As New York City gives over soccer fields and recreation centers to housing for a wave of migrants, and Gov. Hochul feuds with Mayor Adams, one public housing resident on the Lower East Side has a better way. The New York Times reports that Camille Napoleon “has hosted as many as 12 migrants at a time in her two-bedroom apartment, on couches and cots . . .and on a rug on the floor.”
This may be an individual act of generosity but it suggests a plan much better than a tent city on Randalls Island playing fields or the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center parking lot. Better, too, than the just-announced state plan to devote $25 million to pay the rent on individual homes for asylum-seekers. The city’s 335 public housing projects have room, the Housing Authority desperately needs revenue for an $80 billion repair and renovation backlog, and poor tenants who sublet bedrooms could use the money to pay the rent, the collection of which has been lagging since the pandemic.
NYCHA has plenty of room — on empty land it already owns. As a result of its so-called “towers in the park” architecture, the Authority owns no less than 2,400 acres of open green space. Originally conceived as “campuses” of green, too many of these areas have become desolate and dangerous. As one architectural assessment has found: “NYCHA is an urban landbank . . .yet 88% of open space sits behind fences and is inaccessible for resident use. Forty percent of the city’s playgrounds are housed on NYCHA campuses but go mostly untouched because of damage incurred by unintended adult use.”
These are potential sites for modestly-sized tent cities which could have the collateral benefit of injecting lively activity into the projects. What’s more, the city could pay the financially-struggling Housing Authority for the use of the land — rather than paying the Roosevelt Hotel $365 a night for rooms or churches $65 a night for floor space.
But as the example of Camille Napoleon suggests, individual public housing tenants may be willing to take in migrants into NYCHA apartments. Hers may be simply be an admirable charitable act, to be sure. But the city, inspired by her example, might pay NYCHA tenants with empty bedrooms to take in migrants. According to HUD data, 32% of New York public housing tenants are “overhoused.” That’s the technical term for tenants with empty bedrooms and translates into around 16,000 units with unused
Nor is NYCHA New York’s only public housing with room. HUD reports that statewide — including Yonkers, Rochester, Syracuse and Buffalo — 29% of public housing tenants are overhoused. That means that 53,000 public housing apartments have empty bedrooms.
No tenant should be forced, of course, to take in a stranger. But many would likely be willing to rent out rooms at $65 a night or more. Average income per person in NYCHA is just $10,000. Taking in lodgers is a time-honored way for low-income households to increase their income. What’s more, the migrants could help NYCHA tenants, many of whom are elderly, with household chores or grocery-shopping; many NYCHA projects are distant from supermarkets.
It would also help them simply pay their rent — which has become a big problem for NYCHA. As the Citizens Budget Commission has told the City Council, “NYCHA’s rent collection rate, which was as high as 95% as 2016, declined from 88% in February 2020 to 70% by January 2022. As a result of the falling collection rate, NYCHA’s rental income was 12%, or $119 million, below expectations in 2021.” Greater rent collection would help offset the $276 million in yearly operating subsidy the city pays NYCHA — whose operating costs per unit far exceed its income. (Of course, NYCHA should also be trying much harder to lower its costs, inflated by union-dictated contracts.)
This is a chance to solve two crises at once. Instead of paying hotels and churches to let migrants sleep there, the city should pay NYCHA or its tenants. In that way, it would effectively be paying itself. There’s no doubt the Housing Authority needs the money.
Willing public housing residents would have to be granted legal permission to do what a great many already do non-legally: sublet rooms. Asylum-seekers get access to expedited work permits, as the mayor is helpfully suggesting. Wilfred Moreno, staying in Camille Napoleon’s apartment, says he wants to work as a truck driver or mechanic.
The migrant crisis demands imaginative solutions. So, too, does the public housing crisis. Let’s address both at the same time.