About 30 years ago, living in a city housing project had its advantages.
I remember when I was in middle school and elementary school everyone wanted
to come to my house to do homework or come and play,” City Council Member
Rosie Mendez, chair of the council’s Subcommittee on Public Housing recalled
recently. “People in tenements had worse conditions.”
Now, though, the tables have turned. Declining government subsidies along with
soaring operating costs have put New York’s massive public housing projects
into what Daily News columnist Errol Louis has
characterized as a “civic emergency.” Today, residents complain
about the elevators being “out of service,” garbage going uncollected
and broken intercoms. In many of the projects, conditions may be worse than
those in comparable private housing.
Governor Eliot Spitzer’s signing
of a bill last week that would allow the housing authority to collect higher
rent from people on public assistance who live in the projects is a step in
the right direction, advocates said. But experts on public housing add that
much more remains to be done.
Some have suggested that, like other cities, New York City should consider
its public housing. Others counter that that would only make the
city’s affordable housing crisis worse and force thousands of lower income
New Yorkers out of the city. Instead, they say, the city, state and federal
governments must all fund public housing adequately so it remains a good place
for working New Yorkers to live and raise their families.
Preserving this housing is so fundamental to making our city work and ensuring
that so many people can continue to live and work here,” said State Assemblyman
Brian Kavanagh. “We’re not on the brink of bankruptcy â€“ we
don’t want to alarm people unduly. But at the same time it’s a
long-term problem that needs long term solutions.”
HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF HOMES
On a recent summer evening,
Francisco Fisher, a man in his 20s wearing baggy jeans and a
T-shirt, was strolling through Milbrook Houses in the South Bronx.
A police officer stared at him and a verbal altercation ensued,
Fisher said such treatment in the projects is
hardly unusual. He has taken a survey, which, he says, found
that about three-quarters of people in and around public housing
projects feel police are disrespectful and discourteous.
City Councilwoman Letitia James of Brooklyn
agreed. Police tactics are discriminatory and unconstitutional,
she said. James is leading residents of her district in suing
the New York City Police Department over its tactics in the
city’s housing projects. The lawsuit is in the planning stages
and has not yet been filed.
“ They’ve been handing out summonses for quality
of life offenses and basically the violations are an excuse
to search people,” James said. “You can literally be going
from one building to another and if you do not have identification
they will give you a summons for trespassing. They are criminalizing
an entire community.”
The police department did not respond to numerous
requests for comment.
James admitted that city’s housing projects
have a crime problem. But, she said, “You cannot solve the
problem by violating the rights of the residents.”
James and residents at a recent housing authority
public hearing have blamed the tensions on the 1995 merger
of the housing police with the police department.
“ When the housing police unit was subsumed
into NYPD that was the worst thing for residents of public
housing,” James said. Housing police “had an office in the
complexes and they knew the residents. They were sensitive
and they were respectful.”
Arrests on housing authority property â€“ even
for minor infractions such as trespassing -- can have serious
implications for residents, leading to eviction.
A guilty sentence for one member can put a whole
family on probation, said Judith Goldiner of the Legal Aid
Society. “And once you are on probation, anything you do will
be cause to evict you.”
In other cases, the housing authority will reach
an agreement with a family that excludes a convicted youth
from living in the building. “But then you have a kid with
nowhere to live,” Goldiner said. “They’re going to get worse,
not better, by being thrown out of their mom’s apartment. Being
homeless is not going to help.”
The New York City Housing Authority provides homes in public housing to
over 400,000 New Yorkers and, through the nation’s largest Section
8 rent subsidy program, helps another 255,000 afford their housing in privately
houses and apartments.
It’s the best source of housing for truly low-income people,” said
Judith Goldiner of the Legal Aid Society, who has worked on legal issues related
to public housing for over 15 years. “I know that if I can get my client
into NYCHA, they’re pretty much set. They’ll have a decent place
to live. Compared to everything else, it’s much, much better than anything
else out there.”
Simply put, public housing makes living in New York possible for thousands
of low-income families. The average family income in public housing is about
$20,000 annually and the average rent is $320.
New York was the first American city to build public housing, 73 years ago.
The federally funded projects were built first on the Lower East Side, replacing
notoriously ill-lit and poorly maintained tenement buildings. Today, public
housing’s 343 developments include almost 2,700 buildings. The waiting
list to get in is long, with over 130,000 people.
The projects are located throughout New York City. Public housing has preserved economic diversity in many parts of the city where skyrocketing rents have forced low-income people out. Without the projects, neighborhoods like Chelsea would be more homogenous,
at least economically: High income people surrounded by Whole Foods, Starbucks and other shops that cater to them.
