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From 2001 to 2011, living conditions in New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) apartments underwent accelerated deterioration, to far worse levels than conditions facing low-income tenants in the private market or other subsidized rentals. Based on an analysis of NYC Housing and Vacancy Survey data, by 2011, NYCHA might have qualified as the city’s largest and worst landlord.
A Community Service Society (CSS) report, “Strengthening New York City’s Public Housing: Directions for Change,” examines the factors that led to NYCHA’s decline as a high-performing housing authority. It chronicles how government disinvestment—at all levels: local, state and federal—sapped the resources the Authority needed to maintain its exceptional performance as the nation’s largest housing authority with an 80-year track record.
Against the backdrop of Mayor de Blasio’s ambitious affordable housing plan, and a yet-to-be-released city plan to address NYCHA issues, it raises the fundamental question: can NYCHA again provide minimally decent housing and become financially-solvent, given the uncertainties of federal support and the recent withdrawal of ongoing state and city support.
“This report tracks how and why a housing authority once considered a national model, is now to many of its residents one of the worst landlords, “said David R. Jones, President and CEO of the Community Service Society. “NYCHA did not arrive at this juncture overnight. It was the cumulative effect of government defunding, which now needs to be reversed. It will require nothing short of a Marshall Plan for NYCHA. Absent federal cooperation, that means major commitments from the city and state to long-term capital investments to preserve our critical public housing resources. The Mayor’s Housing Plan is admirable, but while we expand affordable housing, we also need to make a parallel commitment to upgrading public housing.”
Deteriorating Conditions on the Rise
For nearly eight decades, NYCHA served as a model for large-scale public housing management. With 179,000 apartments spread across 334 developments, it is the city’s largest landlord. It also has the distinction of being one of the few large-city authorities that retained its public housing inventory, while others have embarked on massive conversion or demolition.
However, in the period following 2001, the erosion of government support at every level resulted in large NYCHA deficits and rapid deterioration of living conditions. Evidence of this decline was found in Unheard Third Survey data polling the concerns and opinions of the city’s low-income residents. For example, in the summer of 2012, respondents were asked what they worry about the most. Low-income renters outside of public housing identified a range of concerns, including schools, healthcare, jobs, retirement and crime. But for NYCHA residents, the pre-occupying concern was their housing.
CSS analysis of HVS data from low-income households reporting apartment deficiencies (e.g., leaks, rodents, cracked walls, severe plaster and heating breakdowns) confirmed anecdotal resident and media reports of accelerating deterioration in NYCHA units. From 2002 to 2008, the percentage of low-income households in both public and private rentals reporting four or more deficiencies varied between 11 and 12 percent. But from 2008 to 2011, the number of reports of multiple deficiencies in NYCHA units nearly doubled, from 11 to 19 percent. The steep rise among NYCHA households is unmatched among low-income tenants in assisted and private rentals.
Meeting the Challenges Ahead
Over the post-2001 decade, government defunding has caused NYCHA to cover its large operating deficits by depleting its operating reserves, transferring capital funds to support operations (thereby delaying major improvements), and reduce its workforce headcount. In effect, the savings achieved by government through disinvestment were passed on as costs to vulnerable residents, who were more and more dealing with substandard conditions, what one outraged resident leader described as “third world conditions.”
To its credit, the de Blasio administration has taken positive steps to address NYCHA chronic operating deficits. Earlier this year the mayor ruptured an agreement under which NYCHA paid the city $70 million annually for special police services. NYCHA can now apply these funds to its backlog of repairs and other urgent maintenance needs.
Directions for Change
The report acknowledges that this is a critical, defining period for NYCHA. It envisions a positive future for NYCHA and maps out several directions for stemming its crisis and restoring its well-deserved reputation. Chief among them are:
- A call for a “Marshall Plan for NYCHA”: A long-term plan for city and state capital investment in addressing the $7 to $15 billion estimated backlog in needed major improvements the Authority’s aging housing stock.
- Letting NYCHA retain all its operating resources: The termination of $100 million in NYCHA annual payments to the city for police services ($70+million), PILOT payments in lieu of property taxes ($29 million), and special sanitation services ($2 million.)
- Planning for redevelopment on available land in NYCHA tower-in-the-park campuses , by engaging resident and community leaders in a meaningful dialogue and building a consensus on the future of the community.
- City take-over of the costs of operating NYCHA senior and community centers.
- Greater financial transparency: An independent, annual audit and analysis of NYCHA finances to provide a realistic basis for local decision-making to assure NYCHA solvency.
- Integrating NYCHA into the local code enforcement system: Providing NYCHA residents parity in access to the city’s “311” Citizens Service Center for registering condition complaints and receiving follow-up services and inspections. Eliminating the exclusion of NYCHA buildings from public records of code violations maintained by HPD and the Department of Buildings.
- Changing the governance of NYCHA so that its Board is more independent of City Hall.
This report was written by Victor Bach and Tom Waters. A second report examining New York State’s Mitchell-Lama housing program will be released in August.