NYCHA

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.

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.

Cuomo is Full of It On NYCHA and Has Always Been Full of It On Housing

They haven't aged well (nymag)

They haven't aged well (nymag)

Governor Cuomo is apparently shocked, shocked that NYCHA is crumbling. He has spent the last couple of weeks visiting a few buildings, surrounding himself with cameras, taking shots at Mayor de Blasio, and touting his resolve to bring in more state money. No doubt this money will help residents who have been suffering greatly this winter and beyond, so it is welcome, but the fact that these trips represent the majority that the Governor’s has made to a NYCHA property since he took office in 2011 should tell you all you need to know about his commitment to public housing. The truth is, Governor Cuomo has always been a cynical opportunistic when it comes to housing. He’s built his career on it and hopes to carry it all the way to the White House (he won’t.)

Cuomo rode his name to the top of HUD and then abandoned it’s legacy

It is one of those obvious things that gets lost over time, but Governor Cuomo is Governor Cuomo largely because his father was Governor Cuomo. The son worked on the more popular father’s campaigns and what he lacked in his father’s robust liberal principles, he made up for in sharp insider elbows.

It was housing where Andrew stepped out from his father’s orbit (as much as you would want or need to when your father is a popular governor toying with the presidency) by setting up a non-profit, Housing Enterprise for the Less Privileged (HELP). The organization did good work then and still does today and I make no suggestions otherwise, but its clear that Cuomo saw housing as a means to score liberal cred while building relationships with powerful developers, a play he has repeated many times since.

This cred led to a position under Mayor Dinkins (where he came into contact with future nemesis Mayor de Blasio) as chair of the Homeless Commission where he backtracked Dinkins housing-first policy goals and claimed that homelessness was a “human” problem not an economic one. 

After Dinkins lost re-election, this “tough thinking” led to a position in the Clinton Administration as an assistant secretary at HUD. His father’s legacy as a working class ethnic liberal from the northeast made his son an easy choice for the southern, conservative Democrat. Both were cynical politicians fluent in empty gestures.

Contrary to his father’s robust liberal legacy, Cuomo’s record at HUD is very similar to his later record as governor — lots of big talk, lots of press coverage, some decent ideas, but little follow-through that would challenge powerful interests in finance or politics. 

He became HUD Secretary in 1997 (Mayor de Blasio was hired to run HUD in NY-NJ) and served till the end of Clinton’s administration very much in the fashion its neoliberal triangulation that has haunted the Democratic Party ever since.

That triangulation helped lead to the Mortgage Crisis in 2008, which Cuomo played a role in creating. While half-heartedly warning against lowering standards for mortgages and against the rise of pernicious lending practices, he raised the benchmarks for banks and Fannie/Freddie to issue more mortgages to lower-income households that the agencies ultimately couldn’t back when the market tanked. Some have argued that he is more responsible for the crisis than any other single person. That might be a stretch, but he has never accounted for his role in the crisis.

He also did nothing for public housing. This is partly because the Clinton Administration embraced homeownership over rental assistance, which itself was very much a bi-partisan standard given the general dominance of conservative ideology during the era, and also because the Clinton triangulation required the deconstruction of the welfare state. Along those lines, public housing was seen as a place people needed to be moved out of, not into.

There were positive efforts to address extremely distressed public housing during the Clinton Administration, but much of it occurred while Governor Cuomo was assistant-secretary in community development. Those efforts lost steam when he became Secretary, despite his claim otherwise

For the most part, HUD abandoned the mission of public housing and oversaw the destruction of many public develops and the withering away of funding for remaining ones. Cuomo didn’t cause the current crisis in NYCHA, but he did nothing to stop the squeezing of federal funds that has crippled it. He has also never accounted for this legacy.

The governor has always been a generic product of the political times he exists in and his effort to promote homeownership (a disaster that both parties were guilty of) along side the Clinton Administration’s dismal record on affordable housing, came at the expense of public housing funding and later the nation’s economy.

Then he rode his housing experience at HUD to Albany and abandoned that

His spotty record at HUD didn’t stop Cuomo from running for governor (again) on his housing cred and name, winning in 2011. Given that he ran on that experience, his subsequent disinterest in housing policy is even more egregious.

He could have used that experience, especially the lessons learned from the crisis, to become a major leader in changing national and state housing policy away from subsidizing homeownership and towards funding sustainable affordable housing by supporting NYCHA, rent regulation laws, and alternative housing policies like community land trusts. His campaign narrative could have turned into transformative, highly-experienced governing.

Instead, Governor Cuomo ignored housing issues. When he did have to address them, he was lukewarm on protecting let alone extending rent regulation laws and unquestionably friendly to subsidizing big developers. His big public talk always resorted back to closed-room deals with private interests. Not surprisingly, that’s why it costs taxpayers $400k–$600k per unit under the Governor’s affordable housing plan.

Governor Cuomo has also completely ignored NYCHA for 7 years. While threatening to declare a state of emergency for the housing authority (which would put its 178,000 homes under state control, bypassing the existing leadership in the agency and the city) and touting an additional $250m for the agency, he keeps reminding us all that the state has no obligation to fund NYCHA. Aside from the obvious shot at Mayor de Blasio, this statement shows on some level the Governor knows his lack of support looks bad. Because it is bad.

It also looks bad that the state had already approved $200 million for NYCHA but hasn’t allocated it. He had previously committed $300m in 2015 that hasn’t materialized yet either. This pattern of promising lots of resources for housing but failing to deliver them is a long-established habit. We should be extremely skeptical that these announcements will turn into funding that helps residents any time soon.

 We should also be concerned that these funds will come with strings attached. He has also already entertained the idea of bringing in private developers if he does declare an emergency. This would only reinforce the perception that for all his talk, he is interested in helping his powerful developer-backers first. Any help for NYCHA residents is welcome, overdue, and deserved, but the fact that we are left to wonder if, when, and to whom it will materialize is a scandal.