Public housing contributes to the social and cultural fabric of the city in many ways. In the Highbridge section of the Bronx, for example, Highbridge Houses holds an annual community fair that attracts hundreds of people from throughout the community. Other
projects present similar events. Beyond providing shelter, the public housing projects operate senior centers, community centers and youth programs. Public housing “is the foundation of many neighborhoods,” said the housing authority’s spokesperson, Howard Marder.
THE DEVELOPING SHORTFALL
Most of the projects were built with federal money, 15 were constructed by
the state and six by the city. The housing authority manages the whole system
with about 13,000 full-time employees and a total budget of $3.4 billion. Of
that, about $2.7 billion pays employee salaries and building maintenance. About
$700 million goes for capital expenses, such as major renovation work on the
Rent payments bring in about $700 million annually. Up until the 1960s rent
covered the building’s operating costs. But that began to change when
it became obvious that rents collected would not suffice to maintain and run
Since the 1980s, significant cuts to the federal housing budget have caused
problems for public housing in the city. Analysts estimate that the city government
now receives only 83 cents for every dollar it needs to operate its federally
financed buildings. To make matters worse, in 1998, then Governor George Pataki
eliminated the state’s operating subsidies â€“ about $65 million
-- for its 15 buildings. And in the wake of 9/11, Mayor Michael Bloomberg did
away with the city’s contributions to its five developments, about $25
Over the past decade, funds have been drying up from every source,” said
Victor Bach, a housing policy expert at the Community
Service Society. “Washington has cut funding â€¦ and the city and state have
turned their backs on NYCHA. The operating deficits accumulate and add up and
at some point you can’t continue them. And I think NYCHA has reached
All the cuts â€“ and significant increases in the costs of operating the
public housing system â€“ have led to the current crisis, which is growing
more severe each year. The mayor and the City Council responded in 2006, appropriating
$120 million for
housing authority’s fiscal year 2007 budget, up from nothing the
previous year. “The city has stepped up,” the mayor’s office
said in a written comment, adding that, beyond the $120 million, it provided
$50 million in operating dollars along with $100 million in capital monies
for the next four years. And this year, the state will provide $3.4 million.
But, despite this infusion, NYCHA is facing a shortfall next year of about
$225 million, almost a third higher than last year’s $168 million deficit.
CALLS FOR CHANGE
The authority’s fiscal crisis has sparked anger among its tenants and
others. At a public hearing in late July, about 300 public housing residents
sharply criticized the board and the authority’s general manager, Doug
Apple. The residents had long lists of complaints, from police harassment to
broken locks on the doors to their buildings. One speaker called for Apple
Later Apple was diplomatic about the harsh criticism. “It comes with
the territory,” he said. “Residents feel strongly about public
housing and they have a right to criticize.”
On a more positive note, residents, advocates and elected representatives have
come together to fight for more funding for the housing authority. Councilmember
Mendez called on her City Hall colleagues to act a press conference in July,
and State Assemblymember Kavanaugh rallied state legislators in early August
in support of the housing authority.
The spectacle of public housing residents and their supporters joining with
the authority is somewhat unusual. “NYCHA doesn’t have a good reputation
because it’s a big bureaucratic organization and they don’t respond” to
even simple requests, Goldiner said. “They’re pretty arrogant and
they’re not very responsive and people don’t like it. Who wants
to help them? But “this housing is too important and the money issues
are too important,” she said.
Chloe Tribich of Housing Here and Now, which has worked on housing issues citywide,
agreed. “NYCHA’s such a huge source of affordable housing,” Tribich
said. “If you lose that, it’ll be very different.
It’s hard enough for people to find affordable housing now,” she
continued. “A lack of funding for NYCHA means there’ll be more
competition for other affordable housing. It would just add to the number of
people who are seeking low-rent apartments.”
LOOKING FOR SOLUTIONS
A Search for Funds
The authority has sought ways to make up the financial shortfall. Since 2003,
the authority has reduced spending by half a billion dollars. Last year, it
released a Plan
to Preserve Public Housing. Among other things, it called for rent increases and sought
relief from Washington. It has also imposed much higher fees for replacing
doors, faucets and even light bulbs.
This year, it has proposed using 8,400 Section 8 vouchers, normally used to
help low-income people pay rent on privately owned apartments, to pay rent
on apartments in the 21 non-federally funded buildings â€“ the buildings
built by the state and city. That proposal was widely criticized by advocates
who said it would effectively rob Peter to pay Paul; it would reduce the number
of rent-subsidy vouchers available to low-income families who qualify for housing
help but who, because of a shortage of apartments, cannot find room in public
The authority has also proposed cutting its staff by another 500 people --
on top of 1,600 layoffs since 2003, Errol Louis
in the Daily News.
