Public Housing

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

Fighting for NYCHA at Fulton Houses (fightfornycha)

Fighting for NYCHA at Fulton Houses (fightfornycha)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Progressive Housing Priorities for 2019: Go Big or Go Home

Hike wages, not rent

Hike wages, not rent

For many housing activists in New York, 2018 felt like the beginning of something big. The relentless scale of the affordable housing crisis finally reached a tipping point with the public. Hundreds of community groups on the ground around the state mobilized around this new energy and the result was stunning. The maturation of a truly state-wide tenant coalition in Housing Justice for All, the emergence of universal rent control as a viable policy platform, and the electoral victory of a new class of anti-real estate progressives have shaken up the political landscape in the state for the first time in generations.

The task now is how to ensure that we translate the organizing energy of 2018 into legislative victories in 2019 — and beyond. The first and most obvious priority will be passing the package of bills that encompass universal rent control before the rent laws expire in June. The peculiar mechanics of power in Albany make this a challenging task even with unified Democratic control, but there is undoubtably a large energized base of activists and groups committed to the fight.

There is a lot of work to be done, but I want to step back as the New Year starts and take a wider view of how housing activists should think about URC and its relationship to other issues in the progressive movement. This has implications for how we proceed with the URC battle in Albany over the next few months, but it matters for all progressive issues over the long run.

Where we’re falling short

Many other housing activists have pointed out that as much success as we’ve had with building a broad housing movement in 2018, we still experienced a lot of challenges around uniting different groups, agendas, and ideas within “housing”.

We also struggled to bring in obvious potential allies like young market-rate tenants, construction labor, and even small working-class landlords. We need to understand why these challenges exist, because we need these groups to sustain progressive victories.

The lack of inroads to some groups is probably in part due to the complexity of housing policy in general (and the difficulty of getting media to talk about it, before the election at least). Some is due to the perception that rent control won’t help market-rate tenants, or that it will slow down development and cost construction jobs. I’ve covered all of these issues in various blogs last year and I think we have some good ideas to address them.

But I’ve had a nagging sense (I don’t have any data to be clear) that some people tune out because they don’t see how universal rent control fits into a larger effort to reform our society. They might think of it as a “one-off” issue rather than part of a larger effort.

What’s the Big Idea?

That’s a failure on our part. We should be able to reach these types of folks with the right message — if we can show how our housing goals are part of a single unifying theory of progressive reform in New York.

What is that unifying theory? I read the same writers and thinkers as everyone else on this and I’m eager to hear what others think. But I believe, certainly as many others do, that the broad progressive theory to build a just society means fulfilling our individual roles as citizens before consumers, reestablishing democratic control rather than market control over our economy and politics, and investing in the public good over private profit. Pursuing policies around these broad goals are the best and most legitimate way to address the dual crises of wealth inequality and climate change.

Feel free to disagree with that assessment or add/subtract to it. The progressive movement is full of important discussions about the role of personal and group identity in shaping our priorities (I think outsiders give these discussions a bad rap for the most part) and the housing movement is no different. The point is, whatever the movement defines or has defined as its central theory, we need to be clear and consistent with how we want our society organized and why we think that offers a more perfect future for America. I’m not sure we’re doing enough of that, certainly not in the URC fight.

It’s hard to convey this on signs and buttons during actions, so it is important that we talk about the organizing theory in other places and on other platforms where we can be more in-depth. Whether its more op-eds or (definitely) more video or attending more local meetings, we need more people to hear that message directly. Groups like the DSANew York Communities for Change, and Make the Road Action are working on this already, so helping these organizations expand their efforts should be a big focus for housing progressives.

Along those lines, here are three Big Priorities that the progressive housing movement should work hard on as we ramp up the URC fight in the coming months. If we keep these ideas in mind as we talk to other folks in housing and to anyone in general as we go, we should be able to translate the energy of this coalition into a larger transformative progressive movement.

1. Unite all housing issues under Housing as a Right

Mayor de Blasio’s recent year-end review of his housing policy is a good symbol of the problem we face. He continues to view affordable housing, public housing, and homelessness as three separate issues. He’s not alone. Housing policy and advocacy has always been a balkanized mess with groups often competing for very limited funding and attention.

There are groups that should seemingly be aligned because they all work on low-income housing issues that aren’t in reality because they have deep divisions over things like prioritizing homeownership over renting. Other examples include homelessness advocates sparing with public housing advocates over prioritizing available NYCHA units. Affordable housing advocates spar about definitions of affordable and whether to prioritize for-profit, not-for-profit, or public development. The list goes on.

Some of these divisions are natural and healthy because housing is a vast policy landscape that has multiple potential outcomes of value. But many of them are the unhealthy result of a zero-sum funding game dictated by the narrow ideology of prioritizing the private market above all else.

To be clear, that’s because New York housing policy is not about how we provide adequate affordable housing, it’s about how to provide adequate funding to the private market to build more affordable housing then they would otherwise. (Developers give more money to campaigns than low-income renters after all.)

That has obviously worked — because it is providing billions of dollars to private developers, but it has not worked as a housing policy. (The term “affordable housing” is increasingly meaningless because of this too.) That’s what happens when the housing world is as divided as it currently is.

This dynamic must change. It starts by making housing a right the central goal of all housing groups.

The current policy landscape is narrow and static, which blocks out ideas and voices that we need to hear. To truly expand policy thinking on housing, the housing world must become united around a single political goal of providing affordable, adequate, and available housing to all residents of New York.

