Neighborhoods, local networks, and the non-linear path of the expiration and preservation of federal rental subsidies

Blog by Kathryn Howell

10 Nov 2017, 10:02 a.m.
Kathryn Howell



Recognizing that housing is a basic human need, most developed countries provide some form of housing subsidy for low-income families.  In the U.S., some housing subsidies are provided to buildings at the time of construction, but the subsidies are only guaranteed for a fixed period of time.  This raises the question: what happens to affordable housing when the subsidies expire? 


   In this paper, Neighborhoods, local networks, and the non-linear path of the expiration and preservation of federal rental subsidies, I explore the diverse ways that federally subsidized buildings in Washington, DC are preserved or lost. The analysis uses qualitative data assembled from seven years of meetings between various stakeholders to describe the process of preservation – or the lack of preservation. 


   In theory, the process for opting out of a federal subsidy is clear: a building owner notifies the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) of his or her intention to opt out.  A notification is sent to the city, the city’s Housing authority offers vouchers to the tenants to enable them to rent other apartments, and finally the tenants decide to move or stay. However, in practice, the process is often more complicated, as illustrated by the case of Museum Square One Apartments.


   In 2015, the owner of Museum Square One Apartments notified his tenants that they would opt-out of its nearly 40 year-old Section 8 contract the following year. The 301-unit building, located in the midst of a massive luxury apartment boom, housed a large portion of the Chinatown neighborhood’s remaining Asian seniors. However, the owner’s decision to opt out of the subsidy was just one piece of the building’s troubled past. Starting in the early 2002, as DC’s former Mayor announced his goal to attract 100,000 net new residents by 2012, Museum Square faced constant threats to building conditions, subsidies, and tenant rights that would culminate in the 2015 opt out. Tenant organizers and government agencies reported fires in the building, deteriorating conditions, and the owner’s avowal not to improve conditions, in spite of applications for new funding. 


   The cases studied in the paper, including that of Museum One, offer several lessons for policymakers and affordable housing advocates. First, preservation and loss often take years and offer multiple opportunities for intervention. Second, because of the diverse scale impacts of affordable housing – city, neighborhood, building and tenant – as well as the dimensions of funding, code enforcement and daily living, there must be an avenue through which data can be shared to create a more complete picture of the building’s status. Finally, preservation is a long and complex process that engages diverse stakeholders from tenants and tenant organizers engaged in the daily experiences of the building to local and federal agency staff. This case offers powerful support for increased collaboration between stakeholders and meaningful local laws and flexible funding for the preservation of affordable housing.



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