The tenants see the effects of the cuts. Rosia Wyche, who has lived in the
Coney Island Houses for 31 years, says she has seen the deterioration since
the authority reorganized the management of her building and reduced trash
service. “It’s not as neat as it was, it’s not as clean as
it was. People are beginning to complain about mice,” Wyche, chair of
the housing authority’s Citywide Council of Presidents district for southern
said. “We never had mice. In all the years I lived here I’ve never
heard talk of mice before, until lately.”
On a visit to several projects, Louis
said he saw many signs of the tough times for public housing: “A damaged,
blackened hallway marked the still-unrepaired site of a fire back in June â€¦.The
woman in Brooklyn's Gravesend Houses whose damaged, leaky apartment grows mold
that triggers her daughter's asthma. The piles of uncollected garbage in front
of the Drew-Hamilton Houses in central Harlem.”Overall, Louis has written, “The
cuts are causing a sharp decline in basic services. Intercom inspections will
be replaced with â€service on demand,’ and $406 million in security
contracts are being terminated - moves that will thrill criminalsâ€¦.Repairs
of leaky roofs and the authority's ever-failing 3,334 elevators will take even
Our goal is to maintain every single public housing unit,” Apple said.
But “if we don’t get increased funding, it becomes very challenging.
Every city in the country has eliminated or demolished public housing. We’re
not going to do that.”
In other efforts to generate funds, the authority has struck a deal with the
city to develop affordable housing on some vacant land that will bring in about
$50 million. The new homes would be part of the mayor’s $7.5 billion
plan to build 165,000 apartments by 2010. And, with the federal government’s
approval, the authority is using $100 million meant for capital spending as
Residents, advocates and elected representatives are pushing for other policy
changes beyond the housing authority’s immediate control. At rallies,
they urged the governor to sign the bill to allow the housing authority to
collect the same shelter allowances from recipients on public assistance as
private landlords do. By agreeing to that and signing the bill, Spitzer effectively
added almost $100 million to housing authority’s budget over the next
U.S. Representative Nydia Velazquez and Senator Charles Schumer have introduced
legislation in Congress that would have the federal government pay the operating
subsidies for the state- and city-financed housing projects. That could bring
in $100 million annually. A spokesperson for Velazquez said 10 of the city’s
12 congressional representatives support the legislation, and it will be “moved
on” in the next congressional session.
Unlike other non-profit housing providers, advocates point out, the housing
authority pays the city $23 million in lieu of taxes. These fees should be
eliminated, they said, as should the $73 million the city charges the authority
for special police services.
Advocates question the effectiveness of those police services, too. Councilmember
Letitia James of Brooklyn is leading an effort to sue the police department
for the discriminatory way it polices the projects, she said. (See sidebar.)
Before: A view of the backyard at First
to the construction.
After: The back of First Houses as workers put on the finishing
The authority’s proposed sale of vacant land to the city is the closest
it has come to privatization. Other cities have gone much further, demolishing
public housing buildings and auctioning properties. It is the most realistic
solution, asserted Julia Vitullo-Martin, a housing policy expert at the Manhattan
What an ordinary property owner with NYCHA’s assets and that kind of
deficit would do is obvious,” Vitullo-Martin said. “An ordinary
property owner would look at what assets are very valuable but are a drain
but could nonetheless be sold for substantial profit.”
The simple reality is that public housing has lost public support, Vitullo-Martin
said. “Political support for public housing all across the country has
evaporated and is not coming back in the near term. Even with a Democratic
landslide, support for public housing is not coming back. NYCHA has to do what other systems did: Rethink what it’s doing with its assets.”
But most city officials and politicians reject “semi-privatizing” NYCHA,
as Vitullo-Martin calls it. They say it would only make the city’s affordable
housing crisis more acute. “Public housing is not being privatized,” the
mayor’s office said in its written comments. “We intend for it
to remain in good condition for current and future generations of New Yorkers.”
Bach considers any privatization a last resort, albeit one that might please
some developers. The authority could “take parts of the inventory that
are most marketable and sell them off so that the operating load is lessened,” said
Bach. “I think (developers) are prepared to move in just as they were
prepared to move in on Starrett City and Stuyvesant Town.” Other cities
have taken that path, demolishing public housing buildings and auctioning properties,
but this plan is the closest the authority has come to privatizing..
For now, the authority’s main hope is government. If the city, state
or the federal governments do not come through with adequate funding, residents
will see reduced services at the very least. The authority might shut down
senior centers and end community programs, for example.
Still, authority officials express optimism. “NYCHA has been here for
73 years,” Marder said. “It plays a vital role. And it’s
going to continue to do so. The question is at what level of services.”
Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations.
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