By necessity, such a vast goal will need to draw from all corners of the political spectrum. Homeownership and rental options must be expanded. Public housing and private development must be encouraged equally. Land-use and building codes must be reimagined. All ideas must be on the table.

This won’t magically cure real policy disagreements or funding problems, but it will break the political status quo, which has paralyzed both discussions. Thinking about affordable housing, supportive housing, public housing, and homelessness as separate issues has trapped many dedicated housing groups, some well-meaning non profit developers, and a few elected leaders in a cage match over dwindling funds and ideas.

Housing as a right as a political goal will encourage new voices, new ideas, and new alliances. The Housing Justice for All coalition has done a remarkable job of building a wide coalition because it has committed to this goal already, but we need to reach out to other groups like NYCHA residents, homelessness groups, low-income homeownership groups, small landlords, market-rate tenants, and construction trade groups to form a single united housing as a right movement.

There are many knowledgable and creative housing groups that could be useful parts of the coalition that are fence-sitting because of reasonable political calculations around funding and relationships. Change the politics, and those calculations change. This is the kind of bold reset that the affordable housing crisis is demanding of our politics and we have the opportunity to seize it this year — if we act boldly.

2. Embrace progressive urbanism

I studied Urban Planning in grad school because I believe the city is humanity’s best idea. Humans are social, collaborative, and competitive — concentrating them in one place brings out the best of those qualities in us and drives progressive as a civilization. — if we manage it well. Progressive urbanism offers that chance.

Cities also best represent the unique possibilities of the American character. You can find community. You can find opportunity. You can find purpose. That’s why they are magnets to immigrants, entrepreneurs, artists, and exiles.

Contrary to what others say, cities are where the real America exists and where its future lies. That future is diverse, dense, and digital. America is already an urban country and will only grow more so in the 21st century.

But if 21st century America is going to work, we need to make its cities work. And they aren’t working right now. Communities are under fire. Opportunity is out of reach. Purpose is illusive. That’s especially true in NYC, which is one of the most economically and racially stratified cities in North America.

The problem is America’s politics are anti-urban. The Constitution doesn’t recognize cities. The Electoral College undervalues them. The federal government has favored (and subsidized) the rural and suburban parts of the country for most of the 20th century at the expense of them.

The racist anti-urban ideology baked into 20th century American politics is a large reason for the inequality crisis and climate crisis shaking our country apart, but cities don’t have the political power to fix it.

It’s time for the politics to catch up. A progressive urbanist agenda must be the core of 21st American politics. Housing progressives must argue that living in cities is how we live well together and how we best solve the problems facing our country and planet. We must explain why the advantages of urban life — the diverse, dense, and digital I mentioned earlier — are built-in ways to address inequality and climate change quickly and sustainably.

The housing movement must be a foundational partner in building the popular movement to reform our political system around cities. That means fighting for things as big as structural changes in the US Senate and House or changing housing and transportation policy at the federal level. And it means fighting for smaller immediate things like making sure the 2020 Censuscounts urban populations accurately and without racial animus baked in.

Cities are where the country is already moving, literally, and where the political future lies. Recognizing this and empowering cities will create thousands of democratic laboratories designed to fight inequality and climate change from the bottom up.

But only if they are midwifed with progressive values. Guaranteed affordable housing is the lynchpin of a larger set of issues that include improving wages and labor rights, recommitting to public education, creating universal healthcare, deconstructing systemic racism, and pursuing environmental justice and sustainability, among many others.

Progressive urbanism fits well into any potential organizing theory of progressive principles. It has to be a core tenant of the housing movement and it has to be the core message to bring in other non-housing groups to the cause.

3. Organize workers and consumers against late capitalism

It’s no coincidence that housing activists fighting for URC are also involved in the Anti-Amazon HQ2 protests in NYC. They are the same fight in the end. To really end the housing crisis, we must tackle the crisis of late capitalism that Amazon represents.

Capitalism has stopped working the way Americans have been raised to imagine it. Only the most ideologically blinded and deeply compromised partisans can look at the state of our economy and pretend otherwise. Most industries, especially finance, energy, telecoms, and pharmaceuticals have concentrated around a few dominant players who control their regulatory regimes at the expense of employees and consumers.

On top of this, the tech boom, despite the (now cresting) fascination with startups, has led to an unprecedented concentration of economic and cultural power in a few firms, industries, and geographies.

This has massive implications for the health of our economy and society, which we’ve only starting to reckon with properly. Getting cheap crap as consumers should not outweigh the cost to us as employees and citizens.

That tradeoff has been toxic. American entrepreneurship has plummeted. Wages for the top earners have exploded while wages for the vast majority of workers have stagnated — despite nine years of economic growth. Debts of any kind are skyrocketing to fill the gap. The chance to enter the middle class has all but vanished for many while the chance to remain there is diminishing for a huge swath of the country. This is late capitalism.

The commodification of housing is just another byproduct of late capitalism’s unchallenged thrust towards commodifying every aspect of our lives that undermines our civic and ecological lives. That is what is driving the rise of rents, displacement, and eviction. It explains part of the increase in climate disasters and is certainly a major factor in the failure to respond to them.

In New York at least, URC has a legitimate shot at clawing back democratic power over housing policy from the real estate industry for the first time in generations. But it is not enough to stop there. We must crawl back democratic control of the economy overall. URC should be the beginning of the larger movement to do so.

That means the housing movement must align with worker movements and progressive elected officials in their efforts to break up monopolies and oligarchies in every industry, but particularly in tech and finance.

