Progressives have long claimed that the only problem with New York’s largest collection of slum housing—our public housing projects—has been a lack of federal funding. Former mayor Bill de Blasio liked to blame the decline of what was once the nation’s best-managed public-housing system on someone who left office in 1989: Ronald Reagan. Now, thanks to the results of an obscure-but-significant election earlier this month at Brooklyn’s public Nostrand Houses, we’re about to find out if a new gusher of funds can salvage the system.
Residents of the 17-building complex voted 453 to 324 to join the new Public Housing Preservation Trust, signed into law last June by Governor Kathy Hochul. The legislation, according to Hochul, “will unlock additional federal funding and lead to billions of dollars in renovations—after decades of federal disinvestment.” In other words, no more blaming Reagan for the projects’ problems. It’s up to the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), which will continue owning and managing the city’s public housing, to show that it can handle the job.
The new Trust will almost certainly bring in billions since, unlike NYCHA, it can borrow through the bond market. The Trust can also draw on so-called “federal housing super-vouchers” as an enhanced revenue stream, which will make a further dent in NYCHA’s estimated $78 billion in needed renovations. NYCHA itself will have to do the repairs or choose contractors. And while the Trust’s enabling legislation allows private providers to build or make repairs, those providers must pay prevailing wage (i.e., union) rates. Residents also get a say in who does the work, further reducing the likelihood that NYCHA will choose the most efficient providers.
It’s hard to believe that leaving NYCHA in charge is a better option than one that tenants, lobbied by Mayor Adams in an August 1 speech at the project, rejected in their vote: allowing outright private management. Under NYCHA management, Nostrand residents have had to deal with heat and hot-water outages and nearly 200 elevator breakdowns in the past year alone. Even so, 161 tenants voted for the status quo, fearing, without justification, that a new arrangement would lead to eviction.
The residents, under pressure from Adams, rejected an alternative that’s working around the country: HUD’s Rental Assistance Demonstration project, which puts the management of public housing squarely in the hands of private developers. New York’s version of this program is called “Permanent Affordability Commitment Together,” and it’s already working at Baychester Housing in the Bronx, whose renovation the New York Times lauded as the future of public housing.
But trusting the private sector was a bridge too far for Albany, which, instead, will look to NYCHA either to have its own employees or the private contractors it selects build the new roofs and facades that the authority’s aging projects desperately need. It’s a big test of NYCHA’s capacity.
One might wonder why these choices should have been put to a vote in the first place. The state insists on a vote in part because of a sordid history: many NYCHA projects were originally built on the sites of neighborhoods that the city’s Slum Clearance Committee, headed by Robert Moses, demolished without consulting the public. Today, however, NYCHA has limited resources, and residents are not necessarily the best judges of how to build and manage public housing. Indeed, one Nostrand resident told the Times that he cast his vote for the option he believed would make him most likely to pass his subsidized apartment on to his children. Many New Yorkers would love for their kids to be able to stay in the neighborhoods where they grew up but have no means to ensure it. A person living in a subsidized apartment should not be seen as its owner.
Nonetheless, per state legislation, NYCHA will have to conduct Nostrand-type elections across the city, as it seeks to expand the reach of the new Preservation Trust. Unfortunately, these elections won’t offer tenants more imaginative options, like a buyout—say, a $50,000 stipend to leave their units so that the complex could be sold to a private developer. Governments’ history and ongoing mismanagement of public housing shows that it is not good at apartment ownership; perhaps government should get out of the business altogether.
That’s unlikely, of course. Meantime, the Preservation Trust, and the Nostrand vote, gives the NYCHA another chance to do its job. We’ll see if it can.
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