(photo via the Governor's office)
The New York City Housing Authority’s first developments in the 1930s rose from the frustrations of a massive working class tired of sweating and suffering in crappy tenements. NYCHA grew in the decades that followed, to about 175,000 apartments, thanks to consistent support from politicians under tremendous pressure from everyday New Yorkers, housing advocates, and the media.
Politics saved NYCHA multiple times from the fate of public housing in other American cities. The civil rights movement forced NYCHA to desegregate its projects after the 1930s. Outrage over management in the late 1950s led to a sacking of callous leadership handpicked by Robert Moses. New York’s Congressional delegation convinced their colleagues in both the 1970s and 1990s to assume responsibility for tens of thousands of city and state public housing projects.
NYCHA residents, New York politicians, and many advocates, however, failed to adjust fast enough to a new national political reality. The rest of America, including most federal officials overseeing the program, viewed public housing as a dead program by the 1990s -- and treated it as such. Federal officials have since then intentionally refused to fund NYCHA’s capital or operating needs at a level sufficient to maintain the quality of life to which residents had become accustomed.
Frustrated residents for years disconnected from the political process despite the growing threat of aging apartments and buildings. Other affordable housing preservation and development programs took priority for many housing advocates and elected officials. City, federal, and state politicians pointed fingers at each other. The results of disinvestment are on display despite NYCHA apartments remaining full and much desired in New York.
In just a few years of crisis, however, it already seems the wheel is turning. Residents and housing advocates have kept the heat on politicians, feeding a steady stream of heartbreaking images and stories to the media and the courts. Elected officials can’t pick up the paper or turn on the TV without reading about a problem, often in their district. Crisis on an unprecedented scale has forced the issue to the front time and again: Sandy flooding, deep freeze, mold, lead.
Has the result of all this bad press been the abandonment of public housing as in other cities? No. Where bad press led to demolition in other cities, in New York negative attention seems to be leading to a steady and growing flow of money to renovate public housing. Demolition could still happen in New York but knocking down NYCHA is still a third rail of politics here -- and unimaginably complex to boot. We simply don’t have additional homes, short- or long-term, for more than 400,000 poor people.
Already, the totals won for NYCHA are mounting: $3 billion for Sandy reconstruction from FEMA; billions from the city so far and billions more promised (thanks to a consent decree) for roofs, boilers, lead tests, and more; hundreds of millions promised from the state. NYCHA has also quietly done what it can with remaining federal capital funds since the 1990s to stabilize conditions, working from the outside in on building envelope bricks and roofs. NYCHA successfully used the federal RAD program to upgrade housing for thousands of residents now living under private sector management—and plans for thousands of additional apartments in this program are underway.
Renovation of such a big system moves much more slowly than residents want and often fails to address immediate needs in their apartments -- but it is happening. That refitting of public housing is happening at all, rather than demolition, speaks to tenant activism of NYCHA residents and their advocates. When a crisis hit public housing elsewhere, politicians have used a crisis to demolish, not rebuild housing (New Orleans after Katrina, for instance, demolished vast projects).
New York’s public housing movement, however, needs to be creative and flexible in the next steps. Residents and their allies should use their political power to pressure politicians to reform labor unions at NYCHA so tenants get economical and high-quality service. Residents and advocates have given the unions a free pass, but this is a strategic mistake because, without a revolution in the hours, roles, and compensation of NYCHA maintenance and custodial staff (comprising 40 percent of NYCHA’s annual budget), NYCHA residents are not going to enjoy major improvements in their quality of life.
Residents and advocates also need to force the Mayor to come up with a reasonable long-term plan for investment. While an immediate commitment of the estimated $31 billion needed for top-to-bottom renovation is unrealistic, even a lot less can upgrade the quality of life. The city, for instance, needs to integrate NYCHA into its annual capital planning process. Given the growing importance of NYCHA to reducing homelessness, and of infill sites to the city’s affordable housing plans, it only makes sense that NYCHA gets a larger share of city support. Residents should also light a fire under Democratic majorities in Albany and the Governor to find money for additional renovation and public-private partnerships.
NYCHA remains a crucial service for many New Yorkers and one that helps preserve diverse neighborhoods in the face of gentrification. And just because a housing system delivers a product that many people wouldn’t choose for themselves doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable to lots of other people with fewer choices or different values. Mass services like public housing, public transit, and public education will always “lose” money because the people who need and use them generally lack the money to pay the real cost of running a complex urban service whether it be for a subsidized apartment, a subway ride, or a public classroom. It is, however, up to the recipients of these systems to use the political system to secure and protect these essential services.
Nicholas Dagen Bloom is a professor at New York Institute of Technology and author of many books.