This is already happening in NYC with the Anti-Amazon protests and other equally important movements like the protest over the redevelopment of Two Bridges (a major action is planned for MLK Day.)

Solidarity is the cornerstone of the housing movement, but we need that message to get out to the general public and to other potential allies: Passing universal rent control will not be enough to solve inequality. Because of that, even if we do pass URC, the coalition that made it possible won’t be going anywhere.

In the early 20th century, when the progressive movement first emerged, corporate power and capitalism itself were contested in the market place of ideas in America. Even Republicans like President Roosevelt warned against their threat to democracy.

That battle came to a head during the Great Depression when the other President Roosevelt famously said his New Deal was an attempt to save capitalism from itself. For a time, for America as a whole, it did that. The last 40 years have unravelled it.

It’s clear that we need a massive, New Deal-level reboot in this country. That doesn’t just mean a Green New Deal. And it doesn’t just mean housing as a right. It means rebooting every corner of our politics and our economy. As housing progressives fight for universal rent control in New York, we must step up and make sure people know that’s what we’re all fighting for.

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.

The Fight Over SB-827 Shows Why We Need a Massive National Plan for Housing — Again

The Williamsburg Houses (1938) still provides 1,630 homes for 3,121 New Yorkers. (nycarchitecture)

The Williamsburg Houses (1938) still provides 1,630 homes for 3,121 New Yorkers. (nycarchitecture)

This week in California, public hearings have begun on SB-827, the bill (which is a series of bills actually) proposed by State Senator Scott Weiner from San Francisco which calls for a radical realignment of housing policy away from single-family car-centric development to multi-family transit oriented development. It didn’t take long for it to get ugly. The battle lines for and against the bill have skewed the typical partisanship we’ve come to expect in American politics, pitting NIMBYists (homeowners, many of whom would otherwise lean progressive) against YIMBYists (a wider range of pro-market and even anti-market interests). It will absolutely get uglier.

That’s because the stakes couldn’t be higher. Along with California, the entire nation has been locked in an unprecedented affordable housing crisis and to solve it someone has to lose — big. Until that reality is faced, this crisis has no end in sight. 

The housing crisis won’t end until we stop calling it a housing crisis and start calling it what it is — a crisis of capitalism in housing. 80 years of housing policy that viewed it as a form of wealth creation has severely damaged our communities and our economy. It has racially stratified our society and left millions behind. It has ecsaserbated our climate’s instability. 

If we want to “fix” the housing crisis we need to fix capitalism. In the long run that means changing how we view — and finance, build, and use — housing. That obviously won’t happen over night. But we can start by looking at how we solved previous housing crises in the US. 

When has the market solved a previous housing crisis? Never. 

The scale and length of the current housing crisis is unique in American history, but housing shortages are not. What is also unique today is the lack of national policy initiatives to fight it. 

Many people (including many supporters of SB-827) will argue that we don’t need national policy. We justt need to unleash the free market to match supply with demand. That’s a nice idea, but we’ve tried that before.

New York City is the perfect example of what happens when you rely on the market. From 1890 to 1920 the city’s population grew from 2.5m to 5.6m due to a massive wave of immigration. The unregulated housing stock at the time was already overwhelmed and hellish (the tenement-dominated Lower East Side was the one of the densest areas on earth) but it couldn’t keep up with such a huge population increase. Even as the city physically expanded and private development sprung up further from lower Manhattan, adequate, affordable housing was hard to find the majority of the population.

There was minimal government intervention in housing at the time — this was pure market. It was before land use, occupancy, or even fire safety regulations let alone government sponsored housing. The city did however finance rapid transit, thereby indirectly subsidizing the construction of new housing on vast tracks of cheap green development in the boroughs— yet at no point was the private market willing or able to create enough affordable housing for the growing city. Expensive slums still persisted.

It should be noted that the federal government did build public housing during the tale end of this period in other parts of the US. During World War I, a massive influx of labor around war time production put a severe burden on port and industrial cities’ housing supply, causing inflation and price spikes. (A large part of this influx was the beginning of The Great Migration, which saw over 6 million African-American families move from the rural south to the urban north and west.)

The federal government built thousands of housing units for workers — although many of them were purposefully constructed as temporary to avoid angering local real estate interests who lobbied against the effort even during wartime. The market was and never will be interested in meeting demand.

How were previous crises solved? The federal government.

The housing crisis in NYC continued even in the boom years of the 1920s and came to head during the Great Depression. Millions of Americans lost their homes (whether they owned or rented) and were forced into dangerous tenements or shantytowns known as “Hoovervilles.” The market ceased to exist in any conventional sense.

Famously, President Roosevelt was able to enact the New Deal, which was a set of legislation that radically changed the relationship between the federal government and the economy. The two housing bills of 1934 and 1937 were, ultimately, a mixed blessing.

On the positive side, the scale of the Depression obliterated the ideological arguments against intervening in the housing crisis and spawned the first wave of public housing construction across the country. In conjunction with local governments, the federal government sponsored thousands of modern, clean housing complexes — in cities and in more rural parts of the country. Millions of Americans — the majority of which were middle or working class — received access to affordable housing never seen before.

On the negative side, the New Deal legislation racially segregated public housing and in fact displaced many communities of color to build public housing for white residents.

