Billions to Create Affordable Housing. But What About Restoring NYCHA?

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

For nearly 49 years, Linda Duke has lived in the same two-bedroom apartment in Mitchel Houses, a sprawling ten-building New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) complex in the Port Morris section of the Bronx.

The public housing development is home to more than 3,800 residents in 1,700 units. Among the first tenants to move in when it opened in 1966, Ms. Duke raised five children in the Mitchel Houses.  One by one her adult children moved on: both daughters live and work in Manhattan; one as a bank supervisor, the other a dental assistant. Her only living son (two others died of cancer-related illnesses) works in construction and lives in Mt. Vernon. 

“I come from this community. That’s why I stayed all these years when everyone was urging me to move out,” said Ms. Duke, a tenant patrol supervisor in her building and a former tenant association president. “The first ten years living here was really good. NYCHA was on top of things. They would visit you in your apartment once a year, check to see how you were living. You wanted to live here.”

As the long waiting list for NYCHA housing attests – about 250,000 households at the last count – public housing is still in huge demand in a city where few viable housing options exist for low-income families. A lot of that has to do with the fact that the supply of affordable housing for low-income residents has been shrinking for years due to rising rents. Consider this: between 2001 and 2011 the city lost about 385,000 apartments affordable to low-income households with incomes below 200 percent of the poverty line.  Unlike the private market, NYCHA rents are guaranteed under federal law to be affordable, no more than 30 percent of household income.  Linda Duke pays about $430 a month in rent for her two-bedroom apartment that she shares with her 21-year old granddaughter.

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. At a time when many other large-city housing authorities have either demolished or converted their public housing, NYCHA has managed to retain its large inventory.

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 followed suit, withdrawing support for its six developments leaving NYCHA to stretch limited operating funds to cover an estimated at $30 million annual shortfall. 

So it goes. Over the post-2001 decade, NYCHA covered large operating deficits by  stretching  its federal funding, depleting its operating reserves, transferring capital funds to support operations (thereby delaying major improvements), and reducing its workforce headcount. And who paid the price for the savings achieved from government defunding of NYCHA?  Residents like Lisa Duke are shouldering the costs by having to deal more and more with substandard living conditions.

Can NYCHA Come Back?

Given the uncertainties of federal support, and the withdrawal of city and state supports, can NYCHA regain its reputation as a provider of decent housing and be financially solvent? A new Community Service Society report offers some directions for change.  The report, which documents the rapid deterioration of living conditions in NYCHA apartments in the decade following 2001, calls for a “Marshall Plan for NYCHA” including a long-term capital commitment by the city and state to infrastructure improvements to NYCHA buildings.

NYCHA’s financial and physical needs cannot be put off. Against the backdrop of Mayor de Blasio’s ambitious $40 billion long-term capital plan to create and expand affordable housing, and the yet-to-be released city plan to address NYCHA, it’s time for a parallel capital investment—city and state—in upgrading and sustaining the affordable housing we already have. 

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. 

Permanent relief from $100 million in annual NYCHA payments to the city would increase operating resources available for repairs. Earlier this year, the de Blasio Administration relieved NYCHA of $70 million it would have to pay the city for NYPD services; money that can now go to funding its backlog of apartment repairs. The ill-conceived agreement governing these payments has no expiration date and should be formally terminated.

By doing so, and making a major capital investment in restoring NYCHA, the mayor would send a clear signal that substandard living conditions should not be the price low-income New Yorkers must pay to live in public housing.

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