NYCHA faces a truly daunting list of challenges, some of which are entirely self-inflicted. But it is short $20 billion dollars in maintenance and capital costs. The Governor’s pledge, especially as the former head of HUD, is a sick joke compared to that.

And now he wants a promotion

Many people have noted that the timing of the Governor’s new found interest in NYCHA comes as he is preparing for re-election and a potential run for the Democratic nomination in 2020 thereafter. He knows Mayor de Blasio is unpopular in many circles (for some self-inflicted reasons, much like NYCHA) and hopes folks that haven’t paid attention to his own indifference for years will see his efforts now and line up to support him. It is an insult to New York voters, but it has worked in the past.

But it’s not clear that Cuomo will get much traction or credit for his intervention in NYCHA now (or how sincere he will even be in the long run). Residents know that as rough as they’ve had it under Mayor de Blasio, they haven’t gotten help from Cuomo. It won’t take much to remind them that Cuomo ignored them at two different jobs.

It will also be fascinating to see what the governor says about rent regulation laws which are up for renewal in Albany again next year. The annual Rent Guidelines Board meetings will be taking place over the next few months and we can expect many advocates to press the Governor on his position now. 

His record, as I’ve already stated, has been dismal. Expect him to tout his support for the laws and to mention his $20 billion five year plan for housing in the state but to angle for concessions to developers as he tried to get during the 421a renewal last year. It could blow up in his face this time.

This is because, after all these years of triangulation, the Governor is in trouble. He had a taste of this last year during the budget shutdown. Whatever he decides to do with NYCHA and rent regulations, he will alienate a key element of his re-election strategy. He needs Democrats, especially progressives, to back him (or at least remain divided), but he also needs his usual wealthy backers. There are few plausible scenarios where he can secure both.

The Governor has never had a strong constituency or political base either in NYC or outside of the city. He has relied on New York’s horrendous voter apathy and deep-pocketed developers to aid his re-election before. Now, however, in the Trump Age, progressives have woken to enemies within both parties and many are gunning for him on the left (even before former-actress, qualified lesbian Cynthia Nixon announced her primary challenge.) Even if he continues his cynical lurch left, very few progressives will buy it and many more voters will be paying closer attention for the first time.

Governor Cuomo’s record on affordable housing is clear. He has been at best indifferent and at worst hostile to policies that don’t include massive subsidies to private developers. Under his administration, help for public housing, rent regulation laws, and alternative housing models like community land trusts has been largely ignored, slow-walked, or superficially supported.

That hasn’t stopped others from acting in his absence, but the lack of leadership has been glaring given that his entire career is based on his alleged housing expertise. Trying to make up for years of indifference now might get him some press, but it won’t erase a career of opportunism around housing. That isn’t the only reason will never be president let alone the nominee in 2020, but it might very well jeopardize him even in 2018.

Making the City’s Vacant Land Work for the Public (via Gotham Gazette)

(photo: Sofie Hecht/Gotham Gazette)

(photo: Sofie Hecht/Gotham Gazette)

This post was first published in Gotham Gazette

Last month, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) announced that it selected developers to build affordable housing on 87 city-owned vacant lots, which could produce almost 500 affordable homes. This came the day after Comptroller Scott Stringer released a report criticizing the city for moving slowly on developing such lots.

As New York City staggers through the unrelenting affordable housing, homelessness, and displacement crises this plan is a missed opportunity that we can not tolerate. The city has repeatedly squandered the most value asset - land - it has in fighting these crises. Instead of giving away these vacant lots, the city should keep them and create a public land trust.

New York City owns 1,125 vacant lots. For decades it has relied on an insider-favoring process that turns over vacant properties to private developers and some non-profit developers. That number doesn't include city-owned distressed properties, which is bound to spike as foreclosures are nearing great recession levels. In either case, the transfer comes with laughable requirements for (and definitions of) affordable housing.

This process is the result of a long retreat from the public ambition that defined New York City during its period of great growth in the first half of the 20th century. An activist city government - albeit one tainted by machine politics and systemic racism - built institutions that expanded the very idea of what public life could be and made modern New York City possible. That all ended in the 1970s and left subsequent leaders wary of ambitious public growth and reliant on powerfully connected private actors.

This must change. Our over-reliance on the private market has demonstrably failed the public interest and carries much of the blame for the mess we are in.

Using the community land trust model, the city should retain ownership of the land - removing it from the speculative market that drives up prices - and contract out development based on a fixed equity model that incentivizes construction while limiting costs. It would then directly own and manage this housing stock, guaranteeing that 100% of it is permanently affordable for low- and middle-income households.

Make no mistake, what I am suggesting is public housing. A new, 21st century form that avoids the previous century’s mistakes of massive public housing developments while retaining its public virtues.

Public housing, for all of its problems (thanks to a loss of $1 billion in federal funding since 2000, with more reductions on the way), is still the best vehicle for providing New Yorkers with sustainable affordable housing.

Despite its operational failures, NYCHA currently offers an average monthly rent of $509 to over 400,000 New Yorkers in 176,000 homes and has a waiting list of 257,000 families. Public housing works and we need more of it.

A public land trust that takes advantage of small-site development on vacant lots would work even better as a public housing model in today's economic, political, and social landscape. Instead of the discredited 'shotgun' approach of megablock development that destroyed existing communities while isolating its newly created ones, this approach would be a syringe-sized injection of affordability into existing communities and landscapes.

Neighbors would barely notice the physical changes while enjoying the practical protections of permanent affordability taking root across individual sites. Most of these lots are in distressed neighborhoods that are at high risk of displacement as speculative developers (many of them private equity firms) swoop in. The best, fastest way to address displacement in these neighborhoods is through public-owned land anchoring their development.

The community land trust model works, too. It has successfully provided permanent affordability across the United States for decades, notably in Burlington, Vermont (initially supported by then-mayor Bernie Sanders) and in Dudley Square in Boston (created by local residents who were granted eminent domain). Even here in New York City, the city's first trust, Cooper Square, has quietly managed hundreds of homes in the Lower East Side as a community land trust since 1994.