Even more damaging in the long the run, this was the beginning of massive subsidies for single-family housing. Originally conceived as a construction industry bail-out, the Federal Housing Administration would set the precedent of backing mortgages (for whites) that evolved into Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

These policy decisions have shaped the physical definition of America and the social and economic destiny of all Americans. It is no stretch to say that these polices set the country on a course that would inevitably lead to our current crisis. 

This time must be different. 

It’s fascinating and heartbreaking to think about what could have been different. Had the federal government intervened with public housing sooner, at the beginning of the 20th century, would it have demonstrated its value in different, smaller scale models that could have gained more political currency? Could the federal government have intervened by creating more mass transit and denser suburbs before the advent of the automobile? Could the it have avoided the racism that doomed a large segment of Americans and cities for generations?

Could we have avoided the tragedy of building our national and personal economic prosperity on homeownership? 

These questions are important to ask because we must learn from the past if we are to truly solve this housing crisis. The short answer for all of these are yes, if we valued the public good over private interests. If we valued democratic outcomes over market outcomes. If we valued shelter before wealth. If we stopped equating the market with virtue or even basic efficiency.

It starts by learning the lessons from the fight over SB-827. Homeowner interests can not come before the public interest. Local towns can not implicitly segregate themselves through down-zoning — at least near public transit (and extend that publicly-funded highways.) Special interests can not kill the democratic process.

Next, it means avoiding the failed lessons of relying on the market with minimal regulation from the early 20th century and avoiding the failed lessons of the New Deal focus on homeownership and slum clearance as national policy goals. We need more public housing in addition to more density. This is the only way to ensure that displacement doesn’t ruin another generation of low-income families chances of mobility. 

It means addressing the bigger problems inherent in our choice to make homeownership a priority because it drives wealth creation. There is nothing wrong with promoting homeownership, but doing so by warping the true cost of it is irresponsible. We learned that during the Great Recession and then quickly forgot it. We must finally address this at the national level. 

Finally, we must address the larger errors within capitalism that have warped what a home is. We can’t allow homes to be speculated on by private equity firms, international investors, or even flipping enthusiasts. Homes are for living in, not extracting profit from. 

We can’t allow homes to be the sole or majority source of a household’s wealth. It’s no wonder that homeowners freak out about potential risks to their home values — for too many Americans their perceived value is their only economic security. That is absurd and will likely trigger another major economic crisis in the years ahead. 

The only way to do all of this is for the federal government to intervene with the resolve of a national emergency. We must push for our elected officials to make the difficult decisions and political sacrifices to ensure that Americans can find affordable housing everywhere. The stakes are clear. The costs of inaction are clear. The way forward remains unclear.

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.

Demand Housing as a Right, then Fight the Tax Plan

 
Mitchel Houses in The Bronx and the rest of NYCHA should be celebrated (homeBodynetwork)

Mitchel Houses in The Bronx and the rest of NYCHA should be celebrated (homeBodynetwork)

 

As the details emerge from the Congressional Republican tax cut plan, housing is one area where there appears to be considerable bi-partisan anger.  The home construction industry and affordable housing advocates both adamantly oppose to the plan, but for wildly different reasons. However, the former is vastly more powerful than the later and has much more of a chance to extract compromises from the final tax plan, which it surly will.

This is because the affordable housing community continues to accept the broken premise that the market is the best way to supply affordable housing.  It isn’t.  Until housing advocates rally around housing as a right as an organizing principle, tax plan after tax plan will chip away at even the limited market-based programs mildly supporting ‘affordable housing’ - and Democrats will keep allowing it.  Only by changing the debate can we change the underlying fundamentals causing the affordable housing ever-crisis.

 

Housers are stuck defending an already failed market-based policy

I don’t make a lot of friends shitting on the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit. The truth is, it’s just not a great policy and allows Congress to gaslight Americans on the affordable housing crisis.  Formed after the last big tax policy change in 1986, the LIHTC works by giving tax credits to developers who build a certain percentage of affordable housing units  (which is a dubious term to begin with) who then pass them on to investors (mainly banks) who fund the projects.

The program has maintained popularity with both parties because Republicans see it as a market-based solution (it isn’t) and Democrats see it as an affordable housing solution (it isn’t).  Defenders of the program on either side of the aisle will point to the 3 million units created under the program (which represent 90% of all affordable housing units built in the US over the last 30 years) as a point of success.  Some will cite the number of jobs supported in the construction industry or the estimated $100 billion injected into the economy through the program.  On the face of it, these are entirely fair points to make.

But none of these arguments hold up to the other glaring numbers to consider:

  • In 99.9% of US counties, someone making minimum wage can’t afford the cost of a 1-bedroom house. 
  • 75% of American households who qualify for housing assistance don’t get any
  • 11.2 million Americans are severely rent burdened
  • We are missing 7.4 million needed affordable housing units

Many thoughtful housers with good intentions will argue that LIHTC and associated private activity bonds are good programs and shouldn’t be blamed for these complex issues. They are all working very hard at protecting LIHTC, which is under threat if corporate tax rates go down (offsetting the incentives for the program.) The feeling is, “this is the best we’ve got, we must protect it.”  I get it.

But when you only have one program designated to create affordable housing and the country is mired in a devastating affordable housing crisis, how can you not question LIHTC? How can you not question the underlying premise that allows LIHTC to retain bi-partisan support in the first place? Who actually cares about actual affordable housing in Congress? What the hell did $100 billion over 30 years actually get us?

 

Even the one potentially cool, progressive change in this tax plan suuuuux

Many housing advocates and conservatives agree that the mortgage interest deduction (MID) is a terrible policy that unfairly favors wealthy homeowners.  They are right. 

