The Virtues of Public Housing

Queensbridge Houses in Queens (nycha)

Queensbridge Houses in Queens (nycha)

Two articles appeared in the New York Times last week that directly and indirectly showcase the plight of public housing in New York City.  The first article covered the manslaughter conviction of Officer Peter Liang who accidentally shot and killed Akai Gurley, a resident of the Louis H. Pink Houses in East New York in 2014.  The second focused on a newly-created non-profit, The Fund for Public Housing, which hopes to encourage philanthropic giving for public housing.  

The tragic death of Mr. Gurley has become part of the larger national narrative of protesting state-sanctioned violence against minority communities that has galvanized large segments of Americans and has already impacted the Presidential race.  Sadly, the specific details of the shooting - a rookie cop patrolling a notorious project, accidentally firing his weapon into a dark stairwell, which ricocheted off a wall and struck an innocent passerby - are more of an indictment of the systemic failures impacting residents of public housing in the city.

That Officer Liang was trained to draw his weapon in a residential complex shows how the training and tactics deployed by the police in public housing failed residents and the young officer with devastating consequences.  This event is simply the byproduct of decades of political and economic neglect that has isolated residents of public housing and subjected them to shocking pockets of violence despite the historic decline in crime across the city.  However, we have effectively "normalized" this dichotomy and, outside of moment-capturing events such as Mr. Gurley's death, we are rarely forced to face it.

It is easy to forget the scale of achievement represented by public housing in NYC.  The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) owns and operates 328 developments containing 177,666 apartments and over 400,000 residents, the vast majority of which are income-burdened (the average family income is $23,000.)  1 in 12 New Yorkers live in a NYCHA development. There are 77,000 seniors and 110,000 children under 18.  For all intensive purposes, NYCHA is affordable housing in NYC.

Most of the buildings were constructed between 1950 and 1970, and unlike the majority of other public housing authorities in the US, they were built largely through city and state funds, with limited federal funding.  This partly explains why NYCHA reached such a scale and why it endures while many other Public Housing Authorities across the country have been torn down. But it also explains the deeply embedded problems facing the agency.

It is difficult to picture government intervention on such a massive scale now and, given its dubious motivations, there are many reasons to argue against it.  "Slum clearance" - the raison d' etre for the intervention - was undoubtedly tinged with racism in its redistribution of public resources to private interests that (coupled with red-lining policies) exacerbated inequality for minorities.  Tower-in-the-park designs embraced by the movement have been widely discredited for fostering isolation and alienation.  Seen as temporary housing, little thought and planning were put to sustainable financing for maintenance, causing terrible living conditions.  As quickly as governments, particularly at the federal level, funded the construction of public housing, they retreated from the necessary long-term stewardship needed to maintain them.

Today, NYCHA is estimated to have $17 billion worth of outstanding capital and operating costs (pitch-black internal hallways are just one example). That is a truly staggering and disheartening shortfall.  Much of this gap comes from the decision to discontinue federal funding at all more than 15 years ago. It should also be noted that NYCHA has come under fire for mismanaging funds and failing to properly disclose previously granted federal money.

To make up for the shortfall, both the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations have suggested variations on a program called "in-filling" which would allow NYCHA to sell or lease underutilized land owned by the agency to private developers.  This report shows that there are significant trade-offs depending on where the land is located (obviously developers would be more interested in lower Manhattan than Brownsville for example), but it is probably the only way to accumulate significant revenue without a sea change in political priorities nationally or even in the state. However, even optimistic projections of infilling wouldn't cover the needs of the agency.

This brings us to the second NY Times article, about The Fund for Public Housing.  An off-shoot of NYCHA, it is a non-profit designed to make NYCHA a high-profile option for giving along the lines of Central Park, Lincoln Center, or even Harvard.  If you're skeptical that NYCHA has the same sex appeal as those other 'non-profits', you are not alone

The stated fundraising goals are a relatively modest $200m over 3 years, but Rasima Kimani-Fyre, the fund's director and a former NYCHA employee, does have an intriguing strategy to achieve it - NYCHA housing alumni.  Given the scale of the agency, it's not surprising to learn that it has produced a large list of former residents who have gone on to have staggeringly successful careers - Jay-z, Lloyd Blankfein (chairman of Goldman Sachs) Howard Schultz (chairman of Starbucks) and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor are just are few.  

Though some of these individuals could certainly contribute healthy amounts of money and bundle together other generous benefactors,  what could be more useful in the long-run is simply claiming pride in being a resident and advocating for public housing. Reframing the narrative about public housing around the people who have most benefited from its purpose would be a powerful tool for advocates and do much to shake off the nagging popular image of public housing that permeates the city as well as the country.

It's not out of the question that with some positive PR, coupled with the increasing awareness of the inequalities within the US and the affordability crisis within NYC, public support could shift back to seeing public housing as a better focus for tax money than boondoggles like sports stadiums or casinos.  The money going into support of public housing would flow back into the local economy and improve utility and opportunity for thousands of struggling New Yorkers.  

And compare the impact of donating to Central Park with donating to NYCHA.  About 42 million people visited Central park last year, or an average of 115,000 a day.  NYCHA has 400,000 people coming and going every day. That kind of reach, coupled with a more accurate portrayal of the positive impact that public housing has had for many people, would surly attract some high profile patronage.

PR might score some high-profile benefactors, but it wouldn't cover $17b in costs.  I'm certainly not suggesting that the fund or even in-filling are the sole solutions.  But if they can reinvigorate the conversation on public housing and change the narrative that dominates it, they would surly create the opportunity for us to start focusing on why public housing matters and why it is worthy of our collective support.