In recent years, it was not uncommon for an entire building or two in the Smith Houses complex on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to “go down” leaving more 100 families without use of their gas stoves. The faulty gas pipe served as a startling example of the costs to tenants for deferred repairs and capital improvements to New York City Housing Authority’s (NYCHA) aging infrastructure. Smith House residents eventually filed a class action lawsuit over the issue.
Last June, NYCHA finally began replacing the gas line. Smith Houses Tenant Association President Axia Torres, 62, credits new NYCHA Chair Shola Olatoye for that.
“She assured me during an April NYCHA Board Meeting that the work would proceed expediently,” said Torres, who grew up in Smith Houses and has lived there for 50 years. “The Bloomberg and Rhea administration held my tenants hostage over the gas pipe replacement for years; they put their lives in danger because they wanted to move forward with the lease plan.”
Torres was referring to a controversial proposal under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and then-NYCHA Chairman John Rhea in which choice NYCHA properties would be leased for private development of mixed-income housing. The Bloomberg administration touted the Infill Plan as a way of generating revenues to preserve public housing. Opponents objected to the luxury high-rises and the lack of community input.
Mayor de Blasio wisely shelved the Infill Plan. And NYCHA Chair Shola Olatoye’s recent efforts to engage tenants on future development plans is raising hope among tenants like Ms. Torres that NYCHA is moving away from its top-down decision making to a more collaborative approach involving community input.
NYCHA in Crisis
NYCHA runs the largest public housing program in the nation. Its 334 developments house more than 500,000 New Yorkers in 179,000 apartments – a population bigger than some U. S. cities. As such, it is the city’s largest landlord. Nearly 90 percent of NYCHA’s residents are black and Latino. Forty-three percent of NYCHA’s households are poor and 30 percent are near-poor. In 2011, the median household income was $17,600.
But since the late 1990s, there has been an unprecedented tide of government disinvestment in the city’s public housing. While the federal government has led the retreat, the city and state have been major contributors to NYCHA’s perilous financial condition. In 1998 the state terminated operating support for the 15 housing developments it built in the city leaving NYCHA with a $60 million annual operating shortfall. A few years later the city withdrew support for its six developments leaving NYCHA to stretch limited operating funds to cover an estimated at $30 million annual shortfall.
To cover operating deficits NYCHA has had to stretch its federal funding, deplete reserves and capital funds, thereby delaying major capital improvements, and reduce its workforce. The costs of years of defunding have been passed onto to NYCHA tenants who are dealing more and more with deteriorating living conditions.
A Marshall Plan for NYCHA
In a new report my organization, the Community Service Society, argues that the dire financial and physical state of public housing demands nothing less than a “Marshall Plan for NYCHA” including a long-term capital commitment by the city and state to infrastructure improvements.
Funding sources for capital improvements to NYCHA exist, including revenues from Battery Park City. Community-supported NYCHA redevelopment plans that generate revenues are another option.
Earlier this year, the de Blasio Administration relieved NYCHA of $70 million it would have to pay the city for NYPD services. This ill-conceived agreement governing these payments has no expiration date and should be formally terminated so these funds can go to increasing operating resources available for repairs.
Axia Torres is more optimistic about the future of public housing under the current mayor. But she still has her concerns. “Bill de Blasio and Shola have to make it their mission to fix NYCHA’s problems. If they don’t, working class people in this city will have no place to live.”