NY Times (as usual) Misses Real "Bomb" in Story on NYCHA Heat Failure

 Shola Olatoye visiting an emergency command center at Patterson Houses in Mott Haven (facebook/nycha)

Shola Olatoye visiting an emergency command center at Patterson Houses in Mott Haven (facebook/nycha)

As the Bomb Cyclone continues to squat on much of the Northeast, bone-chilling temperatures have made being outside highly dangerous. Unfortunately, for too many NYCHA residents, it has also been dangerous inside. According to the New York Times, the heating systems in at least 35 buildings (out of 2,462) have failed leaving as many as 15,000 residents without heat at some point during the week leading up to and during the storm.

Though NYCHA has set up Warming Centers for residents and appears to be restoring heat in a methodical manner, the Times (as usual) ignores the larger story: The funding bomb dropped by the federal government on NYCHA.

I don’t want to excuse NYCHA management. It is unacceptable not to provide heat for residents. It’s fair to suspect human and system error (and even negligence) somewhere on the tactical level be it in inspecting, reporting, or communication.

NYCHA has had a history of mismanagement (though it doesn’t get enough credit for a vastly improved operation in recent years) and, most recently, it lied about federal lead inspections. This scandal does not get Chair Shola Olatoye or NYCHA leadership much sympathy this time around.

That being said, the article demonstrates a larger problem with how the media covers public housing by ignoring the larger landscape NYCHA exists in and by consciously or subconsciously projecting ideological bias against it.

The Dickensian narrative of public housing

First of all, the media rarely covers public housing. For every dubious or class-blind trend piece the Times publishes on real estate, it only focuses on NYCHA when something goes really wrong.

I include “really” because a lot goes wrong with NYCHA on a daily basis. But because these are generally chronic problems facing poor people, the media ignores them. (Crime-related stories of course get plenty of coverage.)

NYCHA is the largest and oldest public housing authority in the country and serves over 400,000 residents in 178,000 units across 2,462 buildings. Of course being that big and old means having a lot of problems. Perhaps the biggest problem is the estimated $17 billion capital shortfall that leaves much of its infrastructure in dire condition (and susceptible to private appropriation, but more on that later.)

While the media ignores the chronic problems facing public housing, it feasts on acute events like the heat failure. As a result, the only time public housing is on the public radar, it is presented as a Dickensian hellhole run by at best helpless or at worst negligent public employees populated by equally helpless poor people.

The heat failure is an important story and I don’t want to appear to downplay the suffering of residents during a historically cold storm, but is an issue in basically 1% of NYCHA buildings a sign of massive systemic collapse?

Not only does this narrative rob NYHCA employees and residents of their agency, it also completely obscures the source of these problems: the federal government, which has abandoned public housing and its residents.

The federal government has cut off over $1 billion dollars of operating support for NYCHA over the last decade as well as $300 million in capital support. The Trump Administration is also attempting to cut another $300 million this year. NYCHA gets 2/3s of its $3.2 billion annual operating budget from the federal government. It is a testament to the agency that it has survived this assault at all.

I don’t understand how any reporter could write about the problems facing NYCHA and not frame it through this information, which explains many of them. The article only vaguely references this funding collapse through a single quote from Public Advocate Letitia James. That’s an unacceptable oversight.

And the ideological contempt underneath it

Part of the explanation, no doubt, lies in an ideological bias against public housing that much of the media landscape is guilty of consciously or subconsciously. This bias comes at least in part from the basic economics of the media industry.

There is a fascinating history of real estate developers creating, owning, or buying local news outlets to further their interests. The playbook has been to concern troll about homelessness, crime, and radical activism to provide public cover for the state (the police, mostly, but also zoning) to pacify neighborhoods in order to take control and redevelop. For a contemporary example, Jared Kushner bought the New York Observer in 2006 and the paper subsequently started bashing homelessness in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village where his family owns 40% of the housing stock.

A more benign but no less compromising factor is the reliance that many media outlets have on real estate advertising. Historically, real estate listingsand classified ads were a major source of revenue for local newspapers. The latter has collapsed, but the former has increased in importance. Both the Times and the Wall Street Journal have put greater emphasis on digital real estate ads and digital real estate products.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting there’s a conspiracy or underhandedness against public housing by the media or the Times specifically. But the media’s basic business model gives it no incentive to support public housing practically or philosophically.

Whether it’s trying to sell ads about real estate or luxury cars, the Times in particular is seeking an affluent audience that high-dollar advertisers crave. That affluent audience either doesn’t care about public housing or actively opposes it. It’s impossible to ignore that this basic logic informs the operation of the paper, from what writers get hired, to what stories get pursued and published.

This ideological bias also informs how NYCHA’s funding shortfalls are presented when they are written about. I mentioned earlier that NYCHA faces a $17 billion capital funding gap. Making the case for increased federal funding is never seriously considered in the media. Instead, the only viable solution presented is public private partnerships, which many advocates fear is just a dress rehearsal for future privatization (it is.)

Framing this issue so narrowly limits the ability for the public to consider alternative options or to even know that they exist (they do.) It also handicaps progressive elected officials, empowers conservative ones, and lets most of them off the hook entirely.

What we as the public are left with is a woefully incomplete view of the problems facing public housing and a suspiciously uncritical view of why those problems exist. This allows a deeply flawed narrative about public housing to dominate public perception and to frame policy discussions.

Just as critically, we are never shown why public housing exists, why it is a public good worthy of our support, and how successful it has been. There are just as many stories about the amazing things NYCHA does as an organization (especially given its funding restraints) and just as many amazing stories about NYCHA residents that tell a more complete story of public housing in the US.

Right now, too many NYCHA residents are cold. We must hold NYCHA accountable to fix this as soon as possible. But we must hold ourselves accountable too. We can’t allow the media to ignore the larger ‘silent bombs’ of poverty, sickness, and economic isolation that plague many NYCHA residents — any many other New Yorkers– everyday.