Public housing works, it can help the housing crisis, but The New York Times isn't helping

 This Richmond Barthe sculpture near the Johnson Houses contrasts the image of intended residents (white families) with the current racially diverse demographics of NYCHA residents, which is part of why support for public housing has vanished. That must change. (homebodynetwork)

This Richmond Barthe sculpture near the Johnson Houses contrasts the image of intended residents (white families) with the current racially diverse demographics of NYCHA residents, which is part of why support for public housing has vanished. That must change. (homebodynetwork)

Over the weekend, the New York Times came oh-so-close to writing a fair, nuanced story about NYCHA. Most of the time, the paper of record ignores the 80-year old agency, the 2,500 buildings it manages, and the 400,000 New Yorkers who live there. When the paper does write about it, it is almost always in the context of failure, scandal, and waste. There’s plenty of that to go around, which is fair game, but there are many other positive facets of the agency’s story that remain, at best, alluded to while the core problem fueling these issues — federal abandonment — is only referred to passively.

The paper’s approach to public housing does a disservice to NYCHA residents and the agency, but it also does a disservice to public housing in the US in general. The simple truth is that public housing works and should play a larger role in solving the affordable housing crisis. In order to leverage public housing’s vast potential, we must first change how we talk about it.

I find this particularly frustrating because at the same time, there are elements within the Times that are (slowly) changing the conversation around housing. It published Matthew Desmond’s work on how the federal government spends $134 billion a year subsidizing $1million dollar homes across the country. Emily Badger and Quoctrung Bui wrote a devastating series on the eviction machine in much of America.

These provide important context to the affordable housing crisis, but public housing never seems to get that same coverage. The paper certainly doesn’t put all of these elements together to show why public housing (and other models like community land trusts) need to be part of the solution.

The problem with the Times coverage on public housing can be captured almost entirely in the title: “After Years of Neglect*, City Public Housing Is Poised to Get US Oversight.” Two problems jump right out.

(*The online edition appears to have replaced “Neglect” with “Disinvestment” after I started writing this. The print edition’s title is “US is Expected to Get Oversight of City Housing”. In either case, the problems remain obvious.)

First, it is bizarre to refer to impending federal oversight of a domestic government agency as “US oversight.” This might strike you as nitpicking — and I’m not blaming writers for editor’s decisions — but this falls into the much longer problematic history of how the Times (and the media at-large) adopts colonialist language when writing about housing in the US. Think of every real estate section story about mostly white “urban pioneers” moving to neighborhoods that…have been lived in by (mostly non-white) New Yorkers for decades.

Framing the built environment like this completely warps the public discourse around housing, specifically on gentrification and displacement. These are complex topics with significant policy trade-offs, but we aren’t presented with equally-weighted narratives to consider them responsibly.

This may be because the press, at any given level in an organization, is uninterested, only partially informed, or even ideologically opposed to public housing (its hard to see how corporate media would be inclined to support it). As much as the press gets labeled “left wing” or accused of having a “liberal bias,” public housing is a good example of that simply not being the case.

So much of the media adopts a real estate-centric language that the public conversation has already been shaped to internalize the virtues of market outcomes exclusively. (This is also true because poverty barely gets written about in the press. And that’s because poor and/or minority writers are absent from pressrooms.)

When minority communities speak about feeling like they live in occupied territory, particularly in the context of excessive-force by the police, this type of real-estate centric language is also what they are referring to. It either erases existing communities or otherwise “others” them into feeling like they are part of some imperial conquest that views them as an inconvenience. This language has real world impact and the Times should know better by now.

It should also be noted that no NYCHA residents were interviewed for the article. It quotes Ritchie Torres, the councilmember from District 15 in the Bronx and chair of the committee that oversees NYCHA, who grew up in public housing. Not for nothing, he suggested, correctly, that NYCHA should sue the federal government for neglect.

That brings us to the second problem with the title — where is the blame for neglect placed? And what neglect is actually being referenced? Just reading the headline makes it seem that the city is to blame. Even within the article, it largely frames the neglect as failures of the agency. That. Isn’t. True. For all of the many flaws that NYCHA is guilty of, they are not guilty of neglect (nor is the city.) They are obviously trying to manage their buildings. But they are doing so under untenable and inexcusable circumstances.

