Demolishing NYCHA to Save It Won't Work. Let's Try Funding it.

Fighting for NYCHA at Fulton Houses (fightfornycha)

Fighting for NYCHA at Fulton Houses (fightfornycha)

Last week, the de Blasio administration floated a plan to demolish 2 of the 11 buildings that make up Fulton Houses, a NYCHA development of 944 homes near the High Line in Chelsea. They would be replaced in with 3 private developments that would allegedly pay for improvements for the rest of the property and surrounding NYCHA developments. Of the 700 proposed apartments, 70% would be market-rate and 30% would be ‘somewhat affordable” according to the article. The other displaced residents would be promised subsidized housing somewhere else. 

The math doesn’t make sense for the soon-to-be-displaced NYCHA residents, but it makes a certain type of sense when you understand that NYCHA is facing a $32 billion capital funding gap. There just aren’t many places to find money if you’re Mayor de Blasio. The city’s total budget is $90 billion. Governor Cuomo (who helped start the decline of NYCHA when he was HUD Secretary under President Clinton) has slow walked more funding. The federal government, under Democrats and Republicans, is more willing to see public housing vanish. Right now, nobody is coming to help.

I don’t envy the mayor or his administration. They have to do something for residents in a hostile political environment. The mayor’s only two options have been to allow private development in-fill on NYCHA land (a plan championed first by Mayor Bloomberg) and converting nearly 1/3 of its homes into privately managed units under the federal Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, created during the Obama administration. The real tragedy of this is that even if all of that goes to plan, there’s still a nearly $8 billion funding gap that will just restart the cycle on a new crisis.

But that’s the point of scarcity capitalism. Our political leaders can’t fall over fast enough to turn over public money and public assets to the biggest corporations and wealthiest developers while at the same time preaching austerity to the poor and working class. That’s how Related, the developer of Hudson Yards gets $6 billion in public funding while kids remain exposed to led poisoning in NYCHA. 

We could absolutely afford to fix NYCHA without destroying it, but destroying it is the point. That’s how you can turn it over to developers to profit from it. Finding a way to do it with minimal political backlash is the only trick. Hence RAD and in-fill development. Both would destroy public housing, but they would do it quietly and slowly so no single politician could be blamed. At some point, the lack of funding and the decline of the housing stock would make it “more economical” to demolition buildings and sell the land. 

The fact that the de Blasio administration is floating demolition shows that the plan is no longer feasible on the preferred timetable. In a terrible way, we’re lucky that the crisis in NYCHA has gotten to this point at this time. This gives NYCHA residents, housing activists, and aligned leaders a powerful opportunity to resist the inevitability that hangs over public housing and fight back.

Most of the general public knows about the problems with NYCHA, but few understand that they come from brutal cuts from the federal, state, and city government over the last two decades. NYCHA hasn’t done itself any favors to be sure, but everyone is happy to declare NYCHA incompetent or criminal and move on. Just look at the near-miss federal receivership that NYCHA just went through. It didn’t require any new funding from the feds or the state or acknowledge their joint role in harming NYCHA residents through funding cuts. 

This reality makes any funding look like a godsend to the public, especially if it involves private investment. The complexity of RAD and in-fill development are hard to push back on in this environment, even though they are terrible for residents in the short-term and long-term. 

Demolition is a different story. Especially when it involves displacing working class NYCHA residents for expensive market-rate units. Such a clear loss of affordable housing just a few blocks from the grotesque Hudson Yards, at a time of increased concerns over inequality, paints a very simple and stark narrative for the public. It says the quiet part loud: our leaders are handing over the city to the rich and evicting the poor and the working class to do so.

There has already been an outcry from NYCHA organizers and allies about Fulton Houses. The mayor has responded with predictable defensiveness and dismissiveness, but the pushback might very well kill the plan —  for now.

But the larger battle is to change the national narrative about publicly owned homes in America. The truth is, when they are funded, they work. NYCHA is a great place to start. Despite its recent failures, it has largely been a success story for most of its 80 years. In a city with less and less affordability, in the midst of an unprecedented housing and homelessness crisis, NYCHA remains the best affordable housing program we have. It remains an affordable home for over 400,000 New Yorkers. We need more publicly owned homes, not less. 

Encouragingly, recent polling conducted by Data for Progress has shown that most people support more publicly owned homes even without knowing more about it. This shows that a sustained effort to fight for NYCHA could increase the public’s support of it and for publicly owned homes in general. If this can be done, there is a real chance to change the narrative, save NYCHA, and expand publicly owned homes around the country. 

More importantly, Americans are waking up to the lies of scarcity capitalism. The public is skeptical of why our unprecedented economic expansion hasn’t translated to higher wages and better public infrastructure. Tax cuts and subsidies for the rich and austerity for the rest is a raw deal and it’s not working. We need public money to go to public infrastructure that benefits all of us.

There is a real chance to save NYCHA, not by letting private developers get their hands on it, but by getting the funding it needs, especially from the federal government. It means amplifying NYCHA residents and their efforts to organize (hopefully leading to a rent strike). It means binding NYCHA residents with the broader tenant movement in NYC that’s fighting for Universal Rent Control. And it means appealing to New Yorkers who worry that what is happening to NYCHA residents might come to their homes sooner than later. Because unless we reject scarcity capitalism, it will.