Speaking of Cooper Square, through its efforts along with the New Economy Project and NYCCLI, the community land trust model has finally started to get the attention it deserves in New York. Last year HPD and Community Enterprises announced $1.65 million in initial funding for the creation of new CLTs and training programs. Many elected officials like Borough President Scott Stringer, Council Members Donovan Richards and Margaret Chin, and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman have all worked to expand CLTs in the city.

These developments represent the chance for a fundamental shift in how to create permanent affordable housing in New York City. The land trust model does not rely on excessive tax-subsidies to private developers, flimsy definitions of affordability, or unenforceable protections for maintaining affordability over time. It is simple and sustainable. We should all be excited that the city finally sees this as a viable policy tool.

However, if Mayor de Blasio wants to deliver on his promise to build or protect 300,000 affordable housing units while also recommitting to public housing and NYCHA, he should take the next step by transferring the city’s many vacant lots into a public land trust.

We know the model works. The city knows the model works. Usually the hardest part is acquiring the land, but the city already has it. There is nothing to stop a public land trust from getting into the fight.

New York City was once capable of envisioning and delivering bold progress for the public good. We need this again, updated for the 21st century. The mayor has at the very least claimed this rhetoric and along the way tapped into a respondent audience in many corners of the city. Now it is time to act.

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.

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 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 developments are designated for senior housing or or naturally-occurring retirement communities (NORCs).  This explains the longer dwell times and lower turnover.  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.

5 Arguments to Help Change the Debate on Public Housing

A beautiful day at Mill Brook Houses (homebody)

A beautiful day at Mill Brook Houses (homebody)

Despite the unprecedented affordable housing crisis across the country, there is seemingly no popular support for more public housing. President Trump instead reflects the general sentiment in Congress by outlining a budget that would cut billions of dollars from housing assistance for millions of low-income Americans. Though many residents, housing groups, and elected officials are speaking out against these cuts, they are hobbled by a lack of national attention. Frankly, I believe it’s because their message “#nocuts” is hardly a battle cry, as important as it is.

If we are to prevent these draconian cuts from becoming law this year, we must put as much pressure on Congress as we can. It’s likely that some of these programs will be saved if we do. But simply reducing the cuts or saving certain programs is not enough to help the millions of Americans struggling to find affordable shelter.

We must fundamentally transform the discussion about housing in the US and we must once again create a national effort to support, build, and maintain public housing on a significant scale. In the spirit of “#nocuts” I have outlined 5 hashtags that describe where I believe we can succeed in doing so.

1. #HousingIsARight and Denying it is a Crime

We live in a deeply segregated country. This is not an accident. This was not an organic result of natural clustering or preferences. As Richard Rothstein has pointed out in detail in his book The Color of Law, it was the result of direct, explicit federal and local policy decisions to favor white Americans over all other types of Americans. The US Government made housing a de facto right for white people and denied it to black people and other minorities. The consequences have been devastating.

A lot of people, including the Supreme Court, do not know or accept this. This can no longer be tolerated. Just as we are finally taking down statuescelebrating an armed insurgency based on white supremacy and slavery, we must also face the blatant suppression that has been staring us in the face for generations every time we drive from a suburb to an inner-city core. The geography of our built environment must finally be accounted for with proper historic context.

Only by recognizing that housing is a basic human right and a basic obligation of our government, will we ever truly reconcile with and change the accepted narrative that downplays the scale of suppression. The God’s honest truth can tear down more than just statues in this country.

2. #RealTakers and Subsidizing Wealthy Homeownership

Once we accept how awful our housing policy was in the 20th century, we can then take a critical eye to how terrible our current housing policy is in the 21st. The specter of racism undoubtedly hangs over our current policies by the sheer scale of previous decades. However, today the true outrage is more about class.

As Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted, has recently written about, the federal government spends $134 billion a year — more than the entire budget of the Education, Justice, and Energy Departments combined — subsidizing homeownership, particularly through the Mortgage Interest Deduction. About 60% of that money goes to wealthy homeowners. The 7 million households that make over $200,000/year receive a larger share of that savings than the 50 million households who earn less than $50,000/year.

This is far from “free market” principles and in fact inflates the housing market to the benefit of wealthy homeowners. It’s estimated that removing such programs could reduce housing prices across the country by 13–17%, making it far easier for many people to purchase a home if they chose.

When a record number of Americans are rent burdened, and over 600,000 Americans are homeless, the fact that we subsidize these homes is a national disgrace. By placing a hand on the scale (again, for explicitly racist purposes) the housing market has exacerbated the economic inequality ravaging all quarters of the country.

Let’s start calling these households what they actually are: takers. Let’s remove the moralizing and euphemisms around how some politicians use that term currently and instead, by placing basic logic and fairness on it, aim it towards those who are actually taking the most from all of us.

3. #PublicHousingWorks and Has Always Worked

Despite decades of discriminatory policies favoring white homeownership (and now more general wealthy homeownership) and systemic neglect against everyone else, we can still point to an obvious truth: public housing works.

During the brief period when there was popular support for public housing and federal intervention in general, the US government built thousands of units. Though some, like Pruitt-Igoe, became shorthand for crime and neglect, the larger truth is that many more continue to be wonderful homes. And the complexed that did fail, failed because the federal government let them fail due to systemic neglect and more racial discrimination.

NYCHA is by far the largest public housing authority in the country, housing nearly 400,000 people across thousands of units. It is a bigger city than Miami and Las Vegas. Despite a rapid retreat of federal funding and larger demographic shifts that decimated NYC in the 1960s and 1970s, NYCHA has endured. Even today, as it faces billions in capital budget gaps and millions more in potential cuts in Trump’s Budget, residents are happy with their communities and the agency. And only 13% of residents receive public assistance.

The idea that Public Housing is a wasteland where people want to get out of, or where they should be encouraged to get out of, has never been true. As Affordable Housing in New York shows repeatedly, even in the hardest times when crime was high and many facilities were in poor shape, these communities survived and in some cases thrived.

NYCHA residents should be proud of where they live. Employees of the agency, past and present, should be proud of the work they did and continue to do to keep it going when no one could or would help.

