Asked last week about problems at the New York City Housing Authority—the nation’s largest public-housing system—Mayor Bill de Blasio blamed Ronald Reagan. NYCHA, said the mayor, has “now gone through about 40 years of systematic disinvestment because of what’s happened in Washington. . . . Where is the federal government we knew from the 1930s to 1980—actually, 1933, I should say, to 1980—that actually was a major partner in affordable housing?”
The mayor has long blamed the federal government for its purported failure to support NYCHA. Asking him about NYCHA is almost guaranteed to bring a mention of Reagan’s election in 1980 as the moment when things began going wrong. “I think we can say that the physical decline of NYCHA dates to 1980,” de Blasio said in June 2018, “and this is not a partisan statement, this is an analytical statement. When Ronald Reagan was elected is when the federal government started pulling back from support for public housing.”
Last February, the mayor explained that “the entire concept of public housing was that it was chartered by the federal government on the assumption of adequate federal support and that started to change with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and it got worse and worse and worse.” De Blasio subscribes to a version of public-housing history that sees the New Deal as a moment of historic promise—steadily fulfilled through the era of postwar prosperity and amplified by the Great Society’s expansion of the welfare state before climaxing under Jimmy Carter. Then the neoliberal reforms of the Reagan era began rolling back decades of progress.
This narrative doesn’t square with the facts. NYCHA’s operating revenue for the last fiscal year totaled $3.5 billion; rent paid by tenants accounted for 30 percent of that amount. New York City contributed $288 million, and almost the entire balance—more than $2.1 billion—came from Washington. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development also gives NYCHA hundreds of millions of dollars annually for capital uses, including replacing equipment and fixing roofs. It’s hardly credible to accuse Washington of “systematic disinvestment” when the feds provide 60 percent of NYCHA’s day-to-day budget—and have done so for decades.
The mayor needs a history lesson. In the 1930s, New York was especially aggressive about building public housing with local and state funding, in many cases ahead of federal financing. But the original intent of public housing in America was never, as de Blasio seems to believe, to build permanently subsidized apartments for poor people to inhabit for generations. In fact, the goal was something like the opposite: to use federal loan guarantees to erect the buildings and then fund their continuing operations through the rents of working- and middle-class occupants. Rents would cover costs and maintenance, making public housing a desirable, self-sustaining option.
Through the late 1960s, NYCHA accepted tenants only if they had enough income to pay the rent, and scrupulously evaluated applicants based on “social desirability,” frequently evicting residents on moral grounds. But political pressure forced the agency to transition from providing “model housing” for aspirational families to “welfare housing” for the very poor. Urban decline and the rise of the suburbs led many middle-class families, including NYCHA residents, to seek greener pastures. The cratering of the rent rolls—intensified by the Brooke Amendment of 1969, which, for the first time, tied public housing rents to household income—hastened the flight of self-supporting residents and the dilapidation of the physical stock.
Contrary to de Blasio’s assertion that the “physical decline of NYCHA dates to 1980,” officials identified major problems as early as the Preusse Report in 1957, which documented significant disrepair and “real obsolescence” at many projects. Broken glass and malfunctioning elevators, for example, have been a feature of NYCHA life for more than half a century. Crime has also been a persistent concern. Drug injection in the stairways and roofs was noted as a problem as far back as 1959, and by 1971, the homicide rate in NYCHA properties was rising at ten times the overall city rate. Criminal complaints increased 170 percent from 1966 to 1971—a rate even more extraordinary when one considers that NYCHA has almost no commercial establishments.
As New York City edged toward bankruptcy in the 1970s, Washington assumed additional funding responsibilities for public housing. By then, federal policymakers had changed their priorities from building massive developments like NYCHA to offering programs such as Section 8 vouchers, established in 1974, which gave poor people direct federal subsidies to find housing in the private rental market.
Those who accept de Blasio’s historical narrative point to how Reagan’s HUD scaled back federal support that had helped public-housing authorities close funding gaps. Yet even had Reagan increased support at the same levels, poor management and lax labor relations would have outpaced federal assistance. NYCHA’s 2006 proposed budget complains that, while Congress had appropriated a 4.6 percent increase in operating revenue in the previous year, “pension costs have increased 752 percent” and “collective bargaining agreements have increased labor costs 29 percent.” The city was simply unable to control costs, which quickly devoured any increase in federal aid.
De Blasio’s version of history is conveniently in line with his larger political beliefs. He takes it for granted that the federal government has primary responsibility for accommodating 400,000 New Yorkers. Thus, when that housing provision is as riddled with decay and disorder as NYCHA is, he can readily blame the feds. But it’s decisions and failures made in New York, not in Washington, that are most responsible for NYCHA’s predicament.
Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Global Citizen