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Don’t Renovate NYCHA—Rethink It

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Don’t Renovate NYCHA—Rethink It

Public housing should be a temporary stop on the way to prosperity, not a magnet for long-term dependency. September 21, 2022
New York
Economy, finance, and budgets

New York City Housing Authority CEO Greg Russ has resigned. The proximate cause of his departure is a scandal surrounding possible arsenic contamination of the water in the Jacob Riis Houses, but in truth, no one lasts long in this thankless position. Mayor Eric Adams likely also wants his own appointee to run New York’s public housing city-within-a-city, which consists of 177,500 apartments and who knows how many residents.

Though Russ will face criticism for the arsenic issue, on balance he deserves some appreciation for being the first NYCHA leader to stop begging for a federal bailout and start identifying ways to address the $40 billion maintenance backlog that has plagued public-housing residents with leaks and power outages. A public-housing veteran with experience in Cambridge and Minneapolis, Russ made it clear that he knew NYCHA’s buildings needed much more than a few patches. He talked about finding the means to wrap buildings in entirely new exterior “raincoats” in order to limit the water leaks that lead to mold and ceiling collapses.

That led him to pursue two dramatic changes that will have positive long-term effects on the condition of NYCHA’s buildings. First, he embraced an Obama-era program called RAD (Rental Assistance Demonstration), which will bring private management to 15,000 NYCHA units and point the way for others. It’s a financially complex arrangement (by converting the aid for buildings into aid for tenants, private managers can borrow against future revenues to acquire capital funding), but renovated projects such as Baychester Houses in the Bronx show that it is having a positive impact.

In the same vein, the Public Housing Preservation Trust, created by the state legislature in June after a long delay, will allow NYCHA to raise private funds in the bond market, backed by housing vouchers linked to the tenants. Again, it seems like a minor point, but it could bring in new funding, putting an end to the days of emergency boilers in parking lots to keep the heat on and other persistent issues.

Russ’s successor should do more. There is no good reason, for example, for the Preservation Trust to contract with current NYCHA management to renovate the buildings. NYCHA’s unionized workforce has a long record of failure. At the least, it should have to bid against private contractors. The problem of “over-housing”—one tenant occupying in a three-bedroom unit—also needs to be addressed. NYCHA could buy out older tenants to make their apartments available for those on the long wait lists, or it could authorize them to take in lodgers or relatives to help pay the rent.

But the most defining problem remains: NYCHA housing is a magnet for long-term dependency. Fixes and adjustments are good and necessary, but the Adams administration should go further and reconceptualize public housing, so that, like other forms of public assistance, it’s a temporary stop on the way to prosperity, not a trap for those at the bottom. New tenants could be asked to agree to a five-year time limit, in exchange for a fixed rent and perhaps assistance in saving for a home down payment. Some housing authorities already do this. Thousands of poor households in the city are doubled- and tripled-up in units while bedrooms in many NYCHA units are empty.

An imaginative administrator could make a difference. NYCHA owns extensive and valuable real estate—including the housing projects on the Lower East Side and Brooklyn waterfront. It would make good sense to sell those off, pay the tenants to relocate, and use some of the proceeds to renovate other buildings. And NYCHA could make better use of its extensive, crime-plagued open-space “campuses.” Relinking the projects to the street grid would create developable land for new housing.

Russ deserves credit for making a start in reinventing NYCHA, but it’s only a start. There’s much more work to be done.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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