Public housing residents shouldn’t be pitied or demonized and they don’t need to be romanticized either. They are normal Americans who happen to be part of something bigger than any one person or one building. Their experiences represent just how much the republic can achieve if it follows its values and how many it can fail when it abandons them. We should be telling this story everywhere to everyone.

4. The #FutureOfPublicHousing Will Not Look like the Past

There were many flaws in the design and support of public housing in the US during the 20th century that caused many complexes to fail outright or fail for a period of time. Early generations of complexes were sterile and anti-social. Many of the funding sources were fleeting and easily diverted. Sociological assumptions in design were flawed and discriminatory.

No one is suggesting that we go back and do this over again. Throw out the idea that public housing means tall brick towers isolated from neighborhoods. Instead, we should articulate a new vision for the 21st century that reflects lessons learned from the past and a broader mission for the future.

Instead of building new residential towers on superblocks, repurpose older infrastructure and combine multi-use functionality within existing city and town fabrics.

Instead of designing uniform apartments or complexes with rigid specifications, allow for innovative construction techniques like pre-fab units, modern SROs or shared living arrangements that strive for different, locally desired outcomes.

Instead of subsidizing homeownership (especially for wealthy Americans), invest those resources in community land trusts and land banks to give local communities more agency and sustainability. Take the speculation out of (at least parts) of the housing market by tipping the scale towards affordability.

We should simplify yet broaden HUD’s mission based on housing as a right. Set its goals and budget around lowering the cost of shelter across the country in whatever forms that shelter is needed for local conditions. Make HUD about providing Public Housing whether it’s apartments or a single-family home.

The possibilities of future Public Housing are almost endless when you shed the vision of the past. Let’s start showing the country what the future could look like and how it could help everyone, whether you live in a city, a suburb, or the country.

5. #RebootTheUS Can Start With Public Housing

The polarization of our politics has increasingly bled into all corners of our public policy discussions, crippling our ability to address the challenges facing our rapidly changing nation and planet. The polarization of our economics, in the form of runaway income inequality, has also poisoned our broader civic life and national identity. We were in crisis long before President Trump and will remain so long after him unless we can do what America has always done best — reinvent itself.

As when the Gilded Age spawned the Progressive Era and the Great Depression spawned the New Deal, we must lay the seeds now for a great rebirth of national promise and purpose. We must embrace the core values and aspirations of our republic — freedom, justice, and the public interest — and shed the rot of late capitalist values of commodification, exploitation, and greed. In the digital age, no term better represents what I think we need than a great “reboot.”

And there’s no better place to start than with public housing. Committing again to a massive nation-wide effort to provide affordable housing in many forms not only addresses the moral urgency of our current situation, but it also addresses the economic urgency as well.

Public Housing is infrastructure. Its creation means jobs and economic activity on a scale unseen in decades. Its existence means more take-home income for millions of Americans who are rent burdened or underwater in their mortgages. Its location means more mobility for families and individuals in economically productive regions.

What other effort could so thoroughly demonstrate the power of a great national reboot to inject economic and civic purpose into a country that should never have to sacrifice either. We don’t need to abandon the experiment of national government to do so. We need to reinvigorate our civic intellect as well as our institutions. We start by showing how a focused federal effort in housing can promote our values, help our citizens, and share our prosperity.

None of these ideas are new or radical. They reflect an obvious truth about contemporary America: what we have now is not working. We are ultimately presented with two options. First, we can continue on with our late capitalistic doctrine that we are all consumers on our own or, second, we could revitalize our identity as citizens and recognize that we are in this together. One leads to a brutal, empty society. The other leads to something much stronger and fulfilling.

Trump's Budget is Garbage, Especially for NYC

First over the ledge perhaps (OMB)

First over the ledge perhaps (OMB)

As President Trump was busy underwhelming or shoving European leaders this week, his budget was released back in DC in his absence.  Normally it would be shocking that such an important political statement would be delivered without the President on hand, except when you see how his presence has generally been a disaster in other policy discussions. 

A somewhat more cynical take would consider this distance an intentional move given how politically unpopular this budget was bound to be.  However, there is no way distance can hide how much of a betrayal this budget is to the President’s campaign pledges and how terrible a budget it is on its own merits.

There are three big takeaways from the budget process before we get into how bad it would be for NYC. 

First, it would be a huge wealth-transfer and massive realignment of priorities.  The social safety net would be severely reduced (or altogether erased in some cases) while tax cuts would give billions back to the wealthiest Americans.  Funding for research into things like cancer and climate change, programs for economic development and housing assistance, and aid programs for students and the young poor would all be radically cut, robbing the country of future investment. All in the name of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

Second, it is based on 3% annual growth, which no one thinks is possible (most predict about 1.8%) and seemingly includes a basic math error that double counts a trillion dollars in revenue.  This isn’t even voodoo economics, it’s garbage economics.  Even many Republicans are shocked by the brazen dishonesty of this budget and its defense by members of the administration.  It can’t be stressed enough that this budget does not make any sense on its merits. That is unacceptably irresponsible.

Finally, partly because of the first two reasons, this budget will never get passed.  That's true of most President's budgets anyway, but this one is wildly unpopular even with many Republicans.  That’s not to say many conservative Republicans oppose these types of cuts – they do support them.  This budget is the logical outcome of much of the Republican rhetoric of the last 15 years.  It’s just wildly unpopular with most Americans, so Republicans don’t want to be that obvious about it. And, as many Republicans have already found out with the ACHA vote, they don’t want to go back to their districts to face the ire of constituents over dramatic cuts to popular programs.

Just because this budget won’t pass doesn’t mean it isn’t incredibly dangerous.  It sets the political debate and will make incredibly bad final decisions look better in comparison.  The danger is the basic logic of this budget, and of the general approach Republicans have taken, which is to get the federal government out of the way as much as possible.  The defense of this argument lies with putting responsibility back with the states. 