  • Through MID, the American people spend $134 billion a year (remember, LIHTC did less than that in 30 years) on subsidizing middle class and upper middle class homes
  •  60% of all federal dollars spent on housing policies goes to homeowners making over $100,000.
  • 7 million American households that make over $200,000 receive more federal funding for housing than the 50 million who make less than $50,000

Getting rid of the MID would undoubtedly correct a lot of injustice in the tax system (and in our disastrous support of a homeownership society).  But that’s not why Republicans are limiting the deduction from $1m to $500k.  They are doing it to offset lower corporate and estate taxes.

That’s right. This plan takes money from wealthy homeowners and gives it to even wealthier corporations and rich heirs. The only way something as egregious as the MID was even on the table was because Republicans want to give tax cuts to wealthier, more powerful donors.  When confronted with this giveaway, few Americans seem to support this plan, but Democrats are fighting it because its Trump - not because they have ever supported transferring MID revenue to affordable housing.

 

Reject the premise, change the debate, and make housing a right

I would also argue that few Americans would support the MID in the first place, since it effects so few of us (which is one of the defenses given by Republicans for the plan.) This goes to show how warped the conversation on housing is in this country.  We have been fine subsidizing wealthy housing for generations, but refuse to assist the poor and working class secure affordable housing.

Much of that blame lies with housers letting the Democratic Party off the hook. By accepting the premise that market-based programs are the only viable solutions at the federal level (this in the face of a massive effort to subsidize the top end anyway), they have surrendered the intellectual and moral weight that would otherwise frame the debate on housing as a basic human right.

It must also be said that the Democratic Party implicitly fake-fights the far-reaching racism that has underpinned this “market approach” for 80 years.  When public housing and vouchers became synonymous with urban poor brown and black people, the party abandoned the solid and still-relevant arguments for public housing and housing assistance that defined the New Deal and Great Society eras. 

Rather than fight for these ideas because they are right, because they work, and because they breakdown racial injustice, the party focused on homeownership.  The fear of alienating white homeowners was too strong to fight for principles that would still ultimately benefit them too. Housers have nowhere to go, but haven’t kept Dems honest.

It’s not radical to question the virtue of giving away $135 billion a year on wealthy homes when so many Americans are suffering to afford one (whether they own or rent).  It’s not radical to question the virtue of LIHTC when nearly all of the country is mired in a never-ending affordability crisis.  It’s not radical to question why 75% of Americans who need help affording basic shelter aren’t getting anything.

There is enough wealth and there are enough good ideas to guarantee affordable shelter for every American in this country if we want it.  There are enough Americans from every age, race, and region who are suffering and will continue to suffer to change the political landscape if we want to do it.  And there are enough good people in housing who have the knowledge and passion to lead the way if they want to. Frankly, we need them to.

 

homeBody is the free communication tool for landlords, tenants, and neighbors.

We believe housing is a right and so should you. 

The Coming Budget Will be a Disaster for Housing, but Housers Are Part of the Problem

"The Marriage of Real Estate and Money" (Tom Otterness, 1996)

"The Marriage of Real Estate and Money" (Tom Otterness, 1996)

Republican-controlled Congress passed a major hurdle in their plan to radically reshape the nation’s tax code last week by narrowly passing a budget for 2018 in a close 216-212 vote.  The narrow spread included 20 Republican defections, which is a clear signal of the considerable challenges that lay ahead.  Regardless, this process will be a disaster for housing policy – affordable housing or otherwise.  The fact that this process is proceeding in rapid, secretive, and reckless fashion barely registers anymore shows how far our legislative process has come apart. It also shows how little the housing community can do to prevent this damage and how little it understands the changing landscape of national politics.

I have written extensively about three major threads since the beginning of the Trump Era (although they originate well before) that continue to dominate housing policy discussions. This budget (which is not law yet and is still largely unknown as policy) reflects these trends. The response the housing community has to each also shows how much it needs to change its approach and fight for a simple, clear cause: housing as a right.

1. Down with Public Housing

First, President Trump, despite his incoherencies, has been steadfast in his utter indifference to affordable housing, especially public housing. Given other mounting evidence, it seems more likely that he holds the people (or those people, more aptly) that rely on it in contempt. 

Appointing Secretary Carson has worked out exactly as the President had hoped and as housing advocates had feared.  HUD will face devastating cuts whether the Secretary understands them or not. The 13% across-the-board cuts long-promised by the administration are starting to take form and no one suffers more than the poor Americans who rely on housing vouchers, community block grants, and of course, public housing. 

Public housing authorities across the country will be further starved of funding and will likely turn increasingly to measures such as the Obama-era program Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) that provides upfront funding by turning public housing into privately-leased Section 8 units.  Seen as a necessity, or even as a progressive fail-safe by many housers, this program will only weaken cash-strapped public housing authorities and undermine their broader mission. Housers who support RAD will live to regret those decisions instead of rallying around a robust defense of public housing on its merits.

Saying Secretary Carson is unqualified or simply dumb doesn't change the narrative on public housing.  Saying the President doesn't support or respect poor Americans' struggles won't change the support most Americans have for public housing.  Making the case that public housing - and greater federal involvement in affordable rental housing - is good for the country and good for everyone - city or suburb - is the only way to effectively fight the Trump administration.  Right now, the playbook is wracking up losses. It's time to change it.

