With some 400,000 residents, NYCHA is the nation’s largest public housing system. In recent years, news reports have documented extensive corruption at the agency along with chronic problems at NYCHA properties, including heating outages, broken elevators, high lead-paint levels, and vermin.
These stories have put the agency under intense political pressure and renewed public interest in reform. Federal prosecutors launched an investigation into the environmental and health conditions at NYCHA in 2016. New York City could lose control over its own public housing: HUD secretary Ben Carson is expected to announce a decision in the next few weeks.
Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is your host, Brian Anderson, editor of City Journal. New York City’s government agencies, like all things in the city, receive their fair share of criticism: the MTA’s handling of the subways has drawn a lot of negative attention of late, for instance. But perhaps no other agency has caused as much controversy—and heartbreak— in recent years as the New York City Housing Authority, known as “NYCHA”, the nation’s largest public-housing agency.
In 2016, federal prosecutors launched an investigation into the environmental, health, and safety conditions at NYCHA properties. Among the horrible things uncovered: city officials dissimulated about lead paint inspections, and trained staff to misled federal inspectors. Then during the last few winters, heating outages at entire apartment complexes have become regular story in the news.
Any day now, HUD secretary Ben Carson will announce his decision whether to place NYCHA into federal receivership. Mayor de Blasio, for his part, has appeared to open up to new ideas to reform the agency, and a deal between the city and the federal government could still be in the works.
To talk about all of this we’ll be joined on the podcast by a friend of the show, Howard Husock. Howard is our vice president of research at the Manhattan Institute and City Journal contributing editor, and he’s an expert on public housing, especially in New York City.
He was interviewed in our studio by our associate editor, Seth Barron, and their conversation begins after this. We hope you enjoy.
Seth Barron: Welcome back to 10 Blocks, the official podcast of City Journal. This is your host for today's Seth Barron, associate editor at City Journal. The New York City Housing Authority is the largest public housing agency in the country with some 400,000 tenants. NYCHA has been very much in the news lately and is undergoing some major changes, which it very much needs. Joining us today is Howard Husock. Howard has written extensively on housing and urban policy and is the author of the "Trillion Dollar Housing Mistake: The Failure of American Housing Policy." Thanks for joining us, Howard.
Howard Husock: Thanks for having me Seth.
Seth Barron: So what's happening with NYCHA now, specifically, how did it wind up in what people are describing is a major crisis and what's going on with the courts and NYCHA?
Howard Husock: Well, it's important to take a step back at this mammoth city-within-the-city that we call the New York City Housing Authority. And to really look on, in some wonderment, as to how it got to be in such bad physical condition, such that even a progressives in New York such as Letita James, who had been the Public Advocate, has called it the "worst landlord in the city." This is extraordinary. And so everything that we're looking at today in terms of whether the courts will intervene is fundamentally premised on the fact that this huge city within the city is in terrible physical condition. So having said all that, uh, the immediate events are, are these: the crises sparked by finding that there was lead paint that was unmitigated and had been vouched for having been mitigated by the housing authority set off a cascade of investigations. And ultimately, uh, the intervention of the federal courts with the possibility being weighed over the next couple of weeks. It appears as to whether the management of the housing authority, as you said, the largest in the United States and among the largest in the world, will be taken away from the city and turned over to a receiver chosen by a federal judge. This would be a tremendous rebuke, to an agency, which in its heyday, was regarded as the paragon of public housing managers. And so essentially the city right now is trying to convince the federal courts that no, we don't deserve to lose operating authority. Uh, we can fix this thing. We have a plan and give us a chance.
Seth Barron: Mayor de Blasio, I've heard him say that the problem with NYCHA goes back to the election of 1980 and that it's the whole problem is that Ronald Reagan disinvested in NYCHA and that the federal government gave up its responsibility to the tenants of public housing. Is that correct? I mean, do we just need to put more public money into NYCHA to get it back on track?
Howard Husock: The mayor is right to look to the past, but he is wrong to look to the election in 1980, we should look to the national housing act of 1937, which created public housing in the United States based on a series of fundamentally incorrect premise sees this was a time of utopianism and a belief celebrated at a famous show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, espoused by a famous New Yorker named Catherine Bauer, who had a book called Modern Housing. Lewis Mumford, a visionary social critic. These people believed that private housing markets fundamentally failed and had to be taken over, substituted for by government. The idea was these utopian green campuses set off from the city would be erected and not only that, and this is where Mayor de Blasio is fundamentally wrong. The government was to finance their construction and then they were to run based on the rent of the tenants. They were to be self supporting because there would be no profit from greedy profiteering, private landlords. They would deliver a better product in perpetuity as supported by their own rent. This has not worked. This is a utopian dream that we're seeing crash into a nightmare scenario now in New York where it was conceived public housing in New York preceded the National Housing Act. It goes back to Mayor LaGuardia, it goes back to 19th century reformers who were building "model tenements" as they call them. This is a failure of concept, not a failure of not enough money.