This would be a valid argument if there were any indication that states could make up the differences in funding.  They can’t.  There is simply no way for even the wealthiest states to provide the types of services that people need in our modern economy.  Whether Republicans genuinely believe that states can do this or disingenuously know that they can’t is up for debate. 

In any case, passing the buck to states won’t solve the problems facing Americans. There is still systemic economic insecurity for a vast number of Americans, which isn’t go away no matter who has the buck.  This budget will only make that insecurity worse.

We can look at NYC as a good example.  Under the Trump Budget, the city would see over $850 million in cuts:

  • $200m from the public housing capital fund that supports NYCHA
  • $165m of direct funding to NYCHA
  • $68m for senior centers, domestic violence services
  • $48m for rental assistance
  • $23m for home heating assistance
  • $12m for affordable housing for low-income families

Though the State of New York doesn’t rely on the federal government that much for funding, NYC does, especially around housing assistance.  If these cuts passed, how much could we expect the state to cover the difference to keep these services running? Setting aside the political beef between Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio, there just isn’t that kind of money laying around in Albany.

This would mean the poor in NYC would suffer - the old, the young, the sick, the disabled, and the abused.  They would take the brunt of these budget cuts and there’s no clear alternative help on the horizon for them. 

Sadly, we would expect a Republican-driven budget to be harsh on the urban poor. They aren’t in a position to punish Republican leaders.  But what is truly shocking about this budget is how much it also punishes the rural poor, many of which backed President Trump and other Republican candidates. 

Republicans have won over rural white voters without offering them any real solutions to their economic problems.  President Trump offered a more populist (and racially tinged) message promising to do so during his campaign, but has largely abandoned that rhetoric for more traditional Republican policies that favor the wealthy. 

That’s not to say Democrats have presented any real solutions for the urban or rural poor, either.  As some of the recent Congressional special elections have shown, the Republican message might be unpopular (with or without the President’s unpopularity weighing in) but Democrats haven’t won anything.  It’s not clear what the Democrats are offering as a real solution to President Trump or the Republican agenda, as unpopular as they are.

Both parties have failed to offer real solutions to the underlying economic struggles most Americans are experiencing.  The Trump Budget is a monstrous document based on brazen cruelty and breathtaking shortsightedness.  But it’s not clear that a Clinton Budget would have offered bold solutions to our problems. 

That’s because the basic logic pushed by Republicans for the last 30 years – deregulation, tax cuts, and global trade - has so thoroughly penetrated our politics that Democrats have never articulated a real alternative. 

That alternative is obvious – we need more federal intervention in domestic policy.  30 years of neoliberal economic policy has hallowed out the middle-class, empowered stateless corporations and individuals, and undermined the civic health of our society.  One outcrop of this is the affordable housing crisis, which I have covered extensively in this blog.  States can’t solve the housing crisis, or any of these problems.  Cities, even ones as big and prosperous as New York City, can't solve these problems.  Tax cuts at the federal level certainly can’t solve these problems.  An activist federal government can and must.

For now, we’re left to continue to fight losing battles over budgets like President Trump’s.  We’ll keep under-investing in housing, infrastructure, and our people.  We’ll keep eroding our civil society and our future prospects.  Until this fever breaks, or until Democrats or someone else articulates a bold alternative, the premise of this debate will guarantee a continuation of garbage economics, garbage politics, and garbage leadership.

3 Reasons Why Affordable Housing Isn't Affordable

Via Verde (2012) in South Bronx is beautiful, but 800 families wanted spots for just 151 rental units. Is this a successful model? (inhabitatnyc)

Via Verde (2012) in South Bronx is beautiful, but 800 families wanted spots for just 151 rental units. Is this a successful model? (inhabitatnyc)

There is a crippling lack of affordable housing in the US. That statement is no surprise for anyone who follows this issue (or reads this blog.) Trying to figure out why and how to fix this problem is incredibly complicated, which is also no surprise. This week Joe Cortright had a good article on why affordable housing isn’t that affordable, focusing on the flawed micro-level issues of subsidizing market-rate housing construction.

Though this is fair criticism, I think it fails to address the larger structural flaws of the democratic capitalist model that we’ve relied on for so long. Challenging at least some aspects of this model remains outside of mainstream housing policy discussions, so I’ll focus on three today (though there are absolutely more that can/should be considered). Until we can reframe the debate around these larger philosophical questions, we are simply not going to solve the crisis.

1. Relying on the Private Market is Bonkers

Matthew Desmond just won the Pulitzer Prize for his sensational book, Evicted, which follows the heartbreaking story of scores of residents struggling to get by in Milwaukee. And it is heartbreaking. But Mr. Desmond’s book most importantly calls into question two deeply flawed pillars of our national housing policy (which altogether lacks a focus on renting): 1. We do not consider housing a basic right 2. We rely on the private rental market to house poor Americans.

We have collectively deemed certain government services worthy of being guaranteed to all citizens or as need-based. But, as opposed to social security or food stamps (or even slightly more abstract “default entitlements” like the mortgage interest deduction), housing is not a guaranteed or need-based government service at any level. This means that only 1 out of 4 Americans that need housing assistance receive any. That’s crazy.

Instead, we have collectively placed the small landlord on the frontline of housing the poor. As Mr. Desmond points out, we can’t reasonably rely on these individuals to handle such an overwhelming burden. Yes, there are some villainous landlords, but many more, as demonstrated in Evicted, are trying to do the right thing by tenants, trying to be fair, and trying to survive themselves.

They stand-in as convenient sin-eaters for the rest of us — politicians, advocates, activists — while the reliance on the private market goes unchallenged at the state or federal level. We can’t honestly address the affordability crisis without challenging this basic assumption. This should be easy since it is clearly failing on such a large scale.

The answer is a concentrated public effort to house the poor. I’ve been a big defender of public housing in this blog and it still shocks me how little traction the idea of returning to large public intervention gets, even from housing advocates.

Yes, there were ample flaws in the New Deal and Great Society approaches to public housing. But we can have the same scale of political and social commitment of those past interventions without the same physical and cultural destruction.

