Mayoral Candidates Talk About NYCHA’s Future

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

A significant piece of news was made this past weekend at a mayoral forum featuring the five Democratic candidates for mayor discussing their vision for the future of public housing in New York City.

Before a large audience of New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) residents, tenant leaders, union members, housing advocates, and elected officials gathered on Saturday morning at the lower Manhattan Salvation Army Centennial Memorial Temple, all five major Democratic candidates pledged that, if elected mayor, they will end the current policy of requiring NYCHA to pay the city nearly $100 million annually out of its federal operating funds.

Under an agreement that dates back to the Giuliani administration and the consolidation of the city’s Housing Police force within the New York City Police Department, NYCHA pays the city $75 million annually for special police services that the NYPD provides free to private landlords under “Operation Clean Halls.”  Another $23 million goes for PILOT payments in lieu of taxes from which many nonprofit housing providers are exempt. 

Out of a combined operating and capital budget measured in the billions, returning $100 million to the Authority’s budget may not sound all that impressive.  But try to tell that to NYCHA residents enduring substandard conditions in aging, rapidly deteriorating housing stock with long waits for needed repairs.  Given the Authority’s dire financial situation – a $60 million dollar annual operating deficit, a $6 billion dollar backlog in major capital improvements – the city should not be in the business of siphoning off funds that were intended to address critical public housing needs.

This policy is even more egregious when you think about the fact that NYCHA has been increasingly starved for funding at the federal, state, and local levels for the past 15 years.

The Democratic candidates for mayor -- City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, City Comptroller John Liu, City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, former City Comptroller Bill Thompson, and former City Council Member Sal Albanese – also expressed strong misgivings about NYCHA’s Infill/Land-Lease proposal.  Through this proposal, the Authority plans to raise needed revenue by leasing available land in public housing communities for private development.  The plan has aroused controversy because it uses public open space for private development purposes to build mostly high-end housing at market rents.

Understandably, the plan has stirred opposition from resident and community leaders, elected officials, and advocates because of the speed and secrecy with which NYCHA moved forward on the proposal.

When asked about it at Saturday’s mayoral forum, all five candidates said they want to see NYCHA slow down, and open up the public engagement process so that resident and community leaders have a chance to assess and shape the redevelopment plans.  Specifically, some of the candidates said they would like to see the NYCHA Infill/Land-Lease proposal go through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP), echoing a recent resolution passed by the City Council. 

NOTE: Republican mayoral candidates Joe Llota, John Catsimatidis, and George McDonald, and independent candidate Adolfo Carrion Jr., were invited to the forum but declined.

The next mayor will inherit an incredible public housing resource which once served as the model across the nation.  Unlike large cities that have demolished or converted public housing – like Chicago, Atlanta, and Newark – NYCHA has managed to preserve its public housing.  Unfortunately, as a result of chronic funding shortfalls, management deficiencies, and increasing resident complaints, this once high-performing Authority is in a struggle to restore its image.

Saturday’s mayoral forum, which was co-sponsored by the Community Service Society and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 237, pressed the candidates for their vision for preserving this housing resource for current and future generations of low-income New Yorkers.

To underscore the critical importance of public housing in the city, and the power and influence the mayor has to guide policy and funding decisions, the Community Service Society released a detailed analysis of the city’s public and subsidized housing stock.  The report, entitled, “Good Place to Work, Hard Place to Live,” found that as the city’s economy continues to generate large numbers of low-wage jobs, the private housing market and affordable housing subsidy programs are falling further and further behind the growing needs of low-income New Yorkers.

In addition to holding the candidates accountable for their pledges to end NYCHA payments to the city, it is imperative that the next mayor make use of every policy lever at his or her disposal to address the dwindling supply of housing affordable to low-income New Yorkers. 

New York’s public housing population is estimated at a half million residents, larger than the population of Atlanta, Cleveland, or Miami.  It represents a substantial part of the housing infrastructure affordable to low-income New Yorkers.  The challenges facing public housing are not insurmountable. Leveraging NYCHA’s assets to generate revenue to support operating and capital needs may be necessary.  However, any redevelopment proposals must ensure the full and informed participation of NYCHA residents and the surrounding communities.  As evidenced by Saturday’s forum, at least the Democratic candidates are in agreement on this issue.  Let’s hope it’s not too late.

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