Seth Barron: So what is the new concept that we've heard a lot about? Something called the RAD Program? Mayor de Blasio and other progressives in the city seem to have embraced it. What is RAD?
Howard Husock: Okay, the presenting problem you have, those of us who have a long historical view, look at what happened with public housing in United States and regret it. At the same time people live in. It might be 400,000. It might be a lot more than that. Nobody really knows how many people live in the New York City Housing Authority because people sublet and all sorts of other things. So we have a moral obligation to keep these places in some kind of better repair. The idea that operating assistance from the federal government would close the gap. There's not enough money there. Now, conceivably all that money could be showered on the housing authority, but the housing authority has spent a lot of money very, very ineffectively, so it's not only the money. Therefore what new approaches to bring fresh capital into this city within a city could be tried? This gets to something called the rental assistance demonstration program. Acronym RAD. It's fascinating to me that it's being discovered now by New York City. New York City is with the largest housing authority in the country, is very late to this game. This was an Obama-era innovation conceived of by the former head of housing and planning and development in New York. When he went to become the HUD secretary. It was tailor-made for New York, but hundreds of other cities got in line for this program first. New York was very late. That's why is going to be difficult for it to qualify and get the fund to need, but rental assistance demonstration is a very good idea for housing authorities all around the country. Here's how it works.
Howard Husock: The federal government will waive a wand in a way, HUD will, and say: the tenants and in public housing, we're going to declare them to have a dollar sign on their heads. Rather than giving operating assistance to the housing. We're going to say they have a kind of a voucher and we're going to guarantee you that those rents are going to continue to be paid when you have a guaranteed stream of revenue. You can float bonds against that and the idea of the rental assistance demonstration program is for private managers to take over the reconstruction and management because they can borrow against a steady stream of revenue that the federal government has guaranteed. This is good for all kinds of reasons. Just one of the problems posed by the. A typical way of doing things. Let's say a New York City Housing Authority decided we are going to really improve our heating systems and their heating systems are terrible people. Tens of thousands of people freeze in the winter in public housing in New York. It's a scandal. Let's Say New York City Housing Authority was going to invest hugely in putting in new heating systems that were much more energy efficient and they save all kinds of money because of the way federal funding works. They were therefore get less operating assistance, because their costs are lower. Well, that's a terrible in incentive for housing authorities. But with the rental assistance demonstration program, that problem goes away. The voucherize tenants, those tenants that have dollar signs on their heads, that money is going to continue to come in and if the management, private management to whom the New York City Housing Authority apartment complexes are turned over, do it for less money, good for them. So this is an altogether good thing that New York City discovered way too late and there's a limit on how many authorities can qualify for this kind of thing. So the irony here is, as I actually wrote in the New York Daily News about two years ago to save nature, mayor deblasio needs help from president trump.
Seth Barron: It sounds like a pretty major program, but at the same time it sounds like it's a violation of the core principles of public housing. It sounds as though you're, you're injecting the profit-motive, and essentially isn't this the first step towards privatizing NYCHA? Which is what the NYCHA residents have always feared could happen. Are you turning public over to private private owners?
Howard Husock: I think there's very little doubt that the "p" word, privatization, is what scared the progressive administration of Bill de Blasio away from the rental assistance demonstration program for so many years because it was first enacted in 2012 and only now as New York City discovering it. For my part, I think it would be wonderful if this was true and full privatization because the public housing concept has floundered. It really isn't because there's a guarantee in a RAD of 30 years affordability. So it could conceivably change in a very long time. Congress could decide that, well, the affordability has to continue, but it doesn't release public housing to the capacity of private managers to set the rents and to do other things that make private housing work in this country. So it's a modified privatization.
Seth Barron: So the tenants aren't going to be kicked out, uh, and uh, evicted or have their rents doubled or anything like that?
