occasions and I’m often met with the same sentiments. I had one resident suggest to me that “gentrification is going to happen whether they do anything or not.” Another resident dismissed the issue all together stating, “This is just politics.” Before convincing another resident that his voice does matter—even if he only decides to register—he attempted to dismiss voting with the understandably pessimistic view that politicians “are all crooks.”
I can certainly empathize with this perception. Being bounced around over a dozen homes growing up, I always felt like the deck was stacked against my family and me. I’ve seen some of the worst traits in people, while being directly exposed to the consequences of wage theft, employment misclassification, predatory real estate practices, etc. I know what it’s like to rely on public housing assistance for a roof over my head. I understand the realities of needing food banks and SNAP to put food on the table. I’ve been fortunate enough to have benefited from Medicaid growing up, and have multiple surgical operations covered that would have crippled my family financially otherwise. I’ve grown up with the realities of poverty following my family and me wherever we went, and I hated everything about living in poverty and the stigma that came with it. But it wasn’t until after high school that I knew that my passion was to shine a light on these issues, so that maybe someone would consider reconciling them.
With that said, I preach that empathy is an incredibly important trait for any person seeking public office. I’ve heard the axiom that “no question is a stupid question” too many times to count, but I’ve always wondered how that works when you don’t know the right questions to ask. Quite frankly, that’s why resident input is invaluable for a proposition that seeks to significantly change the outlook for and availability of affordable housing in New Albany. It’s also invaluable for candidates who will be tasked with making many decisions that directly impact those residents.
The statements from the candidates made it clear to me that I needed to re-approach many of them to relay some of those concerns, which I looked to do with my time at the political social. What I understood from reading some of those candidates’ statements is that they missed the mark on the concerns levied by our group, which I felt might have been attributable to lacking the right questions.
The focus of candidates has largely been aimed solely on whether any “current resident” will be made homeless during relocation as a direct result of demolition, not whether demolition will reduce the long-term housing security of current residents. It has been largely void of a discussion of the disruptions this could cause current residents in their livelihoods, their access to the social service infrastructure put in place under former Executive Director, Bob Lane, and their continued residence in New Albany.
While legitimate concerns have been levied about tenant-based voucher as a stable, long-term alternative to public housing, under Section 18 of the U.S. Housing Act of 1937, public housing agencies are required to provide for “comparable housing… which may include… tenant-based assistance, except that the requirement under this clause regarding offering of comparable housing shall be fulfilled by use of tenant-based assistance only upon the relocation of such family into such housing.” Nothing under Section 18, however, requires that housing be made available in the community from which a resident is displaced, and the lack of one-for-one replacement unit requirements for low-income dwellings and a guaranteed right to return necessarily means that current residents will be forcibly displaced from New Albany in the process.
Furthermore, it is understood by the academic community involved in housing around southern Indiana and the Louisville Metropolitan Surrounding area that such housing is not available in New Albany. Last May, experts who have spent decades collectively in advocating and researching housing, public policy and homelessness put out a letter to the editor of the News and Tribune addressing the Memorandum of Understanding between the City of New Albany and the New Albany Housing Authority. In their letter, they point to the City’s 3.4 percent rental vacancy rate across all price ranges. This rate was calculated prior to the loss of 100 rental units in the Breakwater fire, which presumably reduced the number of vacancies even more so.
The City’s commitment to a minimum 8% affordable housing requirement in residential developments using City money falls far short of what is necessary to make up for the number of affordable housing units slated for demolition pending HUD’s approval of the New Albany Housing Authority’s Inventory Removal Application following the ongoing physical needs assessment. Cathy Hinko of the Metropolitan Housing Coalition is quoted by the Courier Journal as asserting that the City is “basically saying they’re going to double the size of New Albany or redo half the rental units in New Albany to get that 8 percent.” It is unrealistic to suggest that the current plan’s 8 percent requirement will make up for the increased gap between the demand for affordable housing in New Albany and the limited supply of affordable housing.
This, of course, brings me to the stark realities of homelessness in southern Indiana. Upon visiting Haven House, an emergency homeless shelter in Jeffersonville, I was made aware of just how bad this issue is in and around our communities. Reducing the City’s public housing stock would come at a time when homelessness is an ever-present issue impacting New Albany and surrounding communities. Individuals sit on waiting lists for public housing and vouchers that fall far below the existing need. Unlike anti-poverty programs like Medicaid and SNAP, it is not enough to be eligible for housing assistance to get a roof over your head. Housing assistance must be made available, which is why nationally just 1 in 4 of those who are eligible for housing assistance actually obtain housing assistance. Our chairperson and many current residents have been homeless before receiving public housing. I cannot imagine any resident supporting any plan that would make it more difficult for those who are homeless to receive public housing assistance.
We have to be cognizant of all of the concerns that exist with the current plan. We will continue to work diligently to provide a platform by which those who follow our group can better understand those concerns. We appreciate everyone’s support and all of those who have taken it upon themselves to engage in this discussion with us. Thank you all!