The Manhattan Institute, NYCHA, and "Tank Think"

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Last week, the Manhattan Institute, a right leaning (or right-wing, in some circles) think tank published its nearly annual attack on NYCHA.  Under the guise of objective data analysis and policy proposals, it once again attempts to undermine the very idea of public housing based on ‘free-market’ principles that are better understood as anti-public ideology.  As is the case with many similar right-leaning arguments (funded through think tanks by mega-donors) the MI’s argument against NYHCA collapses on basic review. Let’s look at three core points the report makes and see why they are disingenuous at best.

1.     NYCHA Doesn’t Serve Enough Minority Groups

One of the core problems with MI’s positions in general is its disregard for historical context.  At best it ignores racial discrimination in US policy and society; at worst, it attempts to warp it into a friendly argument. 

The report claims that NYCHA is failing to properly represent the full cross-section of "new" poor residents in the city.  It accurately shows that black households (26% of poor NYC households and 45% of NYCHA households) and Hispanic households (34% and 45%) are over represented in NYCHA housing compared to white households (27% and 4%) and Asian households (11% and 5%).

What it fails to mention is the larger economic and social forces that created those initial discrepancies in the first place.  As white America was subsidized into the suburbs in the post-war era, black and Hispanic families were prevented from doing so while in many cases also being forced out of thriving neighbors for highway construction. Their only option for good housing for most of the middle of the 20th century was public housing (and it was considered good housing for the first several decades.)

(The report has a final, condescending mention of how few black Americans own homes insinuating, against all historical evidence and contemporary data, that public housing somehow prevents black families from purchasing homes.)

To claim that NYCHA should have a proportional quota of NYC poverty might have merit if there wasn’t 70 years of racial discrimination forcing certain groups in and out of certain types of housing in and outside of the city.  It’s brazenly disingenuous to try to use the lack of contemporary “diversity” in NYCHA as a knock against its current management.

2.     NYCHA Should Put a Limit on Residency

Another key component of MI’s rhetorical strategy is to make false comparisons and misrepresent arguments altogether.  The report claims that NYCHA does a poor job of rotating residents through their units compared to other public housing authorities. NYCHA’s average residency is 18 years while the US average residency is 10 years. It also makes similar claims about how recently units were received/exchanged in the last year (3% NYCHA vs. 13% US) and how long the wait list is (7.5 years to 2 years.)

These data comparisons are an attempt to show that NYCHA is an outlier in terms of turnover compared to the rest of US public housing.  Of course that is true. NYCHA is the largest and oldest system in the country, in a city with the deepest political commitment to public housing. 

Not only did few cities construct the number of units built in NYC, but also many that did have already destroyed them.  Many cities have limited the goals and scope of their public housing authorities and many states have severely limited their funding (on top of the larger federal retreat over the last 30 years.)

The obvious point here is that comparing NYCHA to other public housing authorities is ridiculous and a comically inept attempt to make it look bad. When compared to other public housing authorities, if anything, it shows that a bigger commitment to public housing can make a significant difference to every city.

The more insidious point is that the report attempts to assert the premise that the core metric of success should be tenant turnover. That is not the core metric.  The core metric is how affordable a unit is compared to private housing. 

For all of its problems (some self-inflicted, many imposed on it) NYCHA provides affordable housing with flying colors.   As of Jan 2017, the average NYCHA rent is $509 and the average in NYC rent was $3000.

One final point here is what is left unsaid.  Many NYCHA residents are older and poorer than the average city resident.  Many developers are designated for senior housing or or naturally-occurring retirement communities (NORCs).  This explains the longer dwell times and lower turnover of course.  But if NYCHA were to institute some draconian kick-out dates, MI comes up short on what would happen to these people.

3.     NYCHA Has Too Many Non-Poor Residents

This claim represents the core dog whistle argument that the right relies on with anything to do with public institutions – there are too many "takers".  Ignoring the racial overtones of such claims, let’s look at their data. 

The report claims that 10% of NYCHA households have an income above the NYC average median income of $53,000.  Out of 178,000 apartments, this percentage is somehow to be understood as way too big and a failure of NYCHA to offer housing to poorer residents.  Sure, in any large system, there are bound to be some people that abuse it.

However, this percentage does not provide further context, especially considering the cost of living differences between say Manhattan (AMI: $67,000: NYCHA units in borough: 53,000) and the Bronx ($35,000; NYCHA units: 44,000).  It is simply unlikely that these 10% of residents are living well above the means of their neighbors in and around their complexes.  Not accounting for the vast differences in boroughs and the vast differences in the location of NYCHA development reduces the impact of this data point to next to nothing.

Furthermore, though the report mentions “overhousing” as a problem in terms of resource allocation, this actually ignores the larger problem MI appears unconcerned with: NYCHA likely drastically undercounts the number of residents.  Some estimates place the true number of residents at closer to 600,000.

Many families don’t want to register family members because they have a criminal record, or because they would have too many occupants.  This speaks to a harsh truth (unacknowledged by the report) that NYCHA does have strict residency rules and many residents fear being evicted for violating them.  It’s impossible to tell, but still highly likely that these higher incomes support larger families than are being reported.

The larger truth is that NYCHA residents, despite representing a significant portion of NYC’s poor households, are predominantly working poor. Only 13% of NYCHA families receive public support.  Far from being “takers” these residents are providers both to their complexes, their neighborhoods, and their city.

Every year or so the Manhattan Institute attacks NYCHA, but never head on.  It is always through arguments like the ones presented in this year’s report – disingenuous attempts to frame aspects of NYCHA’s mission or management as failures.  (Last year it was crime and under investment.)

No doubt there are real and pressing problems for the day-to-day lives of NYCHA residents and the larger health of the system.  But don’t be lulled into thinking that the Manhattan Institute is concerned with these.  MI doesn’t believe in public housing and it doesn’t want NYCHA to succeed or for its residents to actually get the help they need. 

That would require the MI to acknowledge that despite decades of neglect, NYCHA has actually been a success story - that for all of its flaws, it is doing what it was set out to do.  It would require MI to accept that the very idea of public investment, ownership, and interest is worthy of our support and worthy of federal support.  Their wealthy donors don’t want to hear that.