The Mayor's Plan to Fix NYCHA Will Nix Public Housing (But Don't Blame Him)

Isaacs Houses (homebodynetwork)

Isaacs Houses (homebodynetwork)

Yesterday Mayor de Blasio announced an updated plan to fix the crumbling public housing stock in NYC before it falls into federal receivership — and even more uncertainty. The plan calls for selling air rights, allowing developers to build on NYCHA land, and most radically of all, transferring 1/3 of all NYCHA homes to private manage. 

If all goes according to the plan, these programs will still only account for 75% of the $32 billion in needed upgrades for NYCHA, leaving the remaining funding in the hands of an uncommitted Governor Cuomo and an openly hostile federal administration. 

It also doesn’t provide any new housing opportunities for the 360,000 New York families on the waiting list for NYCHA or Section 8 vouchers or the more than 60,000 homeless New Yorkers.

I don’t envy the Mayor’s position. This is his best option to find the significant cash infusion for upgrades to a vast system. NYCHA manages 176,000 homes across 2,400 buildings. Almost half of NYCHA developments are 50 years or older. Decades of underinvestment from the federal government (and years of mismanagement at NYCHA) has compounded to put many buildings on the brink of permanent decline and eventual condemnation. Over 400,000 New Yorkers live in NYCHA and deserve dramatic and fast solutions. The fact that this is the best option is not on the Mayor.

But let’s be clear what this plan represents: this is an admission that the idea of public housing in the US is over — from a progressive mayor in a progressive city with a long history of successful stewardship of public housing. 

There are 1.3 million publicly owned homes in the US, but NYCHA is by far the largest concentration of them. For 80 years, it has stood out as a well managed bastion of affordable housing, in sharp contrast to other cities that never had the political support to properly invest in a system. For every Pruitt-Igoe or Cabrini-Green in another city, there is a Queensbridge or Williamsburg Houses here. These developments aren’t perfect, but they are providing affordable homes and stable communities for thousands of New Yorkers. NYCHA showed that public housing worked.

The real story of NYCHA is how resilient it has proved to be despite a hostile federal government and indifferent public that have betrayed it at every corner over the last forty years. Just since 2001, the federal government has cut over $3 billion in operational funding. It’s only recently that NYCHA has started to fracture and it’s miraculous that it endured as well as it did under the circumstances.

 If after all of that, we’re throwing in the towel on NYCHA now, we’re throwing it in everywhere. At a time when virtually the entire country is feeling the pain of the affordable housing crisis, this is the exact opposite of what we need to do. 

One out of three American households (38 million) are cost burdened. Half of all renters are cost burdened (which has doubled over the last 50 years) and a quarter are severely burdened. Since 2000, the number of Americans living in poverty has increased by 28% to 12.8 million. In 2016 alone, 1.4 million people (including 175,000 families with children) were homeless at some point during the year. 

In New York City, it’s even worse. Half of all renters in NYC are rent burdened, including virtually all low-income households. Homelessness is at record numbers. Displacement of low-income communities is rampant. 

What is truly scary about all of this is that it is happening during one of the longest periods of economic growth in our history. 

At precisely the time where we need bold, transformative federal leadership on housing, when we need more public housing, the federal government under the Trump administration is retreating even further. 

Last month, HUD Secretary Carson sent a letter to public housing authorities outlining HUD’s plan to dramatically reduce the stock of public housing in the US. Housing advocates fear that next year they will see severe budget cuts to public housing and other housing programs.

It’s not enough to blame President Trump or Republicans. The Democratic Party doesn’t support public housing either. Despite champions like Rep. Barbara Lee, Nydia Velazquez, or Hakeem Jeffries, the party overall, and particularly during the Obama Administration, has actively supported privatization of public housing which demonstrably leads to a reduction of affordable housing. The Democratic Party has never made public housing the priority it should be and millions of Americans, not just NYCHA residents, have suffered as a consequence.

Instead, both parties have embraced subsidizing homeownership and incentivizing the private market to build affordable housing units for decades. The result of this bipartisanship is skyrocketing home and rental prices and millions of missing affordable homes.

The mayor’s plan in part reflects this ugly reality. The central component of the plan is the expansion of the controversial Obama-era Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program. The mayor proposes transferring 62,000 homes — one third of the system — into private management supported by Section 8 vouchers. NYCHA would still own the properties, but private developers would be able to leverage private capital markets to make repairs and then collect rents on a 99-year lease. The mayor estimates that this process (which includes non-RAD programs as well) would generate $12.8b in repairs.

RAD has become liberal’s “best idea” for a long-term solution for public housing. That’s understandable. Given the way public housing is framed nationally, it represents the only idea to raise large amounts of capital for public housing right now. Many cities, like San Francisco, have or are in the process of converting their entire public housing stock into the RAD program. 

In NYC, developments have already been converted. The biggest so far, Ocean Bay in the Rockaways, has been viewed as validation for the program. The infusion of capital has led to renovations for all apartments and a palpable improvement in the quality of life for residents. This is of course welcome for the New Yorkers in these buildings. 

But what Ocean Bay proves is, wait for it, the quality of buildings and the quality of life for residents improves when you invest money in them. There is nothing intrinsically better about private management, other than there is political support to subsidize it. NYCHA used to be a model of property management because it used to have enough money to do it well too. 

In the short term, RAD-fueled private management might be a godsend to residents compared to a slowing and staggering NYCHA. But this is an illusion. The reality is, housing low-income residents is massively expensive, especially in older large-scale buildings. Adding the need for private firms to profit only increases the cost to the public in the long run.

At some point in the not too distant future, these private firms will no doubt come back to the table looking for more money. Roofs leak, elevators breakdown, boilers need replacing and investors change their expectations.

Incomes aren’t likely to increase for these residents, especially as the population ages, to cover higher costs. The cost of climate change (either adaption or mitigation) will eventually materialize and will likely be prohibitive given the location of so many developments near water. 

No amount of current tenant protections within RAD will stop the need to either raise rents or increase public subsidies to keep these private firms in business. 

No institution other than the federal government can handle the nation’s housing needs now or tomorrow. It is simply more efficient and more equitable to build, own, and manage these homes publicly through federal funding. 

It is bad enough that our society can’t produce economic prosperity and security for all of its citizens, but it is especially perverse to allow private interests to profit from the housing of the poor and working class, especially when it is clear that the private market is utterly incapable of meeting the affordable housing needs of our nation.

You might argue that the public shouldn’t be concerned about doing this, but you would be wrong. Unless our economy is rebooted to spread wealth and security to everybody, the increasing winner-take all society we live in will cease to have any legitimacy for the poor and working class (to the extent that it has any left). At its mildest the resulting pain will cause an exorbitant cost in social services and lost economic productivity. At its most severe, it will cause mass unrest and social revolution.

The Mayor has many flaws, but he can not carry all of the weight for NYCHA’s misfortunes. We’ll find out tomorrow in court if the Mayor’s plan is enough to avoid federal receivership. Surly the federal government doesn’t want to take responsibility for NYCHA.

That’s not good enough. We must demand that the federal government provide the funding necessary not only to upgrade existing NYCHA properties, but to expand public housing to guarantee that all Americans have a safe, clean affordable home where ever they need it. But until enough Democrats wake up about the housing crisis, we’ll keep seeing the steady, miserable erosion of public housing in the US.