Building on examples like the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), where nearly 600,000 (1 in 8 New Yorkers) live in public housing of some kind, we can easily show that the model has quietly been working for 80 years despite systemic neglect and stigmatism. We should be championing NYCHA because it is and always has been a major success.

We have models to work with, we have local stakeholders to lead with — we just need the will to act. There is clearly a groundswell for this type of political realignment. If we finally recognize how much private market fetishization has failed, we can strike a better public-private balance that can affirm the public commitment to housing as a right.

2. Housing is Too Much About Land

Relying on the market also means purchasing land at market rates. Given the fact that most affordable housing is targeted in dense urban centers where land costs are prohibitive, this means that the cost per unit before construction is already an albatross for many developers.

Building farther out from city centers has long been the tried/true answer for affordable housing, and certainly lowers the land cost, but it puts those residents at a severe disadvantage geographically. This system simply can’t work alone.

There are models, like community land trusts, that remove this obstacle. After an initial subsidy to purchase land, it enters a trust that removes it from the market — and from the speculation that can raise its value regardless of the structure on it. The result is permanently affordable housing that doesn’t eat up additional tax dollars annually. This has worked in many areas, even NYC, for decades.

NYC is (sort of) examining the CLT model but has it backwards. NYC Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) is looking for proposals from non-profits that are interested in forming a CLT, but most of these groups can’t realistically afford the land cost and most are on scattered-sites that make them hard to rationalize as a cohesive entity. The city also doesn’t have the funding to help with land acquisition for these groups even if they get that far.

However, NYC does own hundreds of vacant lots that it could easily convert to a city-owned CLT. Mayor de Blasio has recently championed cleaning up the 500th vacant lot as part of OneNYC — but then turns them over to private or non-profit developers (though many of these projects are positive developments). Combining city-owned land — small, scattered sites mostly — into a single CLT would be transformative policy shift with far-reaching implications for other cities.

Every city has similar vacant assets already on the books and, even a decade after the Great Recession (caused in part by real estate speculation), many have foreclosed properties that they are still trying to unload. Stop it! Keep those properties out of the market and create cheap, sustainable housing with them. The net benefit of increased affordable housing supply will offset any property tax losses.

3. We Got Rid of Great Affordable Housing Options

I have a lot to say about the flawed regulatory jumble that has created our failing housing status quo, and, unfortunately, there is a lot of blame to go around by a lot of mostly well-meaning folks. Richard Florida has dubbed some of these actors as the “New Urban Luddites.” But the regulations that have raised the cost of housing the most for certain renters are also the quickest and cheapest to change. They are perhaps the least appreciated — occupancy laws.

NYC, under pressure from neighborhood groups and homeowners, has regulated away thousands of affordable housing units over decades by outlawing single room occupancy, outlawing basement/garage apartments, and over-regulating occupancy laws (like square footage and types of amenities) within apartments.

Most of these regulations were done in the name of public health, but many had more nefarious, even racial motivations. The result is not just a loss of hundreds of thousands of affordable rental units but also the total disappearance of an entire flexible, affordable style of living.

These types of units used to house young singles, seasonal laborers, older family members, and extended family that were willing to sacrifice certain amenities for cheaper lodging. Most of the time these were short-term arrangements as these individuals saved money for more permanent housing.

Particularly in NYC, where many single working people live alone or with roommates, and the overall population is aging, reintroducing this type of housing flexibility would quickly address a lot of housing needs without a huge effort, or a large financial commitment, from the city.

By easing the pressure on the housing market for these types of renters, this could free up units for middle-class or working-class families with children — a portion of the population that the private market (or, frankly, a lot of affordable housing development) is simply ignoring with new construction.

There are many other reasons why affordable housing isn’t affordable, but I chose these three examples to show why it is so important for us to challenge the philosophical and cultural assumptions baked into our market + localized approach to housing policy. Of course the biggest assumption that needs to be challenged is the idea that homeownership should be our national housing policy. We can’t realistically address these other issues without first reviewing the costs and benefits to our society of thinking this way. But even if we determine this is still the best course of action, figuring out how to help people towards that goal will require addressing the affordable housing crisis for renters first.

NYCHA, Don't Sell Out - Hold Out!

Jacob Riis Houses, a pillar of public housing success (homebodynetwork)

Jacob Riis Houses, a pillar of public housing success (homebodynetwork)

It’s budget season and President Trump’s first proposal to Congress has sent shockwaves through all levels of government for the audacity of its cuts.  Nowhere is that clearer than at HUD, where he is proposing $6b in cuts.  NYCHA, which gets two-thirds of its $3.2b operating budget from HUD, could be devastated.  However, recent plans to inject private capital into NYCHA (to offset some of its $17b in outstanding capital needs) show how much is at risk to the long-term mission of providing public housing by grasping for private sector funds under these circumstances.

The Trump Administration has always been clear about gutting HUD and why – because it helps the wrong people.  Much of the President’s “skinny budget” is merely symbolic posturing, with little chance of passing through Congress, but I would bet a lot of these HUD proposals would find sympathy from conservative Republicans.

NYCHA is a telling example.  By far the largest public housing agency in the country, it provides homes for over 400,000 poor and low-income residents across 2,500 buildings and 176,000 units. In addition, it also provides housing assistance through Section 8 vouchers for another 200,000 residents.  If it were its own city, it would be the 30th biggest city in the country.

However, it’s made up of poor and low-income residents, many of them very old or very young, with the majority of them representing minority communities.  When President Trump speaks of“making America great again” and “America first” he is simply not speaking to or for this population.  The Republican Party, and frankly some parts of the Democratic Party, has little interest in helping residents of New York City in general, and poor, minority residents specifically.

That’s why NYCHA has already received word to expect $35 million in cuts for the rest of 2017.  This would dramatically reduce the agencies ability to fund its operations and Section 8 programs – even before the more dramatic cuts to HUD in the president’s budget proposal. It has been called “devastating” by Shola Olatoye, the chair of NYCHA.

