Kippax Place, a seven-story building in downtown Hopewell, is a product of 1970s-era public policy housing. Like so many public housing projects, it became almost unlivable. In an effort to restore the facility to habitable standards, the Hopewell Redevelopment and Housing Authority has contracted with the Community Housing Corporation to give the home for more than 100 elderly and disabled residents a $13 million, top-to-bottom overhaul.
As described by the Richmond Times-Dispatch today, the apartment building had deteriorated to an atrocious state of disrepair: broken water pipes, mold, rodents, bed bugs, leaking ceilings and windows, intermittently operating elevators, an antiquated HVAC system, and a dysfunctional trash chute that had filled up to the top. When both elevators broke down, residents would get trapped in their rooms for days at a time.
How had the situation gotten so bad? One problem is that the business model was fundamentally unsound. In 2015 article the Hopewell News quoted Steven Benham with the Hopewell housing authority:
“Kippax … was losing about $90,000 a year when you look at the revenue that we get from that building and the overall expenses that it takes to run that building. We’re losing about $90,000 a year.”
To help stop the financial bleeding, Benham said HRHA has tried to reduce services at the building, closely monitor the utilities, and reduce staff. He said the cost has been brought down quite a bit but it has not been enough.
Notice the phrase, “Reduce services at the building.” That’s another way of saying, “Reduce maintenance.” Not that Benham had any choice. The housing authority has to live within an inadequate budget.
The situation is Hopewell is little different from the situation anywhere else in the country. The TD provides some perspective:
[Kippax residents] are on the receiving end of historic indifference toward maintaining the nation’s public housing stock — a problem so dire that experts say 10,000 units go offline annually because they have become uninhabitable.
There’s a documented $26 billion backlog of capital needs for such things as bad boilers and faulty pipes across the nation’s 1.2 million public housing units. … The actual need is likely twice as high.
Affordable housing advocates warn some complexes have deteriorated to the Depression-level conditions that first prompted the federal government to become involved in housing issues in the 1930s.
Bacon’s bottom line: The original justification for public housing was that there was a “market failure” in housing that justified government stepping in and creating a supply of “affordable” units. Politically progressive reformers argued that government could provide decent housing at a lower cost than could the market.
Eighty years of experience have demonstrated with startling clarity that the “public failure” is just as bad, if not greater than, the “market failure.” Even when supplemented by federal subsidies, the pitiful income streams generated by low-income residents are inadequate to sustain the public housing projects. Invariably, the path of least resistance is to defer maintenance. Over time, the public facilities deteriorate to a level that would be intolerable if they were operated by private-sector slumlords. Not only does government build and maintain slum-style housing, public projects concentrate poverty, often making them projects cesspools of crime and violence. (As a home for the elderly and disabled, Kippax does not appear to have a significant crime problem.)
The housing-industrial complex — an ecosystem of federal and local agencies and authorities, financiers, contractors, and consultants — has been impossible to dislodge. Like any other special-interest group, it is politically powerful. Over the years, the industry has tried to reinvent itself based upon trendy new concepts and theories, all leading so far to disappointing results. The idea at Kippax is to convert the property to private ownership and management in partnership with Christiansburg-based Community Housing Corporation, with rental assistance to keep rents affordable.
The infusion of capital and major renovations will improve the quality of the housing stock in the short run. Residents will appreciate having someone repair their apartments, seal the building against the elements, fix the elevator and put the trash chute back into working order. Also, a modernized HVAC system should generate savings through lower electricity costs. The question in my mind is whether the facility is financially sustainable over the long run. If not, it matters not whether the landlord is the public housing authority or a non-profit enterprise. If not, Kippax will enter into another downward spiral of deferred maintenance and disrepair.