A Program Is Only as Good as the People: Protecting Tenant Rights in RAD Implementation

by Kimberly Burrowes and Janae Ladet

Amid proposals to cut or eliminate federal funding for affordable housing programs, the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) is one of the few programs within the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) slated for expansion. RAD allows housing authorities and other owners of affordable housing with eligible subsidies to convert their existing subsidies to project-based Section 8 contracts. The program has two components. The first allows a limited number of unit conversions for public housing and Section 8 moderate rehabilitation, and the second allows the conversion of Section 8 moderate rehabilitation, rent supplement, and other legacy programs without a cap. Under each component, the goal is to facilitate capital repairs and preservation by attracting outside funds, but the premise of conversion has made some tenants and advocates nervous about unexpected changes or unwanted moves.

The 1.1 million public housing apartments in the US house 2.1 million people. More than 8 in 10 households in public housing are elderly or disabled or are families with children, and their stability matters for their health, education, and daily needs. With private rental markets lacking sufficient affordable supply, public housing is a valuable and scarce resource for its residents. In the absence of federal assistance, just 21 affordable rental units exist for every 100 extremely low–income renters. Meanwhile, large housing authorities have an average of nearly 13,000 households on their public housing waiting lists and a wait of more than four years to get assistance, demonstrating the large unmet demand for public housing and the urgency tenants may feel about retaining that assistance.

The experience of HOPE VI redevelopment may inform concerns about unwanted moves. The HOPE VI program allowed a reduction in public housing units and the ability to rescreen residents before their return, and each of these elements contributed to involuntary displacement. Neither is allowable for public housing residents under RAD, but tenants need adequate engagement to clarify these rights and safeguards to ensure them.

An interim evaluation of RAD found that the program is improving the physical conditions and financial stability of developments that undergo conversion. Preserving these affordable assets improves housing options for residents and other low-income households over the long term, but that’s only part of the goal. Residents also need stability and dignity during RAD-facilitated repairs. The next phase of the national evaluation will explore resident impacts.

While RAD evaluations are under way, the program is growing and changing. HUD has proposed lifting the limit on the number of public housing units eligible for conversion. The RAD component that focuses on legacy programs could expand to allow the conversion of Section 202 senior housing. In addition, HUD has proposed a right to continued occupancy for RAD conversions under the legacy program component similar to what exists for public housing residents.

Engaging RAD Tenants

According to the National Housing Law Project, 64 percent of tenants in public housing units are extremely low income (earn below 30 percent of the area median income), and 30 percent have a disability. RAD’s capital improvements can affect how residents think about their space, so educating them about tenant rights and participation is critical. In addition, despite protections against involuntary permanent displacement, many renters will experience temporary displacements during RAD renovation or redevelopment. A report from the Terner Center highlights strategies that some housing authorities have adopted to communicate about RAD and reduce its disruption, such as regular resident meetings and “checkerboard” relocation, in which housing authorities use natural vacancies to allow residents to move within the development during rehabilitation rather that relocating to different communities.

In a photo essay of the Lakeview Tower Extension project in Baltimore, HUD documented the experiences of residents who formed a resident advisory board to help residents participate in the RAD conversion process. One resident said, “I had no idea what RAD was. I did the research. I educated myself about it, but not everyone is going to—or able to—do that. So, we started this committee.” The advisory board streamlined communication on the project and tenant rights to increase transparency and ensure the conversion aligned with residents’ needs.

Many tenants have had positive experiences, but there are counter experiences and complaints about pressures for tenants to take buy-outs or relocate, as well as violations of their rights to return. In Hopewell, Virginia’s Langston Park RAD conversion, tenants were forced to relocate to poorer neighborhoods with overcrowded housing because of discrimination against families with disabilities. This led to a HUD investigation of formal complaints and an eventual settlement for the tenants involved. There are other cases in which tenants were rescreened for housing eligibility through RAD conversion. In Chicago, tenants facing this challenge engaged Keeping the Promise, a local fair housing advocacy group, to educate tenants and advocate for their right to return to the public housing development. Similar issues have been circumvented through the efforts of city partnerships and developers. In San Francisco, the city and the mayor worked with the affordable housing developer Mercy Housing to rehabilitate its entire housing stock through RAD. Mercy Housing partnered with the city to form working groups to discuss, plan, implement, and inform tenants about the conversion process.

Mitigating Short-Term and Long-Term Concerns

Because the program’s goal is to preserve affordable housing assets, housing advocates remain alert to RAD’s long-term prospects for affordability. As experts like James Hanlon note, the long-term reliability of Section 8 funding is not necessarily guaranteed after 15 or 20 years, which is the expiration length of a RAD contract. HUD has addressed this risk through a RAD Use Agreement that requires both parties to renew. It is not clear how that will play out. In addition, during a conversion, if there are units that have been empty for two years at the time of application for RAD, the housing authority and developer can demolish them without replacement. Furthermore, advocates and elected officials such as Representative Maxine Waters have suggested that the program creates risk (e.g., default and foreclosure), and they worry about exposing public housing to the unpredictability of financial markets.

Housing authorities, cities, advocacy groups, and HUD have responded to these concerns by organizing and educating tenants. At the federal level, HUD has enhanced RAD program requirements. After the initial RAD conversions, HUD updated a notice that described how tenant rights must be maintained. Housing authorities must conduct at least two meetings with residents, and the residents retain the right to establish and operate a resident organization to address issues related to their living environment. In organizing, residents are also eligible for funding from the RAD developer to participate in the process.

There are numerous examples of public housing authorities and organizations that have engaged and informed residents throughout the RAD conversion process. The Housing Authority of the City of El Paso created a team to provide tenants a comprehensive and proactive relocation assistance program. The team worked with tenants to communicate timelines and procedures, helped residents pack their belongings, and conducted a survey to learn about resident needs during relocation, such as accessibility, child care, and access to schools.

Implications for Moving Forward

As RAD expands, monitoring tenant rights is as important as monitoring the effects on the housing stock. As illustrated in Baltimore, San Francisco, and El Paso, federal and local agencies can improve the RAD tenant experience. They can do this through tenant education and engagement, transparency and oversight in the process, and data on RAD vacancy rates and relocation. The key is for tenants to know their options and rights and what to expect during the conversion process, as any disruption in housing stability can have negative implications for a family’s financial well-being and quality of life.


Section 8 voucher holder Tracy Carrithers views an apartment with Housing Choice Partners real estate specialist Jessie McDaniels (not pictured) in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois on June 27, 2015. Photo by Joshua Lott/Washington Post