Public housing still gets a bad rap in the broader public image, but the truth is far more inspiring, which makes these cuts all the more depressing.  Despite years of poor management in the past, in 2016 the agency actually saw a surplus of $21m - which is now entirely wiped out. And despite some major issues, to be expected across such a large footprint, the vast majority of residents have a positive view of their homes.  There is a waiting list with nearly 260,000 families who want to move in.  This isn’t a failed government program, it’s a shining example of a living, thriving public commitment to housing.

The main problem facing NYCHA is the $17b in outstanding capital needs that remain unfunded (compounded by the missing $3b promised by FEMA for Sandy recovery.)  Many of the complexes were built at the height of the New Deal and are over 70 years old.  These buildings need new roofs and plumbing, remodeled fixtures and appliances, lead paint removal, new electricity and energy investments - just to name a few of the daunting list of projects.  This was true even before the Trump budget proposal and only becomes more of a threat to NYCHA’s long term viability if its operating budget keeps getting hacked apart (it was already potentially facing a deficit of $200m by 2020).

Starting during the Bloomberg Administration, NYCHA has increasingly turned to the private sector for ideas to make up for its funding gap.   One part of Mayor de Blasio’s 2015 plan, NextGeneration NYCHA, has called for selling underutilized NYCHA-owned land to developers in exchange for committing 50% of new units to affordable housing. It hopes to net 10,000 additional affordable units on NYCHA land, with about 7,000 market-rate units.

This part of the plan has been extremely controversial with residents and housing advocates. Though there are reasonable arguments to be made around selling certain pieces of land on individual developments, ‘underutilized land’ in many cases seems to mean a parking lot or a playground. Many residents would question how underutilized this land actually is (and some feel under-represented in these conversations).  

NYCHA has also partnered with private developers to upgrade some of its existing housing stock in exchange for equity stakes in those developments, which some advocates worry is the beginning of a slow creep towards privatization of public housing.

In the Far Rockaways, NYCHA has placed over 1,400 units in HUD’s Rental Assistance Demonstration Plan (RAD) that removes them from public housing and instead enrolls them in a Section 8 program. This allows the agency to partner with private lenders to qualify for mortgage-backed tax breaks netting significant revenue while removing fixed costs.

The program began under President Obama and has many supporters in the housing world, however, despite its outlined tenant protections, there is a distinct risk that these units will eventually lose the federal funding that protects them (more likely now, surly) forcing them to convert to market rates eventually.

In the East Village, NYCHA has sold 50% of its stake in several developments, notably Campos Plaza on Ave C to L+M and PDP Triborough in exchange for $350 million over the next 15 years.  Campos I has already seen parts of the $100m investment from developers in the form of remodeled units, a remodeled façade, and a new park.  However, a portion of those units can now be rented at market rate, with the private developers capturing the difference between market rates and the 30% income cap NYCHA can charge residents. 

In both cases, NYCHA has contractual protections in place to dismiss their private partners if they are unhappy with their services; and they have right of first refusal if they wish to sell their stakes.  That sounds good, but in reality NYCHA has gone down a road where they can’t risk scaring off potential private developers by dismissing them and they can’t anticipate being more financially solvent in 15 or 20 years based on current federal and state support. 

Private developers, even the most progressive, know this.  Maybe things work out well under this model, but these developers have more protections than NYCHA if it doesn’t. The risk is real that these units will leave public housing. It’s also opened the door to rationalize more private intervention in the future, perhaps across entire developments.

It’s difficult for me to criticize the Mayor or NYCHA employees for pursuing every option to fund its operating costs, especially given the federal hostility to its mission even before President Trump’s arrival.  The majority of the initiatives outlined in NextGen deserve our support, including investments in infrastructure,  more effort on efficiency gains in management and energy, tenant-centric empowerment and reach out, and new interior/exterior design guidelines, and a non-profit fundraising org. If you accept the reality that we live in, this is probably the best you can get.

However, this already frustrating reality is going to get a lot worse very quickly because so much of NYCHA’s plans rely on current HUD funding commitments.  Those are going to decrease, even when the President’s budget gets chopped down through Congress. How much can this plan work without the predicted fed funding? Mayor de Blasio has come out forcefully against the proposal but, cautioned that it's just the beginning of the process.  That reeks of hoping for the best and reeks of not working out.

But I also think this reality is unacceptable, cuts or not.  NextGen talks about the origins of NYCHA during the heights of FDR’s New Deal through LBJ’s Great Society.  There were 30 years of successful federal and state commitment to public investment in housing, along side a viable, competitive private sector. That's the reality we should live in again - with public housing on the offensive, not the defensive.

But don’t conflate the two.  Public housing should remain committed to being public.  Selling off to the private sector slowly over another 30 years will betray the values at the heart of the program.  As a republic, we should commit ourselves to offering affordable housing to all citizens. We already have a model that shows it can work if we remain committed to it. Even for all its leaky roofs, NYCHA still serves almost half a million New Yorkers, which shows that public housing is a strong investment the city and the country. 

Instead, for the last 30 years, too many housing advocates and government employees have been apologizing for the decline in funding, largely amongst themselves, rather than making the easy case for more funding to the broader public. They have accepted that the private sector is the only answer even though it hasn’t been in previous housing crisis.   They have accepted a reality that will only lead to public housing’s demise. All Americans would suffer in its absence.

We should, once and for all, reject the outdated narrative of public housing’s failure and reclaim the real one – that public housing works. Public housing is a commitment to and an investment by Americans for Americans.  It has worked in the past and continues to work today. 

We should be parading NYCHA around the country as a sign that supporting public housing is not just a great social program, but also a phenomenal economic development program. We should be organizing NYCHA residents together with NYCHA employees to promote its virtues to other Americans, rural or urban, who would benefit from more federal intervention in housing. We need to be a loud, passionate group that shifts the conversation politically.  A Tea Party for government investment.

NYCHA is fighting for its life, but if it recognizes and embraces that its fight is a bigger one for the right to affordable housing for all Americans, for a return of federal commitment and investment in public life, I believe it will find allies across all parts of the country.  Rather than being a symbol of past ‘failed government overreach’ it should be a symbol of hopeful, smart government investment.  The cause has the security of being true and the obligation of being right. 

