We knew Big Apple public housing is in dangerously bad shape—but it turns out it’s twice as bad as we thought.
New York City Housing Authority officials just revealed the $40 billion estimated in 2017 for the new roofs, pipes and boilers the aging projects need has ballooned to $78 billion.
Yet a state plan billed as a miracle funding cure has moved no faster than heat repairs in the winter—and may not even work at all.
It’s time for a much more radical rethinking of the system in which at least 330,000 New Yorkers live.
The essential problem, of course, is the age of the nation’s largest public-housing system and the fact maintenance has long been deferred.
The vision for the system at its 1930s opening was working-class housing, with rents supporting operations and maintenance.
But over time, those with options left for private housing, and the system became a de facto poorhouse, with rental income limited to 30% of low earnings.
It’s true that Washington didn’t step up to fill the gap—but that had never been the plan when “the projects” were built.
So it’s no surprise that roofs leak, water seeps into bathrooms, mold grows and plaster cracks.
In early June, chunks of the roof fell right off, onto the sidewalk sheds of the Jackson Houses in The Bronx, only erected because repairs are so slow.
Those and other horror stories prompted something called the Public Housing Preservation Trust, the legislation for which Gov. Kathy Hochul signed last June.
It’s been billed as the way private funds will be injected into the projects.
But not only has it gotten off to a very slow start—the first six members of a required board were only just appointed—there’s good reason to doubt that it will even work.
Crucially, the legislation includes what amount to a series of poison pills that risk deterring the private developers the system is counting on.
Developers will be able to rely on bond revenue backed by federal housing vouchers, which will pay most of NYCHA’s rents.
But progressive particulars will hamstring them: They must pay prevailing wage to union labor.
The board has to include a labor representative.
And developers will be brought in only to do the repairs—not to manage the buildings.
That job will, incredibly, still be left to unionized NYCHA employees, who have such a demonstrated record of failure that a court-ordered federal monitor must oversee the system.
What’s more, this will only happen if residents vote to approve the approach for each building.
That could stall the whole process: Tenants may well not want more of the same.
To date, no developer has been named under the terms of the legislation, though NYCHA expresses hope that may soon change.
The details of the Preservation Trust differ significantly from a better alternative known as the Rental Assistance Demonstration.
RAD projects allow developers to both get access to capital for repairs and also manage the buildings themselves—at a profit—once repairs are done, if they can keep order and prevent new decay.
(Notably, they have a limited ability to evict disruptive tenants.)
The process has already borne fruit at such sites as the Baychester Houses in The Bronx, which The New York Times hailed as the future of public housing.
Even this approach may not be enough to address $78 billion in repair needs, though.
That sobering figure suggests the city must face squarely the grim reality that it simply may not be possible to maintain such a large public-housing system—and that more imaginative approaches are needed.
Those could include selling high-value NYCHA real estate to private developers while helping tenants move.
It might mean shrinking the overall size of the system.
It’s worth recalling that many of New York’s public-housing projects were built as part of a massive “slum clearance” program, overseen by—who else?—urban planner Robert Moses.
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It put the wrecking ball to many neighborhoods whose condition was not nearly as bad as advertised.
But given the condition of NYCHA today, the time might be right for a new round of slum clearance—of the projects themselves.