The true neglect, as Councilmember Torres pointed out, comes from the federal government. The federal government helped fund the creation of NYCHA and public housing for the first 30 years of its existence but (as it became less-white) subsequently abandoned it and demonized it (and its residents).

In NYCHA’s case, since 2001, the federal government has cut an estimated $3 billion in operational funding. This is a catastrophic loss. Out of NYCHA’s $3 billion annual operating budget, almost 2/3 comes from the the federal government, either from direct federal budget support (29%) or Section 8 subsidies (30%). These are existential cuts that compound quickly across such a large and old system. When the premise of public housing is based on continued federal funding, it doesn’t work when that funding dries up. Pretty simple.

The article dutifully mentions these cuts but frames it as background on the agencies’ problems rather than central to them. While the failures of NYCHA are presented as direct fact from the writer, the funding cuts are presented as “city estimates” and even the issue of racial prejudice is mentioned in a quote by a professor. Those are apparently not facts. This may be unintentional (the Times and much of the media generally shies away from calling something “racist” or “a lie”) but it means the narrative of this story (like every other NYHCA story) misses the more salient point.

The real story is the federal government slowly abandoning thousands of Americans. Adding in the fact that these Americans generally aren’t white deepens the scandal, but not much more.

Just as problematically, this narrative absolves the federal government from responsibility for fixing NYCHA and presents the only real solution implicitly or explicitly as privatization. That’s been the editorial board’s position for some time.

This article, despite its detailed analysis, is no different. It mentions the city and state squabbling over increased funding but also says (accurately) that neither can fill the gap in funding. It discusses some of the public/private options being explored (which also won’t cover the gap) but doesn’t entertain the idea that the federal government could return to previous funding levels, let alone why it should. What is the solution other than the slow death of public housing?

It matters when no one at the paper of record is explicitly defending the idea of public housing. It’s not a reporter’s job, but they should at least be covering the many people who are. Ignoring the argument for it robs the public of the full housing policy landscape.

It matters further because most Americans, including many well-meaning liberals and even housing advocates, are guilty of holding decades of media-fueled negative stereotypes of public housing that harm residents and harm our prospects of solving the housing crisis: Public housing equates to scary looking, crumbling brick towers by the highway. Crime and rodent invested buildings. Poor and lazy minorities. A well-meaning but failed experiment from another age. A poorly run government program that should be privatized. But these images are bullshit.

There’s a more accurate way to think about public housing’s legacy and future. A civic treasure that has provided affordable homes for 80 years. A collection of buildings that have held up remarkably well and just need proper maintenance. A refuge for a population that the government and the market has otherwise ignored or exploited. A well-meaning but failed promise that should be renewed. A solution to a failed market that will always fail to provide enough housing. A vision for a more equitable republic.

The biggest tragedy of NYCHA’s recent history — which has included federal investigations for fraudulent lead inspections, boiler failures in the dead of winter, the slow selloff of assets, the unfortunate resignation of its Chairperson, Sholya Olatoye (who wasn’t exactly set up to succeed), and now a cynical state takeover — is that its viewed as a failure at all.

Its frankly remarkable that NYCHA is standing with such gaps in funding, indifference from the public, and flagrant neglect from the federal government. In a city where there are over 60,000 homeless and the average rent in Manhattan is over $4,000, the average rent in NYCHA is $509. That’s incredible. NYCHA is a success story. (The article points out that NYCHA is a “relative success” compared to other housing authorities.)

The truth is that NYCHA has been a victim. One that is as resilient as it is flawed. It has been a victim of federal neglect but it is also a victim of terrible federal policy, which is why the affordable housing crisis exists and persists. Without making the story about the federal government failing in its responsibility to fund public housing (while giving away billions of tax dollars to wealthy homeowners) nothing will improve for public housing or for the housing crisis.

Housing advocates should place more effort on making the case that public housing works and call out the media for lazy tropes that keep it off the political agenda. Even more importantly, they should help the already highly organized tenants groups within NYCHA have the reach they deserve to improve their homes.

Finally, we should all outline what public housing could look like in the 21st century if we force the federal government to return to its basic responsibility. We should then make the case that a reboot of public housing can help Americans all over the country have secure affordable housing.

The real estate section shouldn’t be the only place the average American reads about housing issues. And failures shouldn’t be the only thing they read about public housing. As the paper of record, the Times must do better.