2. Up With LIHTC

Second, Congress continues to gaslight the housing community about the effectiveness of the main national affordable housing policy – the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC).  Enacted after the last major tax overall in 1986, it has created over 3 million housing units representing 90% of all affordable units built during the period.

That’s seen as a success by many well-meaning actors in housing despite the fact that it is has demonstrably failed to provide the volume of units our country needs.  99% of US counties are in an affordable housing crisis. When the only policy explicitly designed to address affordable housing is failing that broadly, it is irresponsible to defend the status quo. But that is largely what is happening at the moment.

The legitimate fear from this proposed tax cut plan - I won't pretend it's some nebulous "tax reform" - is that lower corporate rates will dramatically weaken the incentive to partake in the LIHTC program. What will be left unsaid is that relying on the private sector to build affordable housing through tax incentives is inherently and obviously flawed.

Instead of arguing for a larger policy shift, many housers will try to defend LIHTC and, by extension, the status quo of federal housing priorities. When, inevitably, both parties do offer some type of carve out for LIHTC to remain attractive, this will be hailed as a victory. We should know better by now. We should be arguing for more policies like community land trusts that offer the same type of decentralized, local control that many communities want, while rejecting the speculative component that largely dictates development today.

3. Upside Down on Homeownership

Third, we have learned nothing from the 2008 mortgage crisis.  Not only have we failed to address the dangers of increased financialization of the housing market, or the more fundamental challenges of slow wage-growth, rising debt, and geographic inequality that is crushing the housing market, but we have never rectified that promoting homeownership for 80 years has been a disaster for our country.

Homeownership has undoubtedly pushed millions of Americans into the middle class but it has also prevented millions more from doing so.  Wealth inequality across racial lines has increased in recent decades.  Racial segregation has increased in recent decades.  The environmental and social costs of single-family suburban sprawl will only get worse as a generation of baby boomers age and realize no one is coming to buy their homes at what they think they are worth.  Nobel-prize winning economist Robert Schiller has long debunked that houses automatically appreciate in the US. In fact, on average, they haven't at all since the 1940s. That's only going to get worse in many parts of the country.

The only minutely (unintentionally) progressive element of the tax cut plan currently under consideration is reducing the mortgage interest deduction, which disproportionately benefits wealthier Americans. This is being met with fierce resistance by the housing industry. It's not hard to see why homeowners and housing developers wouldn't want to support massive tax cuts for corporations and the top percent of earners.  Reducing the MID to pay for tax cuts isn't what many housing reformers had in mind, but it shows how hard it will be to try such a thing under any circumstances.

This is because treating housing as a tool of wealth creation as opposed to one for shelter provision is the definitive policy choice of 20th century America.  We have built a nation on this principle (along with car ownership, which of course is directly tied to housing.)  There are many ills facing our society today and our housing policy explains a lot of them.

To truly change this, we must first accept a blatantly obvious reality: treating housing like an asset has failed.  We have commodified it, securitized it, and speculated on it like it’s something less important than a basic human right.  Many elements of our country have profited handsomely from this.  Indeed, go to any real estate conference now and there will be a technocratic consensus that “the market is doing well” while ignoring the larger truth: our society is not doing well.

Housers must recognize the opportunity that we have to dramatically change the discussion on housing by rejecting the 20th century concept of housing.  Millions of Americans are hurting and are angry.  Ideas that might have once been considered 'radical' by some people - even many housing advocates - are now entering the conversation and public policy. Most Americans recognize that the old way we constructed our politics isn't working. 

We must extend that realization to the built environment and offer a positive, actionable vision for a better future.  Housers have to stop accepting a failed premise and fight to establish a new one. It starts with saying simply, proudly, and forcefully that housing is a right. 

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.

Late Capitalism Caused the Grenfell Fire

This should never have happened. (grenfellactiongroup)

This should never have happened. (grenfellactiongroup)

With the death toll climbing to 72, the horrific apartment tower fire in London on June 14 is as maddening as it is heartbreaking.  Many residents died completely unaware of the danger around them, others were told to stay in their units, a few jumped out of windows.  How could such a calamity strike in 2017? The answer has implications beyond London and the UK.  The truth is, it could happen in NYC and in some ways already does.  It happens because late capitalism has driven us to collectively abandon the hard lessons of civic responsibility and the public interest that we’ve learned over the last 100 years.

The New York Times has an in-depth look at the fire and the blame falls squarely on late capitalism run amok.  More specifically, the fire appears to have been caused by a refrigerator on the fourth floor that exploded in an apartment (it’s unclear as to why yet).  Normally, large concrete towers would be able to contain such a blaze at least long enough to evacuate the building and/or for firefighters to contain it with minimal damage. However, several factors contributed to the rapid and fatal spread of the fire at Grenfell. 

First, in an effort to “beautify” the building’s exterior (more on this later), highly flammable aluminum cladding was installed around the building.  The material is made in America but is only allowed on buildings in three states (the same cladding caused the recent fire in a high-rise apartment building in Dubai).  The refrigerator was positioned on an exterior wall and the cladding quickly caught fire and spread up and out across the building.

Second, business-friendly government officials (spanning all major parties) eager to reduce “red-tape” ignored repeated warnings from fire experts on the cladding, instead favoring the arguments from the construction industry on the low cost outweighing the minimal risk.  Objective, informed expertise was secondary to a self-serving private interest.

Finally, and most shockingly, residents (most of which are low-income) were virtually ignored despite raising concerns for years over basic regulatory measures for fire inspections, sprinklers, clearly marked fire escapes.  These residents knew how dangerous their home could potentially be and organized repeatedly to change it by pressuring management and the government.  Those pleas were ignored and many of those that made them are now dead.