The answer is clear – NYCHA must endure without conceding to the private sector.  It must endure without conceding to cynical dismissals of its purpose or possibilities.  It must endure in the Trump Age, because the ebb and flow of history will inevitably bring in another age, one committed again to the power of government and the power of public housing. NYCHA, its residents, and supporters should focus on bringing on that age sooner than later.

The Virtues of Public Housing

Queensbridge Houses in Queens (nycha)

Queensbridge Houses in Queens (nycha)

Two articles appeared in the New York Times last week that directly and indirectly showcase the plight of public housing in New York City.  The first article covered the manslaughter conviction of Officer Peter Liang who accidentally shot and killed Akai Gurley, a resident of the Louis H. Pink Houses in East New York in 2014.  The second focused on a newly-created non-profit, The Fund for Public Housing, which hopes to encourage philanthropic giving for public housing.  

The tragic death of Mr. Gurley has become part of the larger national narrative of protesting state-sanctioned violence against minority communities that has galvanized large segments of Americans and has already impacted the Presidential race.  Sadly, the specific details of the shooting - a rookie cop patrolling a notorious project, accidentally firing his weapon into a dark stairwell, which ricocheted off a wall and struck an innocent passerby - are more of an indictment of the systemic failures impacting residents of public housing in the city.

That Officer Liang was trained to draw his weapon in a residential complex shows how the training and tactics deployed by the police in public housing failed residents and the young officer with devastating consequences.  This event is simply the byproduct of decades of political and economic neglect that has isolated residents of public housing and subjected them to shocking pockets of violence despite the historic decline in crime across the city.  However, we have effectively "normalized" this dichotomy and, outside of moment-capturing events such as Mr. Gurley's death, we are rarely forced to face it.

It is easy to forget the scale of achievement represented by public housing in NYC.  The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) owns and operates 328 developments containing 177,666 apartments and over 400,000 residents, the vast majority of which are income-burdened (the average family income is $23,000.)  1 in 12 New Yorkers live in a NYCHA development. There are 77,000 seniors and 110,000 children under 18.  For all intensive purposes, NYCHA is affordable housing in NYC.

Most of the buildings were constructed between 1950 and 1970, and unlike the majority of other public housing authorities in the US, they were built largely through city and state funds, with limited federal funding.  This partly explains why NYCHA reached such a scale and why it endures while many other Public Housing Authorities across the country have been torn down. But it also explains the deeply embedded problems facing the agency.

It is difficult to picture government intervention on such a massive scale now and, given its dubious motivations, there are many reasons to argue against it.  "Slum clearance" - the raison d' etre for the intervention - was undoubtedly tinged with racism in its redistribution of public resources to private interests that (coupled with red-lining policies) exacerbated inequality for minorities.  Tower-in-the-park designs embraced by the movement have been widely discredited for fostering isolation and alienation.  Seen as temporary housing, little thought and planning were put to sustainable financing for maintenance, causing terrible living conditions.  As quickly as governments, particularly at the federal level, funded the construction of public housing, they retreated from the necessary long-term stewardship needed to maintain them.

Today, NYCHA is estimated to have $17 billion worth of outstanding capital and operating costs (pitch-black internal hallways are just one example). That is a truly staggering and disheartening shortfall.  Much of this gap comes from the decision to discontinue federal funding at all more than 15 years ago. It should also be noted that NYCHA has come under fire for mismanaging funds and failing to properly disclose previously granted federal money.

To make up for the shortfall, both the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations have suggested variations on a program called "in-filling" which would allow NYCHA to sell or lease underutilized land owned by the agency to private developers.  This report shows that there are significant trade-offs depending on where the land is located (obviously developers would be more interested in lower Manhattan than Brownsville for example), but it is probably the only way to accumulate significant revenue without a sea change in political priorities nationally or even in the state. However, even optimistic projections of infilling wouldn't cover the needs of the agency.

This brings us to the second NY Times article, about The Fund for Public Housing.  An off-shoot of NYCHA, it is a non-profit designed to make NYCHA a high-profile option for giving along the lines of Central Park, Lincoln Center, or even Harvard.  If you're skeptical that NYCHA has the same sex appeal as those other 'non-profits', you are not alone

The stated fundraising goals are a relatively modest $200m over 3 years, but Rasima Kimani-Fyre, the fund's director and a former NYCHA employee, does have an intriguing strategy to achieve it - NYCHA housing alumni.  Given the scale of the agency, it's not surprising to learn that it has produced a large list of former residents who have gone on to have staggeringly successful careers - Jay-z, Lloyd Blankfein (chairman of Goldman Sachs) Howard Schultz (chairman of Starbucks) and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor are just are few.  

Though some of these individuals could certainly contribute healthy amounts of money and bundle together other generous benefactors,  what could be more useful in the long-run is simply claiming pride in being a resident and advocating for public housing. Reframing the narrative about public housing around the people who have most benefited from its purpose would be a powerful tool for advocates and do much to shake off the nagging popular image of public housing that permeates the city as well as the country.

It's not out of the question that with some positive PR, coupled with the increasing awareness of the inequalities within the US and the affordability crisis within NYC, public support could shift back to seeing public housing as a better focus for tax money than boondoggles like sports stadiums or casinos.  The money going into support of public housing would flow back into the local economy and improve utility and opportunity for thousands of struggling New Yorkers.  

And compare the impact of donating to Central Park with donating to NYCHA.  About 42 million people visited Central park last year, or an average of 115,000 a day.  NYCHA has 400,000 people coming and going every day. That kind of reach, coupled with a more accurate portrayal of the positive impact that public housing has had for many people, would surly attract some high profile patronage.

PR might score some high-profile benefactors, but it wouldn't cover $17b in costs.  I'm certainly not suggesting that the fund or even in-filling are the sole solutions.  But if they can reinvigorate the conversation on public housing and change the narrative that dominates it, they would surly create the opportunity for us to start focusing on why public housing matters and why it is worthy of our collective support.