Will New York’s Public Housing Stay Public?

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It’s wintertime, which means New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) residents are busy bracing for the usual heat outages and service gaps that come from living in rapidly-deteriorating public housing. But they aren’t the only ones bracing: According to the Authority’s own recent physical assessments, it would take $32 billion to fix the myriad issues plaguing its building stock, from leaking roofs, molding ceilings, broken elevators and boilers on the fritz. This eye-goggling number is nearly twice the estimate put forth by NYCHA in its physical assessment just five years ago—a truly dizzying debt rate. Things are so bad that many experts and advocates wonder if there will even be a public housing authority in a few short decades, and elected officials are entertaining once-quixotic ideas of demolishing the buildings and rebuilding from scratch. These mad moves are based on reason: If the city and state do not fund a massive update of its public housing sites, they will be effectively totaled in ten years—not worth the price tag to fix.

That’s a problem, period.

But it’s an especially big problem when you consider that 400,000 New Yorkers call 176,000 NYCHA apartments home—more people and apartments than exist in large cities elsewhere. For those of you doing the math at home, that’s $180,000 per apartment. And even in budget-rich New York City, officials are scrambling to figure out ways to break even. Mayor De Blasio's solution? Something called Next Generation NYCHA, which proposes—amongst other things—to recoup NYCHA losses by turning daily control and maintenance of the buildings over to private developers and converting the grassy campuses around public housing into privately-run mixed-use high-rise apartment buildings.

Proponents argue that relieving NYCHA of its landlord duties—making it instead a landowner who stewards public housing stock—would reduce backlogs, lead to more efficiency and save gobs of money. They also argue that infill development would create a sizable revenue stream (developers would pay for building rights and pay NYCHA part of its rental proceeds) that the Authority could then funnel into necessary repairs. But many residents and elected officials see it is just another dangerous step toward privatization. They point out that the federal government pays developers the difference between market-rate rents and public housing rents—a tidy, 30% markup—and that developers have the option to push NYCHA to allow for full privatization after thirty years. And then there’s the loss of public space, playground areas and light posed by towering infill developments, which residents argue—after kickbacks to developers are factored in—will be mere pennies in the pot. And this doesn’t even address the most glaring issue, which is that the “affordable” units mandated in infill developments are keyed to people making twice what the average NYCHA residents make. After all the fuss, residents say, they would lose what few amenities they do have to be surrounded by buildings they can’t even afford to live in—and the roofs will still be leaking.

Meanwhile, the federal government is—surprise—making matters worse for both NYCHA and New York’s poorest residents, slashing NYC’s federal housing budget by a projected $150 million.

And, in its 2019 budget, it’s proposing to eliminate the Public Housing Capital Fund entirely, which would slash another $346 million in federal dollars for urgent repairs. The situation is especially bleak given the fact that NYCHA receives $2 billion of its $3.2 annual budget from the federal government. And NYCHA doesn’t need any help failing: It’s administration has been consistently beset by mismanagement and scandal, perhaps best embodied in last year’s revelation that the Authority had failed to perform lead inspections from 2014 to 2016, leaving 55,000 units at serious risk.

Last week, De Blasio committed another $13 billion to repair 62,000 NYCHA units. It’s a good start, but it comes at a cost: the money will come from more public-private partnerships. For proponents and residents of public housing, it’s more important than ever to have conversations about the public part of the phrase, asking how increasing privatization can help us get out of a problem that the free market and privatization have created.

Ash Sanders