After a harsh winter during which hundreds of thousands of NYCHA residents suffered without heat and hot water at one time or another, many people across our city have been asking a simple question: do public housing residents deserve the same quality of life as everyone else?
The answer is obvious: of course we do. Better yet, there is a clear path to make that a reality, and soon.
The fact is that just a miniscule fraction of New Yorkers living in public housing enjoy the benefits of private management and well-funded maintenance operations. Hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens do not – and they are bearing the burden of a system that faces a $25 billion deficit, with little hope for anywhere near enough federal funding on the horizon.
Around 320,000 of those residents went without heat or hot water at certain points this winter, often during the coldest stretches – and now New York must take action to ensure that this cannot happen again. Public-private partnerships will improve the living conditions of NYCHA families, and it is time for more of those agreements. Not next year, not in two years, not in three years. Now.
It is no secret that urging public-private partnerships for NYCHA is politically challenging – and I was once skeptical of these arrangements myself. But if that kind of collaboration means being able to ensure that every NYCHA family has heat when they most need it – and let’s be clear that this is exactly what is at stake here – then public-private partnerships are not a problem, as some critics have said, but are instead part of a solution.
I am a resident leader of a NYCHA building that has already benefited from this kind of work. I have firsthand understanding of the type of progress that is possible from these partnerships. Simply put, I am living in a success story every day, but my heart is breaking for the hundreds of thousands of residents still struggling underneath the weight of a broken system.
In 2014, NYCHA engaged in a public-private partnership at several Section 8 developments across the five boroughs – totaling nearly 900 homes including my building, Campos Plaza I – because of the potential benefits it could provide for families. Despite what skeptics said at the time, it turns out that they were absolutely right.
This winter, our building had the heat and hot water it needed. We got to cook in renovated kitchens. And, this spring, we will enjoy our playgrounds and other open space. Our rents did not increase, and we all feel secure in our homes because we know that NYCHA still has ultimate control of our building and retains the power to remove the private partner should it ever want to do so.
At a time when city funds are stretched so thin and federal funds are unlikely to arrive, these positive changes did not come from the wave of a magic wand. They exist because of resources made available through a public-private partnership that provided the necessary investment in our apartments.
It is, at the end of the day, a really simple concept: when there are not enough public dollars to ensure that NYCHA buildings receive the maintenance and renovations they need, public-private partnerships can fill those gaps and give residents like me a better quality of life.
It was encouraging to see NYCHA move forward on another public-private partnership to leverage private financing at its Ocean Bay complex in Bayside. At that nearly 1,400-unit development, which was battered by Hurricane Sandy and remained in dire need of improvements, the deal generated an additional $560 million in financing for better buildings and new infrastructure. Families in Ocean Bay, too, understand what is at stake.
And of course it goes without saying that NYCHA residents believe that the federal government should invest more in public housing. But the reality today is that we cannot yet expect significant federal dollars to come – and that is simply no reason to deny my fellow residents the same quality of life I get to enjoy.
So, yes, those of us living in public housing do deserve the same quality of life as those living in private housing – but all of us, not just a lucky few. All of us deserve a decent, comfortable home. The tools are out there, it is now up to elected officials to make that a reality by encouraging more private-partnerships across New York City.
Dereese Huff is the resident association president at NYCHA’s Campos Plaza I.