Neoliberalism preaches the power of the market. Deregulation, privatization, and globalization are supposed to be the three pillars of a free and prosperous golden age.  Grenfell Towers is the stark counterpoint to this illusion.

The tower was built in 1974 as social housing (pubic housing) run by the government at the local borough level.  In 1996, as part of an effort to deregulate and disinvest the government from housing, the tower became part of a newly formed Tenant Management Organization (TMO) called the Kensington & Chelsea TMO owned by the local council.  The organization’s leadership is made up of residents, people appointed by local elected officials, and several independent members. Uniquely in the UK, K & C is also an “arm’s length management organization” (ALMO) that is normally an independent property management organization. So it is landlord and manager, in fact the biggest in the UK. 

This semi-private structure is supposed to allow more local control and greater efficiency but, as many critics argue, it does the opposite.  The mission and incentive structure for the organization is to lower costs above all else.  Finding cheaper ways to run something is perfectly fine, but there are other efficiency priorities that need to be balanced, such as basic safety.  As has become increasingly apparent as more information comes out about the fire, that wasn’t the case with K & C - nor did locals have the agency within the complex to change that focus.

On the other hand, it appears that non-residents had more say in the operation of the building.  Though the tower has a working-class population, the surrounding area is one of the wealthier sections of London.  Pressure from these residents, some of which are on the leadership council, to beautify the exterior (so they don’t have to look at a stark, brutalism building) was given priority. The aluminum cladding that propelled the fire was installed last year as part of an 8.7 million pound renovation to appease these wealth neighbors rather than to fix long-standing resident complaints. 

I can’t think of a more brutal example of late capitalism than Grenfell.  A building constructed to serve the public interest and provide affordable housing was (effectively) privatized and deregulated. In the process its owners prioritized wealthy neighbors instead of working-class residents.  The result was a cosmetic change with known risks that has killed 79 people.

We have public institutions because we live in states with governments designed to represent the public interest, the shared destiny of its citizens.  However flawed these institutions are, their existence and function are central to the idea of that shared identity and shared purpose.  They are the only way to create legitimacy in a society with competing interests and values.  When we devalue these institutions, we devalue the idea of civic responsibility to each other and our society. 

Privatization is often categorized as a binary choice between incompetent, wasteful bureaucrats and efficient, expert businesses.  That’s bullshit, but it’s also myopic. Any organization, public or private, can be well run or poorly run. The difference is the bottom line.  For private companies it is to run a profitable business to maximize shareholder value, which, for the most part, is just fine.  But that’s not how we should view public institutions. Their bottom line is to provide public services to support and nurture a complex society. 

In the UK and the US particularly, we have internalized the supremacy of the market as the ultimate tool to run our society.  As a consequence both countries have been rocked by financial crises, rising social inequality, and erosion of trust in the state.  When you spend decades ripping functions out of the state’s hands, that’s inevitable.  We blame the state for this, but we should be blaming the market. Everywhere you look, whether it’s the retrenchment of monopolies, the dilution of labor protections, or the disinvestment of infrastructure, our society’s priority of short-term profit has fundamentally weakened our ability to protect our citizens from basic risks like fire. 

The true tragedy of this episode and the inevitable future episodes to follow is that we have already learned these lessons, in some cases a century ago.  The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911 killed 146 garment workers in NYC. This outrage created the modern regulatory system for buildings in NYC and the US and spurred the creation of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union to fight sweatshop conditions.

Is NYC better prepared than London today? Perhaps, but I wouldn’t be too sure for the simple reason that our city, like many local governments across the country, is starved for resources.  Basic inspections are backlogged. Maintenance work is delayed. Complaints are barely registered. 

I’m not just speaking about public housing.  Frankly, NYCHA has done an incredible job maintaining their facilities under such dire restraints for years.  There are reasons for concern and diligence, but the potential risk isn’t in public housing alone. How many small, old buildings in NYC are prepared for a fire? How many large new buildings?

The problem isn’t just fires.  The problem is much larger and deeper.  We’ve gone through terrible traumas as a society, but many of them occurred before anyone today was alive.  The public institutions that were built to address these issues worked, but now we’ve forgotten why they are needed. Our collective complacency as residents, as owners, as officials, is clear and disturbing.

The lesson from Grenfell, like the Triangle Fire before it, is simple.  If we take our civic responsibility seriously, we must support the public institutions that serve it.  We can’t trust that the market will solve our problems for us. We need the market to fit into our civic needs, not the other way around. More innocent people will be killed if we fail to learn that lesson yet again.

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.

Secretary Carson as Useful Idiot

But don't let him, or us, off the hook (housingwire)

But don't let him, or us, off the hook (housingwire)

When Dr. Ben Carson was announced as the nominee for HUD Secretary, it was pointed out that he had never worked in government and had no experience in housing.   When he took questions before the Senate, it was pointed out that he barely mentioned anything to do with housing (and was barely promoted to).  And when he went on his listening tour shortly after becoming Secretary, it was pointed out that he praised the results of programs that would likely be cut or eliminated by his boss.  Now that the budget is officially here, and does include devastating cuts to HUD, it’s safe to say that Secretary Carson is as bad as housing advocates feared.  But truthfully, he has been everything the Trump Administration wanted him to be.  The implication for our country is disheartening.