Howard Husock: Well, there are complexes that have already been renovated, through the RAD program. And there is a transition. You may have to be placed elsewhere while the complex gets fixed up. You may have to put up with repairs. The reports of tenants whose... Obviously everybody likes it when their apartment gets fixed up so they can see that. But you raise a very good point about evictions. The fact of the matter is that there's a failure of turnover. We need to change the terms of public housing. The idea that public housing was going to substitute for the private market and be better than the private market seems almost absurd in the light of what's happened over the last several generations. And so as a country, as a city in New York, uh, we need to think about, well, what's the purpose of public housing? What should we do? What role does it have? Not only in terms of a low rent housing in the city, but in terms of our social policy, because these are some of the poorest New Yorkers. Right now. there are a number of problems that we need to address. One, the average tenant in public housing in New York has lived there for just under 20 years. There are waiting lists that are extremely long. Should we rethink public housing? I think so, so that it's more of a transitional phase in one's life that maybe you're a single mother and is very large group of single mothers who were in public housing who needs to get on her feet. Well, we'll give you five years at low rent, make some career moves, makes some investments, maybe get married. Do what it takes to get on your feet and then make way for somebody else who needs help. The idea, the idea that once you're in, you stay in for life, which is the situation now, means that you have many, many people who are what you call over housed in public housing in New York and many other cities. That means you've got empty bedrooms, you've got more bedrooms, and there are people living in public housing. That's a bad use of a scarce public resource. So those are just a couple of examples. A time limit on how long you can be there and a relocation if you're over housed or bought out. We can buy out tenants. You've lived here 20 years, we'll give you $20,000 or $50,000 to relocate because we need to make way for new people to make the best use of this asset. All that is a way of saying we need some new way of thinking about public housing in addition to physically repairing it.
Seth Barron: Now you've thought about NYCHA and public housing and how to fix it for, for a long time and very deeply, and you've written, you've written about some of your proposals, like I'm bringing more retail into NYCHA a and now you even have a new proposal to change the way the blocks are constructed. You want to maybe allude to this.
Howard Husock: Right. So as part of thinking out of the box, as consultants say, there are a number of things that could be done. Some of niches. Land is extremely valuable. And on the Brooklyn waterfront there's a huge complex called Ingersoll Houses. It's worth billions of dollars, most likely a sell off of just a few of the projects could create an endowment to fix up many, many others. Similarly, many, many, many of New York's housing authority projects. And this is true in other cities as well. Remember, there are 3,000 housing authorities in the United States, 3,000 are in what are called food deserts. They have a long way to go because there's a distinction, a division. There's no retail stores in public housing. People thought that was a good idea. We'll keep those things separate somehow. We'll keep the hustle and bustle away from the residential areas. That turned out to marginalize are many, many old people in the Brownsville Houses where I visited who have to get Fresh Direct home delivery service at great cost because they're afraid of coming back and forth to the distant grocery store because of crime in the area. So retail, sales of certain properties, and finally what I'm calling for a future City Journal article: re-streeting public housing. New York public housing and that of many other cities is built on what are called superblocks: the grid system of New York that makes the city so lively, stops at public housing. Suddenly you're in this campus that makes it sound nice, but really you have derelict semi-green or brown spaces in the middle of apartment complexes which are underused, dumpsters overflowing. I could see a possibility, and I've worked with a prominent architect here in New York, Mark Ginsberg. Let's cut streets through those, reknit them into the city. And if you have streets there, what can you do? You can build on those streets, you can build stores, you can build apartments of different kinds. You can generate revenue for the housing authority. So all this is part of revisioning public housing in New York and across the United States to make it more part of the cities in which it's located.
Seth Barron: Well, if the federal courts decide to strip New York City of its authority of NYCHA and exercise direct control or put a monitor, it sounds like anything could happen. Do you think that would be a wise move? I mean, all of your ideas could come to fruition?
Howard Husock: Well, everybody has ideas wants to think his ideas are good ones. But put it this way: In 2012 New York Magazine published what was then a very rare look at public housing in New York and it had a headline on their article called "NYCHA Land," like a foreign country that most New Yorkers never saw. And suddenly over the last year, starting with this lead paint crisis, finding out that lead paint hadn't been mitigated, NYCHA is front and center in New York. This is an opportunity of a generation, and so one hopes that either a federal monitor and maybe federal receiver will, if that happens, push some really creative ideas or the city housing authorities management, which is led by very able, long-time city administrator, Stanley Brezenoff will seize this opportunity. And as Rahm Emanuel said, not let any good crisis go to waste.
Seth Barron: Well, it sounds like it's a good time to turn ideas into action as we like to say. Um, don't forget to check out Howard Husock's work at www.city-journal.org. We would also love to hear your comments about today's episode on twitter @CityJournal, with #10blocks. Lastly, if you like our show when want to hear more of it, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes. This is your host, Seth Baron. Howard, thanks so much for joining us.