Gotham Gazette

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What’s Really Been Missing from the Democratic Presidential Debate Stage

aftermath superstorm oped

(photo: NYCHA)

Another Democratic presidential primary debate is now behind us, and once again not a single question has been asked about how our next President will address one of the federal government’s biggest failures of the last half-century – the neglect and divestment in our nation’s public housing.

Candidates across the board are developing new and exciting progressive policies that have energized the Democratic electorate (including many around affordable housing). But this central issue of restoring public housing, once a glowing achievement of American civic life, has remained notably absent from the debate stage, not to mention federal budgets as well.

That’s why we want to bring attention to real solutions, like H.R. 4546, the Public Housing Emergency Response Act, which is federal legislation to invest $70 billion to make emergency repairs across public housing in the United States. This includes funding that would finally meet the New York City Housing Authority’s (NYCHA’s) $32 billion need for capital repairs.

Every presidential candidate should be supporting this bill. Every major paper in the United States should be endorsing it. And that’s why we are kick-starting the conversation here in New York with a new Resolution in the New York City Council calling for the bill’s passage.

The ceding of federal responsibility over public housing has led to too many petty fights between New York City and State over funding the nation’s largest municipal housing authority. While NYCHA lost a cumulative $1.34 billion in federal capital grant funding since 2001, it took years of activism to release just $450 million in promised state funding this year. And that only represents roughly 1/64 of the capital dollars needed to fully address repairs.

We often remember Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and ask why our leaders today aren’t making the same impact on our city’s affordable housing stock. Yet, we too often leave out LaGuardia’s partner in that effort – President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose Housing Act of 1937 provided for subsidies from the federal government for local public housing agencies.

We need real federal involvement again if we’re ever going to restore public housing to its former glory, and that will only happen if this crisis is addressed and discussed on the national stage in the manner it deserves, including at presidential debates.

That doesn’t mean we should give officials in City Hall or Albany a free pass either. The City and State must step up this year and contribute billions more dollars in their own budgets, and we will be calling on our colleagues in the Council and State Legislature to fight for this as well.

In the meantime, public housing advocates must be ready and waiting for a Democratic presidency, where this bill could finally fix the leaks, mold, and inhospitable living conditions that many of our nation’s 1.2 million public housing residents struggle with every day. That means starting the conversation now -- and what better place than the primary debates.

We have to have a dialogue about the thousands of residents at NYCHA’s Gompers Houses in our districts, who spent Thanksgiving and almost certainly will spend Christmas and the New Year without gas for cooking holiday meals.

We need to listen to the countless families who flood elected officials’ phone lines from October through April with fears of lost heat on a cold winter night.

While our offices will always be there for our NYCHA residents, whether it’s by distributing thousands of meals like we did on Thanksgiving, or working to get spot repairs made and mobile heaters brought in, these are simply band-aids on an ever-growing infection.

And in a worst case scenario, that $32 billion infection could rapidly metastasize to nearly $69 billion in unmet capital needs in just nine years, according to the new 2020-2024 financial plan just approved by NYCHA’s board.

It’s time that the federal government stop ignoring public housing. NYCHA and other housing authorities need to be fully funded so that residents receive their basic human right to safe housing. We know our current President, with his long record of violations of the Fair Housing Act during his time in real estate management, is unlikely to do anything. But we need this presidential primary, and the candidates running in it, to be held to a higher level of accountability, and we must ensure they fight to fix this public housing emergency once and for all.

Carlina Rivera represents District 2 in the New York City Council and has authored a Council resolution supporting H.R. 4546, the Public Housing Emergency Response Act. Nydia Velázquez represents New York’s 7th Congressional District and is the author of H.R. 4546. On Twitter @CarlinaRivera & @NydiaVelazquez.

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