I know it’s harsh to refer to Secretary Carson as a “useful idiot” but he is the literal definition of the term.  President Trump is cynically using Dr. Carson to go along with policies that the doctor (and, frankly, the President) doesn’t fully understand for purposes he may also not fully appreciate.  Dr. Carson seems quite content with the arrangement.

It is unlikely that Secretary Carson was consulted or even notified of the budget cuts outlined for HUD.  I’m not entirely convinced he knows what is in the budget. Not that the department is even staffed enough to have anyone around to tell him. Despite Dr. Carson’s testimony during the nomination to defend the mission and programs of his department, he has done nothing of the sort and never intended to.

This was all from the White House.  The department faces cuts of 15%, or $7.4 billion, which would include the elimination of bedrock programs like the Community Development Block Grant, the Housing Trust Fund, HOME investment partnerships, capital funding for public housing, and many other regional rental assistance programs.  Hundreds of thousands of poor, young, old, disabled, or otherwise vulnerable Americans would lose housing assistance in the midst of the affordable housing crisis.

Secretary Carson has still been useful by putting a genial face on what is a dark, cruel vision of public policy that has emerged as the only through-line in the Trump Administration.  Secretary Carson has made national headlines for two statements that reflect the naked truth of the Trump Administration but spares the President of having to say them himself: Fuck the Poor.

First he said that public housing, or presumably any subsidized housing, shouldn’t be “too comfortable” for residents because they won’t be motivated to find other housing.  Second (and not for the first time) he called poverty a “state of mind."

These comments are horrifying and stupid for several reasons. 

Let’s look at the first statement.  The logic that public/assisted housing should only be temporary was abandoned decades ago by HUD because it never made sense to begin with.  Providing permanently affordable housing for low-income families is a worthy public investment because it creates more economic opportunity for individuals and communities, reduces public spending in other supportive services, and maintains a mixing of income (and by extension, racial) groups that is fundamentally necessary for the health of our civil society.

If residents have the opportunity to move up the economic and housing latter, then great, American mobility is working.  But, more accurate to today, if they have to stay economically, or want to stay socially, they shouldn’t be punished with Spartan accommodations. Where are the good jobs and opportunities in our economy today? Decades of terrible economic policy have trapped millions of Americans in all corners of the country.  The idea that this housing shouldn’t be “too comfortable” is not only cruel and condescending, it is ignorant and classist.

Which brings us to Secretary Carson’s second statement about poverty being a state of mind.  This statement is so utterly wrong on its merit, so astonishingly ahistorical, and so morally debased that in a healthier society, we would have demanded and received his resignation. 

Our brand of American exceptionalism has always had a darker tone when it comes to poverty.  We romanticize the idea that anyone can do anything if they work hard enough, and point to any number of anecdotal stories to show this kind of success.  However, this allows us to ignore the larger structures in our society that have exploited the poor and vulnerable from the founding of our republic to present day – from Native Americans to slaves, to immigrants, to women and children, to veterans and foreign workers.

It’s why our national consciousness remembers the wagon trains of western expansion more than the violent removal and murder of Native Americans to achieve it.  It’s why we recall the great industrial expansion during the Gilded Age through the mansions of the robber barons without remembering their violent suppression of labor strikes at places like Tompkins Square in 1874 or on Grand Street in 1886. Its why we gloss over MLK's true message of economic justice for a waterer-down version of inclusiveness.

Dr. Carson’s views on poverty are no doubt shaped by his own exceptional life story (which, unlike the President, he achieved on his own.)  He has made a lucrative second career as a writer and motivational speaker by telling willing audiences that he overcame poverty and achieved greatness, reaffirming this great narrative of America by personifying it himself.

But is everyone blessed with Dr. Carson’s brain? How many other poor young men and women – who likely had equally strong and dedicated mothers - were unable to achieve even modest economic prosperity?  For every Dr. Carson, there are a hundred anonymous poor who, if even acknowledged by our broader society, are blamed for their condition. 

That this blame is also leveled by a man like Dr. Carson, who should know better given his background, his stated religious beliefs, and his position in government, shows everything that is wrong with our country today.

We can debate the likelihood of the cuts in the president’s budget actually passing and take some hope in knowing that many won’t.  We can hide behind the fact that Dr. Carson is simply inexperienced and overwhelmed in government. We can tell ourselves that the economy is doing well, that it could even improve, and that anyway it’s only a small portion of people impacted by these cuts.

But this thinking would let us all off the hook.  We can’t turn away from what is staring right in front of us.  Our society is growing crueler.  Our government, and even President Trump, is only a reflection of this. Our illness runs much deeper.

We are looking at the challenges posed by globalization, coming automation, and climate change with tax cuts for the wealthy and program cuts for everyone else. We are blaming the poor for their condition and excusing the mega rich for theirs.  We are lying about the past, ignoring the true problems of the present, and betraying the future - for nothing. 

Yes, we can start by demanding Secretary Carson step down.  We can continue by blocking the president’s housing agenda (and general agenda) and voting him out (if it comes to that). But we must acknowledge that the cruelty running through our society is a much larger plague that must be eradicated. 

We must discover a new civic spirit and a new commitment to our shared republican values of liberty, justice, and peace. We must acknowledge that these values are only viable when every citizen has access to them.  We must create a government that reflects the supremacy of collective effort and shared benefit over exploitation and selfish gain.  We must reject the ideology that says we are on our own.  That has never been anything but an excuse for the bigger fish to eat the little ones.  America is greater than that.

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.